By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
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One secretary at the club, who declined to be named, lost both her brother and his wife to cancer in two years' time. Combining their life-insurance payouts with other family funds, she entrusted $900,000 to Sigillito. The hope was that it would grow and help her raise her two young orphaned nephews, who had come under her care.
"It's a hard time the family's going through right now," she says. "This is certainly not what we wanted."
Juli Niemann, a financial analyst at Smith, Moore & Company, believes St. Louisans are especially prone to "affinity fraud" — getting fleeced by a member of one's country club or church.
"We're stuck in the high school mentality," she says. "Everybody wants to be popular in the group, talking about how smart they were to invest. And, there's a lot of trust here. A shocking amount."
Phil Rosemann does not look like a man who just got hosed out of millions. In a recent interview, the Nevada resident assumes a relaxed demeanor, with pouches under his metallic blue eyes and the goatee of a man younger than his 63 years.
"This devastated me, but I can make more money," says the manufacturing consultant. "Some of these people are old. They had their life savings in this."
Rosemann made his fortune from his family company, Roto-Die, which creates mass-packaging machinery. His father launched the business out of a garage in Kirkwood decades ago, and by the time the family sold it off in the '90s, it had well over half the world market.
Rosemann was looking for something to do with the proceeds and met Sigillito through a friend. "He was an interesting guy," says Rosemann. "He speaks a lot of languages, was a world traveler, and it sounded like a big return for not a lot of risk." Ten contracts and a few years later, he was in it for $15 million.
The trouble started in late 2009, when Rosemann needed some of his investment back to finance a condominium project in Valley Park. Sigillito came up with some money but said Smith, his British associate, couldn't part with any more.
Fed up, Rosemann gave Smith an ultimatum, which came and went, then filed suit against the Brit in federal court on March 22, 2010.
On April 7, Sigillito e-mailed Rosemann's attorney, Sebastian Rucci, claiming he was desperately trying to refinance the Englishman's debt. But, Sigillito warned, his efforts were in "great jeopardy because of this litigation that now appears on the public record." Later that same day, Sigillito repeated emphatically that the suit "will do nothing but delay getting money in our friend's hands. Please....there is a great deal to lose."
In response, Rucci requested all documents relating to Rosemann's funds. Mike Becker, who was hired by Sigillito in a tangential matter but kept tabs on the English program, wrote to Rucci advising patience: "I have dealt with a lot of people in distress and although no expert of foreign investment [sic], have high confidence in my Midwestern abilities to smell a skunk."
For his part, Sigillito blamed the various delays on the tax season, the incompetence of his associates or overseas travel.
To allay Rosemann's fears that Sigillito was not taking his concerns seriously, the bishop wrote: "Please keep in mind that my family and I are deeply involved in this program, too. My mother (who is in her 80's) depends upon this program for much of her living."
Rosemann wanted to know: What if Smith was mismanaging things?
"Your fear that assets might be moved or hidden is unfounded," Sigillito wrote. "Mr. Smith is, as guarantor, already 'on the hook' as an individual, not just a corporate borrower. He would not commit fraud."
But with just a little bit of digging, Rosemann's attorney Rucci uncovered gaping discrepancies between the bishop's promises and reality on the ground.
Rucci hired UK-based lawyer Irvinder Bakshi to be his eyes and ears in England. On May 5, Bakshi drove out to Hinton Grange hotel, the "romantic getaway" near Bath.
There, she met Derek Smith, the real estate developer behind Sigillito's program who was supposed to be flush with millions in American loans.
Instead, she found a man with precious few assets. Smith owned the hotel, sure enough, but two other hotels listed as his in the due diligence memos were actually in receivership, Bakshi reports. The development company he owned — Distinctive Properties, Ltd. — had never traded. Smith himself told Bakshi he'd remortgaged his house three times to keep things going.
Smith also acknowledged that the Little Farm Nursery — which Vogel personally visited and called "active," and which Baer referred to as "income-producing" — was nothing more than a few derelict buildings. Smith confessed it hadn't made any money since about 2005.
Worse still: He didn't even own it. He only owned the option on it, for which he paid a paltry $7,500.
In a phone interview with the RFT, Bakshi calls this a simple yet profound accounting flaw, paraphrasing it this way: "Basically you're telling me, 'Lend me money against my farm,' and you don't even own the farm."