Several investors who entrusted their money to Gold Country Lenders throughout the 1990s and 2000s universally expressed dismay at losing significant portions of their life savings — as well as a strong sense of betrayal by people they trusted as friends.
When Phil Lester, CEO of the Grass Valley real estate company, and Susan Leferte, the company’s CFO, attended a hearing in Nevada County Superior Court on Monday afternoon, many of those alleged victims were in attendance.
Lester and Leferte have each been charged with 66 felony counts of conspiracy, securities fraud and elder abuse.
Jim and Phyllis Shippen said they were friends with Lester for years and invested in his various real estate development projects. They said they were willfully misled, resulting in a considerable loss of money they were depending upon for their retirement.
“It’s like having a close friend, having a brother even, and trusting him deeply for years, only to get shafted in the end,” said Jim Shippen. “I’m not only angry, but I am embarrassed.”
Margaret Fowler, who estimates she lost about $500,000 in investments with Gold Country Lenders, said that Leferte took advantage of their close friendship and her role as her confidante to extract money for Lester’s real estate schemes.
“Susan and I confided in each other,” Fowler said. “She knew the last $100,000 was money that (my husband and I) were going to use to pay off our house, but she convinced me that we would make more money if we invest it and told me that Phil personally guaranteed all the loans.”
Fowler said her husband had planned to retire in 2009, but when they discovered the dire state of their investments with Gold Country, he asked the company to defer his retirement and accept him back. Currently, he is 73 years old and is still working, she said.
In a news release last Thursday, California Attorney General Kamala Harris said Lester and Leferte “exploited their personal relationships with these victims.”
The arrest declaration charges further contend that Lester and Leferte targeted the elderly.
“Schemes that target the elderly are especially heinous, which is why prosecuting fraud and elder abuse needs to remain priorities for law enforcement,” Harris said.
Jim Shippen, who ran an insurance business that sometimes provided coverage to development projects overseen by Lester, said the two became close after doing business, attending philanthropic and community functions together.
Jim Shippen said during the early years, he and his wife, Phyllis, would invest a sum of money that would in turn be loaned to someone in the real estate agency. Once the loan would be paid back to Lester, they would receive their investment sum along with interest.
However, in 2008, when turbulence in the national real estate market first appeared, the Shippens said they were consistently asked by Lester and his associates to roll their sums over into other investments and stopped seeing any checks.
Their suspicion aroused, the Shippens joined Fowler and began investigating Gold Country Lenders’ various property holdings throughout Nevada County and neighboring counties, Jim Shippen said.
Fowler said she became suspicious something was afoot when Lester told her the borrowers were going to default on
various loans and that he had plans to declare bankruptcy in order to protect the investors’ money.
Fowler said Leferte told her she was going back to the East Coast, when she was supposed to be attending a bankruptcy meeting.
“I started to realize I was being duped,” Fowler said. “I thought I had a friend.”
Fowler and Phyllis Shippen began poring over records in various counties, looking for anything relating to Gold Country Lenders.
Fowler said she found more than $36 million attached to various properties and developments throughout the foothills, but not one of the projects had begun.
“Where did all of the money go?” Fowler asked.
Fowler filed a complaint with the Grass Valley Police Department, then followed up with the California Attorney General’s office, which met with her multiple times, she said.
In previous interviews with The Union, Lester attacked Fowler’s credibility, saying she lied and misrepresented facts.
“She’s at the heart of this whole thing,” Lester told The Union in 2010.
“So many things she said are just not true.”
Fowler said Lester attacked her credibility because she was the one who began to confront him over the investments and would not back down when given evasive answers.
Eve Ggem, another investor who lost large amounts of money, said she hopes justice is served, but any potential punishment of Lester and Leferte would not compensate for the vast amounts of savings that disappeared in 2009.
After the court appearance by Lester and Leferte, who were dressed in orange jumpsuits, Ggem said she felt no satisfaction at seeing the individuals she believed swindled her out of a large share of her life savings brought before the court.
“What I would really like is to get my money back,” she said.
Ggem’s husband will undergo his third heart surgery in the past year, while Ggem will begin working again in the real estate industry in hopes of making up her lost savings, she said.
Nevada County Public Defender Donald Lown said it was “too premature” to comment on behalf of Lester or Leferte on details of the case, as they have yet to be supplied with all pertinent documents pertaining to the arrest and subsequent charges.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4239.
“It’s like having a close friend, having a brother even, and trusting him deeply for years, only to get shafted in the end.”
— Jim Shippen, alleged victim of fraud