Man wanted in Ponzi scheme tried to flee on underwater 'sea scooter'

It’s James Pond! California man, 44, wanted over $35m Ponzi scheme tried to flee FBI agents using an underwater ‘SEA SCOOTER’ in freezing Lake Shasta before being arrested when he surfaced after 25 minutes

  • Matthew Piercey, 44, was taken into custody by FBI agents on Monday after a failed attempt to hide underwater in Lake Shasta
  • After a chase by road, he swam into California’s largest reservoir and used an underwater ‘sea scooter’ to submerge himself for 25 minutes
  • He was eventually forced to retreat from the icy waters and arrested  
  • Piercey is charged with wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, and witness tampering for allegedly running a $35million Ponzi scheme
  • He targeted wealthy members of the Bethel Church in Redding who believe in miracles and raising the dead
  • Piercey and his partner Kenneth Winton used the cash to buy two homes, a house boat and to pay off personal credit card debt 

Matthew Piercey, 44, is charged with wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, and witness tampering

A man wanted by the FBI for allegedly running a $35million Ponzi scheme was arrested in California on Monday after attempting to hide from federal agents in a lake using an underwater ‘sea scooter’.

Matthew Piercey, 44, fled in his truck as agents initially tried to arrest him, leading them on a chase through the Redding area before abandoning the vehicle and making for Lake Shasta.

According to CBS Sacramento, a helicopter monitoring Piercey watched him swim into the lake with a Yamaha submersible device before disappearing beneath the water of California’s largest reservoir.

Agents lost sight of him and could only see bubbles on top of the water as the suspect remained submerged for around 25 minutes before being forced to resurface again because of the lake’s frigid temperatures.

He was checked over by medics who determined he didn’t need to be treated for hypothermia despite the icy temperatures, and changed into a new set of clothes provided by his wife before being taken into custody. 

The Yamaha 350Li he used for his attempted escape is a $1,195 motorized device with an underwater propulsion which allows users to cruise below the surface at depths of 100 feet. It can pull users at speeds of up to 3.7 mph. 

Authorities did not say what device he used to breath underwater.  

Piercey and his business partner Kenneth Winton, 67, were indicted on November 12 for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme through two companies, Family Wealth Legacy and Zolla.

Piercey attempted to hide from federal agents in Lake Shasta using this underwater scooter

The icy waters of Lake Shasta, pictured, forced Piercey to resurface after 25 minutes

He had worked in the Chicago area for years in a wealth-management and legal services firm headed up by his father before moving to California in 2016 to focus on wealth management.

Family Wealth Legacy was founded that year and focused on wealthy clients with a minimum investment of $50,000.

Its website lists offices in El Dorado Hills, Roseville, Walnut Creek, San Diego as well as Colorado and Illinois.

‘At Family Wealth Legacy, we carry a consistent commitment to affluent families as they address the multifaceted demands of executing their wealth,’ Winton says in a statement posted on the site.

However, Piercey was under investigation for more than a year after alleged victims of the scheme came forward and he has now been charged with wire fraud, mail fraud, money laundering, and witness tampering.

According to court documents, between July 2015 and August, Piercey convinced investors to give $35million to his companies, telling them that they were guaranteed returns.

He claimed to be using ‘Upvesting Fund’, an algorithmic trading fund he claimed had a history of success, the Sacramento Bee reports. The firms were also supposedly investing clients’ money using strategies such as ‘cryptocurrency mining’.

However, Piercey allegedly admitted to an associate that there was no Upvesting Fund, court documents state, and may have had no knowledge of cryptocurrencies.

‘I don’t know they knew what they were doing with the crypto,’ Attorney Josh Kons, whose represents some of the alleged victims, told the Bee. 

Piercey was indicted on November 12 for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme through two companies, Family Wealth Legacy (pictured above) and Zolla

Piercey, pictured bottom left, worked in Chicago with his father before moving to California in 2016. Family Wealth Legacy was founded that year and focused on wealthy clients

‘You know, you never know what is going through someone’s mind when they’re being pursued by the FBI,’ Kons added.

‘And we kept investigating, and all of a sudden today, here he is trying to escape into a lake, using a submersible device.’

Piercey is a member of the Bethel Church, the Bee reports, and used his connections there to target his fellow parishioners to invest. 

Yamaha 350Li underwater sea scooter

This $1,195 scooter allows users to cruise underwater with a top speed up to 3.7mph

It has an underwater propulsion which allows users to cruise below the surface at depths of 100 feet 

The scooter is designed for water with an automatic buoyancy system 

The battery powered device can run up to 75 minutes with normal use 

It weighs only 19lb including battery

The 24 inch long device can be held in front of the user on the water to pull them through the water 

This is not the first time that members of the Redding megachurch, who believe in miracles and raising the dead, have been targeted in this way.

An investment scheme run by David Arnold Souza also stole $650,000 from Bethel Church members in 2014. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison after using the money for an $1,800-a-month rental Cadillac as well as more than $15,000 for dental work, meals, travel and a gym membership.  

According to the Record Searchlight, Family Wealth Legacy was forced to dissolve in Illinois earlier this year, but continued to operate. 

As well as running the scheme, prosecutors say that Piercey tampered with witnesses when he learned he was being investigated by discouraging them from responding to grand jury subpoenas related to the investigation.

He first became aware of the subpoenas in March but wrote letters to investors stating that it was because of ‘his outreach to the president with a bold proposal to rescue the country’s banking system’.

He said worldwide banks were in trouble due to ‘global financial shock’.

‘The only way out is for Banks to open Zolla accounts and stop the bleeding,’ Piercey allegedly wrote to investors.

‘I have already sent this letter to President Trump, and I would encourage you to send this to President Trump as well here: (feel free to copy/paste or drop it in the mail.) In light of our emboldened focus to rescue the banking system, be advised I anticipate potential new levels of regulatory scrutiny. If you have any connections or contact with government workers please let me know,’ he wrote, according to an excerpt of the letter included in court documents.  

Piercey had originally attracted Winton as an investor but he was later recruited to take over management responsibilities at Zolla.

‘From 2018 to 2020, Winton conspired with Piercey and made various false and misleading statements to investors, including about the success of Zolla’s investment strategies, the reasons for delays in payment to investors, and the current location, value, and nature of Zolla investments,’ prosecutors state.

Piercey was a member of Bethel Church and allegedly targeted his fellow parishioners with his scheme. Members of the Redding megachurch believe in miracles and raising the dead

In total, the pair only paid back $8.8million to investors, spending the rest on various business and personal expenses.

That included the purchase of two homes, a houseboat and paying off personal credit card debt.

Matthew Piercey, pictured, faces 20 years in jail and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines if he is convicted

Prosecutor say there are few liquid assets left to pay back investors. 

According to court documents, Piercey had brushes with the law in the lead-up to his arrest.

In July, police contacted him after he was hospitalized for smashing his hands through the windshield of a vehicle. He told cops it was to get back $100,000 stolen from him.

He was questioned about why he had such a large sum of money in cash but claimed the money was entrusted to him and he planned to use it to buy real estate. 

Piercey’s first court appearance is set for Tuesday. He is considered a flight risk and is being held without bail in Sacramento County Jail.

Winton is scheduled to appear in court on Thursday. He is charged with wire fraud.

Both faces up to 20 years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines if convicted.

Winton’s attorney Adam G. Gasner, told the Bee his client ‘looks forward to the judicial process shedding light on what actually occurred here’. 

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