Santillo appeared Monday in federal court in Pennsylvania, to plead guilty to a federal fraud charge, having already entered a guilty plea last month to similar charges in New York. Each charge carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
Prosecutors say Santillo’s victims include elderly people who lost their life savings.
“It is absolutely brazen theft occasioned by nothing other than greed,” said US Attorney David Freed of Pennsylvania, whose office is helping prosecute Santillo.
Santillo, 39, and his lawyer declined to comment on Monday.
Between 2008 and 2018, according to court documents, Santillo and his alleged conspirators coaxed clients to cash in their retirement accounts and invest in sham companies under their control, using the money from newer investors to repay earlier investors.
To ensure a fresh supply of victims, Santillo and his confederates bought the businesses – and client lists – of a series of investment advisers and brokerages, prosecutors said. Over the years, they acquired investment firms in Tennessee, Ohio, Minnesota, Nevada, California, Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Indiana, according to court documents.
“It’s particularly insidious to me because of the method that was employed,” Freed said. “There’s a level of criminal sophistication to finding victims in the way that they did.”
Retirees Joe and Gail Malocheski, of Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, said Santillo and his sales staff persuaded them to shift their entire nest egg of $US314,000 from annuities to what they later learned were phony companies. They said Santillo, whom they met in 2016 after he bought their financial adviser’s business and client list, had appeared competent and confident.
“We felt we would be in good hands,” said Gail, 74.
The couple began to suspect something was wrong when the promised dividend checks failed to materialise. When the FBI showed up in September 2018 to interview them about Santillo, an agent told them their money was likely gone.
Joe, 75, a former union electrician who had a second career as a public school music teacher, said he suffered weeks of physical and mental anguish.
“It was very heartbreaking, because not only was it the money for our future elderly care, but I wanted to leave something to our children,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking that somebody you trusted could do that to you. All your life’s work, gone down the drain for somebody else’s enjoyment.”
Added Gail, a former school board president: “They need to pay dearly for what they did.”
Santillo stole at least $US13.4 million, according to federal regulators, while co-defendants in an SEC civil action allegedly stole millions more. The Ponzi scheme returned nearly $US45 million to investors, but nearly $US71 million more is still owed, court documents said.
The SEC complaint names four co-defendants, all of whom had previously been suspended or banned by the securities industry’s regulatory body. Santillo is the only person in the case to face criminal charges.
Albert R. Murray Jr., an attorney who represents the Malocheskis, said it’ll be up to federal investigators “to discover where he’s got the money” so he can begin to make restitution.
“It’s his best interest because it’s going to ultimately impact his sentence,” he said.