In the early 2000s, many listeners throughout the Tampa Bay area tuned in Saturday mornings to a Christian radio station and the program It's God's Money.
All money belongs to God, just like everything else on earth, host Gary Gauthier told his audience. But God wanted people to use what he created, including real estate. And Gauthier knew of some great real estate opportunities.
A condo on St. Petersburg's Beach Drive. Waterfront property in South Tampa. Townhouses on Treasure Island. Convinced they were dealing with an honest, trustworthy man of faith, scores of listeners gave Gauthier their savings and retirement funds to invest in projects like those.
"Being a Christian, we were just really open to wanting to do business with other Christians,'' Marilyn White, a retired Verizon customer service rep, would later say. "He talked about scriptures and the Bible, and we were just very comfortable in his presence.''
White and her husband bought into Gauthier's wealth-building pitch. So did a motel manager, a private investigator, a postal worker, a steel company executive, two doctors and the former director of financial services for the Pasco County clerk of court. They were promised sizable returns on their investments — as much as 270 percent — as well as hefty interest.
It was all a scam, prosecutors say — a Ponzi scheme in which money from later investors was used to pay early ones.
In 2014, state law enforcement agents arrested Gauthier, 69, and business partner David Dreslin, 59, on charges of fraud, racketeering and selling unregistered securities. They are accused of bilking nearly 40 Tampa Bay-area residents out of a total of $6 million. Many lost their life savings.
Now, four years after the men's arrests and a decade after the housing crash, the case is finally moving toward a trial. Attorneys have deposed at least 15 people. They relate similar stories of promises that were ridiculously optimistic in retrospect yet seemed plausible in the heady days of a housing bubble. And all say they believed the promises because of where they first heard them.
"It was a Christian station,'' said Denise Ferrari, a retired dental technician. "How could they do me wrong?''
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By 2002, Gary Lynn Gauthier had been in and out of bankruptcy four times. Yet his fortunes soon improved dramatically — or appeared to.
"The Donald Trump of Tampa Bay,'' is how Keith Arnold Leach, co-host of It's God's Money, came to view him.
Impeccably groomed and dressed, cuff links at the wrist, Gauthier flashed wads of $50 and $100 bills and called himself a multi-millionaire. He talked constantly about real estate — projects under construction, deals in the pipeline, the big bucks coming in.
"He was huge, and that is his person, very AA personality,'' Leach said in a deposition last year. "And I would always think, 'You know, you are the man.’ ”
Gauthier paid for air time on WTBN, a Tampa Bay station owned by Salem Media Group, one of the world's largest Christian broadcasters. Leach, a veteran announcer who was on hand to engage the audience if things started to lag, said the 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. Saturday time slot was ideal for drawing older listeners who rose early and likely had money to invest. Using a toll-free number, they could make an appointment to speak with Gauthier.
"Basically, the idea of the show was a lead generator,'' Leach said.
Among those who initially responded were Josephine Seaback, a registered nurse, and husband George, a retired pharmaceutical company executive. Gauthier visited their Tarpon Springs home in 2005 and outlined how the investment opportunity would work.
He and Dreslin would use the money from investors to buy properties, including a unit in 400 Beach, a condo tower then under construction. The properties could be rented out until they were put on the market. Investors would be paid interest until the properties were sold at a profit, at which point they would get all of their money back plus more.
Although the Seabacks had never invested in real estate, they found Gauthier and Dreslin, a certified public accountant, very convincing, the couple said in depositions. The economy and real estate markets were strong at the time, and they would get 12 percent interest for two years until their principal was returned.
"We thought that whatever risk there was, we felt there was still that physical property we can fall back on,'' George Seaback said. He and his wife invested more than $2 million.
In 2007, Ronald Verosic, a courier for a medical lab, contacted Gauthier after listening to him on It's God's Money. Verosic was impressed by the architectural drawings Gauthier had of townhouses he and Dreslin planned for waterfront property they were going to buy in Tampa.
"Everything looked good … it sounded good,'' Verosic said, even though he found "just vacant land with, like, a shack and a pier'' when he went to see the site. But Gauthier promised that his investment would be safe, he said.
"Did you believe him?'' Verosic was asked in a deposition last year.
"Yes, otherwise I wouldn't have given him $75,000.''
Gauthier, who portrayed himself as an experienced developer and financial adviser, assured listeners on It's God's Money that there was no risk to real estate and that their investments were "win-win situations,'' Leach said. Gauthier could be very generous when he "cracked it'' — signed up an investor.
"He would throw me a hund-o, fifty, cash money,'' Leach said. Gauthier would also pay him to say a prayer and introduce him "with my radio voice'' at luncheons for investors.
By mid-2009, though, the real estate market was in free fall. Some investors got a few months of interest, then the payments stopped. Leach recalls a scene outside Gauthier's office in Tampa's Hyde Park.
"I encountered people yelling and screaming,'' he said. "They weren't happy.''
At a luncheon at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, "an old woman was very, very angry and upset, almost hysterical,'' another investor, Jay Kominsky, said in a deposition. "I think she was complaining (she was) cheated.''
Gauthier and Dreslin made no money from the Beach Drive condo: Bought for $1.1 million, it sold for $615,000 in 2010. (Today it is worth around $1.4 million.) The proposed waterfront project never materialized. Nor did plans to take one of their investment companies public.
In 2009, Gauthier and Dreslin parted ways. "I was not comfortable with my partner and his way of financial handlings,'' Gauthier wrote in an email to investors, "so I made the decision to leave and take the debit with me.''
Gauthier claimed he had stopped paying his own bills so that he could pay investors out of his personal funds "in times of crisis.'' He continued pitching investment ideas: A method, supposedly backed by a Major League Baseball player, of teaching kids to hit using multi-colored balls. A student housing project in Michigan. An assisted living facility in North Tampa.
Steven Bellavigna, a private investigator, sank $50,000 into something called Gulf West Investments after Gauthier said: "You have got my word, I wouldn't screw you.''
"Did you ever ask for your money back?'' Bellavigna was asked in a deposition.
" 'Steve, that money is gone,' '' Bellavigna recalled Gauthier telling him. " 'That deal didn't work out, but I will make it up to you. I've got this golf club thing going on and it's just a matter of time.’ ''
In 2010, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement began investigating, though it would take the Office of Statewide Prosecution four more years to bring charges.
By that time, the Seabacks had lost their $2 million-plus along with their Tarpon Springs home, which they could no longer afford. The Whites, who had felt "very comfortable'' with Gauthier, lost their $50,000. Virosic, the courier, was out the $75,000 he had counted on for retirement.
Scott Clough, a Port Richey optometrist, invested $135,000. Asked at a deposition why he waited so long to claim a loss on his tax returns, he said:
"I like to give people the benefit of the doubt to see if things come true to their word, especially if they are holding themselves out as trustworthy Christian financial advisers. So I waited a long time, against a lot of other people's wishes. I finally decided that's it, we are going to write it off.''
Gauthier moved back to Michigan and declared bankruptcy in 2015, stating he was unemployed with debts of nearly $1.75 million. He did not return calls for comment.
In their questioning and remarks in depositions, attorneys for Gauthier and Dreslin suggested that the two men spent most of the investors' money on legitimate development-related costs and were victims of the real estate crash themselves.
"My guy made less than $200,000 in a five-year period,'' attorney Jay Hebert, who represents Dreslin, recently told the Tampa Bay Times.
Dreslin, who couldn't be reached for comment, still has his accountant's license but faces new legal troubles. In an unrelated case, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed civil fraud charges this month against him and two others for their roles in what authorities describe as a scheme involving a proposed public company that had "virtually no assets, no operations and no legitimate purpose.''
Dreslin and Gauthier could both face up to 30 years in prison if convicted on the criminal charges against them.
"We trusted two people with our life savings,'' Josephine Seaback said in a deposition, "and we came away with virtually nothing.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.