Wilton Manors Ponzi Schemer Gets 12 Years in Prison

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From our media partner Sun-Sentinel

A Fort Lauderdale Ponzi schemer who wined and dined prospective investors at high-end South Florida restaurants will be waiting for his meals in a prison chow line for the next 12 years.

George Elia, 69, was sentenced Wednesday to a dozen years behind bars for bilking investors out of nearly $10 million in an investment fraud he was able to keep alive for seven years. Many of Elia's victims came from the Wilton Manors gay community, lured by Elia's accomplice, a well-known figure on the local nightlife scene.

Elia, looking haggard and pale, offered an emotionless two-sentence apology Wednesday in a Miami federal courtroom that had one side filled with his victims and federal officials. Elia had no supporters in the audience.

"I apologize to the court for taking up your time," Elia told U.S. District Judge Kathleen M. Williams. "I'm very sorry for everything I've done to the victims."

Elia had claimed to be a financial whiz with day-trading techniques that guaranteed hefty returns. He actually did very little investing, using clients' money to finance his expensive lifestyle. He bought two Bentleys and one Rolls-Royce Phantom, while he showered his wife, Darlene, with gifts including jewelry, Rolex watches and designer purses and shoes.

When the scheme began running out of money, Elia ran. A few months after investors filed a civil lawsuit in 2011 accusing him of fraud, he sold his house, packed his belonging in a shipping container and flew to Cyprus, where he had been born.

He seemed to be out of federal authorities' reach, but in March 2012, he and his wife flew into Las Vegas, where he was greeted with handcuffs. The couple appeared to have returned to the United States because Elia's wife couldn't stand living in Cyprus, according to federal prosecutors.

Elia went on trial in March, but decided midway through the case to plead guilty to all 10 fraud-related charges against him. His accomplice, James F. "Jim" Ellis, 70, admitted to recruiting investors and was sentenced in April to a little more than three years in prison.

Federal prosecutors wanted Elia to receive a 25-year prison term, while Elia's attorney urged the judge to consider a sentence of under five years. Defense attorney Stephen H. Rosen argued Elia has health problems and wouldn't get out of prison alive if he received a lengthy sentence.

Three of Elia's victims spoke in court on Wednesday, describing not only the financial devastation wrought by Elia, but how they were betrayed by a man they considered a close friend. One investor, Michael Imbesi, and his family members lost about $4 million.

"His intent from Day One was to defraud," Imbesi said.

Elia might have recognized the $4,000 gray Ermenegildo Zegna suit worn by Imbesi in court. It once belonged to Elia. Imbesi flew to Cyprus two days after Elia's guilty plea and through that country's legal system took possession of the shipping container filled with Elia's belongings.

Federal prosecutors said Elia has done nothing to help investors recover their lost funds. The only asset recovered was $95,000 in cash that Elia had on him when he was arrested.Jon Burstein


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