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Liz Stajduhar recalls the exact moment she "knew-knew" her boss was running a multimillion-dollar scam.
It was May 17, 2010, inside her downtown Clayton office. Her employer, Martin T. Sigillito — a lecturer in law, American Anglican bishop and member of the elite Racquet Club of St. Louis — was absent that morning. He'd scrambled off to Israel a few days earlier, promising to return with fresh funds to resuscitate his investment program.
As his trusted secretary of nine years, Stajduhar hadn't yet abandoned all faith. That is, until attorney Mike Becker of the downtown law firm HeplerBroom dropped by around 11 a.m. He'd been representing Sigillito in an overseas matter. Like Stajduhar, he had become intimately familiar with his client's business.
Sigillito's project was channeling private loans from St. Louisans and other Americans to a real estate developer in England. Conditions were ripe for growth there, Sigillito had promised. His man in the UK was an expert who knew how to spot lucrative properties and get things done.
But on that spring day, Becker brought the secretary some news that made him sick to his stomach: The entire venture was bankrupt. Sigillito had collected tens of millions of dollars, but there were barely any assets in England to speak of. Worse still, Becker said, the loan agreements did not permit Sigillito to divert new investments to pay off older investors — the very definition of a Ponzi scheme. Yet Becker had seen evidence of Sigillito doing just that.
Stajduhar, a career secretary, didn't know what a Ponzi scheme was. But she too noticed Sigillito shifting money around this way as early as 2006. Her boss had constantly reassured her that it was normal. In fact, she and her husband had invested.
Now she knew it was all a charade.
"I cried," remembers Stajduhar, a 34-year-old mother of two who has retained the high-pitched voice of a teenager. "Up until then, I'd only had a strong suspicion."
Two days later, in an e-mail to a major investor, Sigillito virtually admitted to paying off established clients with money from new ones:
My refunding efforts have borne fruit here in the middle east. I have some very likely sources who are on the verge....I know the urgency of [your] need for cash (I am in the same position, as you know). I am doing my best to have some hard data on all of this as soon as possible.
That same day, the FBI fitted the secretary with a wire.
Soon, the clergyman who collected rare valuables, who was driven around in a fancy car and who boasted of lecturing at the University of Oxford, was served three different search warrants and questioned by the FBI.
He was also hounded by investors worried about the money they'd entrusted to him. Many were blue-collar retirees, spread out from Arizona to Florida. But some were prominent members of the Racquet Club of St. Louis, a haven of the city's upper crust.
Paul Vogel, a former board member at the club and high-profile local businessman, not only invested his own family's money, but he also actively promoted Sigillito's scheme at one time, earning a commission in the process.
Sigillito's "program" has now collapsed into a tangle of civil lawsuits. One is a federal racketeering suit in which he stands accused by more than 50 plaintiffs of stealing some $45 million from them.
The feds have launched an investigation. In a rare twist, the judges of Missouri's Eastern District have already recused themselves from hearing any criminal matter involving Sigillito. The reason: His wife, Mindy Finan, is clerk to Judge Henry Autrey.
"He puts himself out there as this sort of trustworthy bishop figure," says Sebastian Rucci, the Ohio lawyer behind one of the civil suits. "I wouldn't trust a thing that guy says, even if his tongue were notarized."
Until everything unraveled last spring, Marty Sigillito, 61, never behaved like a man strapped for cash.
He traveled to the UK six times a year or more. As Stajduhar recalls, he would regularly pay up to $6,000 for a roundtrip ticket in first class.
Stajduhar says that when she showed up to work at 7710 Carondelet Avenue around 8:30 each morning, Sigillito was already in the office. But he only stayed until 11 a.m.
At that time, Sigillito's driver — a man named Virgil — would pick him up in a black Lincoln Town Car and shuttle him off to lunch. He rarely returned, Stajduhar remembers.
According to documents from an Ohio-based insurance company, Sigillito owned a fifteenth-century book from Germany, insured for up to $120,000. His copper oil lamp, unearthed in the Holy Land some 2,000 years ago, was valued at nearly $30,000.
He also collected expensive antique maps, Persian rugs and British jewelry. Stajduhar says he was the kind of man who spent $5,000 on a bottle of wine, $1,500 on a pen and hundreds of dollars on lingerie (purchased for whom, she did not know).
Public records show that Sigillito was divorced twice in the 1970s and once in the 1980s. He has two sons and two daughters. He and his current wife, Mindy, now live on South Gore Avenue, a leafy suburban street in Webster Groves. Their 120-year-old home was recently assessed at $341,000.