The money must have been great while it lasted, but Joel Nathan Ward is facing a decade or more in a federal prison for stealing $10 million from investors in his Turlock-based foreign currency fund.
He is not the only white-collar criminal to crop up in a region known for its fertile farmlands, just the most prolific.
Ward's takings outstrip those of former mortgage lender Tony Daniloo of Turlock, who was sentenced to 7½ years in federal prison after he was convicted of masterminding an $8 million mortgage lending scheme.
And he is leagues ahead of other recent and notable fraudsters.
Lonni Ashlock of Waterford and partner Ronald Buhler of Riverbank swindled people facing foreclosure out of their homes. The value of their fraud was not established in court, but they were sentenced to one year on home detention.
Turlock's MedicAlert lost $1 million to a chief financial officer who used foundation credit cards to pay for a scuba diving trip to the Galápagos Islands, a birthday party in Carmel, laser eye surgery and more. Effie DeBow of Oakdale lost her job and was sentenced to 16 months in prison.
Former medical office manager Brenda Orlando of Ripon got a stiffer sentence, four years in prison, for stealing more than $600,000 from the orthopedic surgeons who employed her.
Christine Pfitzer of Modesto served a 300-day sentence under house arrest after she bankrupted the elderly owners of McHenry Auto Sales by taking advantage of an outdated bookkeeping system.
And the list goes on, dipping into the ranks of moms and dads who siphoned money from the kids clubs they sponsored.
Time after time, frauds are exposed and offenders are punished, as Ward -- who lives in Modesto -- will be if he is sentenced Friday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento as scheduled. In the end, one obvious question never quite gets answered: What were they thinking?
Statements of remorse, offered before judgment is pronounced, give some clues.
Most offenders say they planned to pay the money back, and would have paid the money back if things hadn't spun out of control.
Many ask for forgiveness and talk about redemption or atonement.
Ward went a step further, likening himself to a "financial serial killer" in a confessional diary he penned as his scheme collapsed in the fall of 2006, according to a criminal complaint brought by the U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento.
"I hate the fact that I am just another scumbag con artist bilking old people out of their retirement money," Ward wrote. "I have always hated those guys. How could I become one?"
Embezzlers take $660 billion
Fraudsters -- an artful term used by investigators and prosecutors -- can be found in all walks of life.
According to the FBI, identity theft hits nearly 4 percent of Americans, fraud raises the annual cost of insurance premiums by $300 for the average household, up to 10 percent of all medical bills are fraudulent and U.S. businesses lose $660 billion annually to embezzlement, according to a report from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.
Meanwhile, punishments for white-collar criminals are far less severe than those for violent offenders, who are deemed greater threats to society.
An offender with two violent crimes on his record can get 25 years to life in prison if he shoplifts. An insurance agent who pockets premiums from 100 clients, but has not been in trouble before, can repay some of the money and spend a few months on home detention.
The public often calls for stiffer punishments after a scandal breaks. Once the buzz dies down, the reality of overcrowded prisons remains and judges must stay within sentencing guidelines set by state and federal lawmakers.
"No one has ever accused the Legislature of acting rationally," said Mike Vitiello, a professor at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and an expert on white-collar crime.
Offenders often talk as if they were gamblers who got caught up in the excitement of the moment, but clinical psychologist Terrance Lichtenwald of Loves Park, Ill., thinks a more calculating mind-set is at work.
He studied inside trader Ivan Boesky at a federal prison camp in Lompoc in the 1980s and scores of others since. He said white-collar criminals range from mild-mannered con artists who build up a false persona to swindle others, to coldblooded snakes who kill if their deceptions are detected.
The one thing they all have in common, the psychologist said, is a chameleonlike nature.
"These guys are really good at finding out what you want," Lichtenwald said. "They pitch to your want or need."
Scams differ, but con men have some common traits, the psychologist said.
They are narcissistic and think they can outwit others.
They have a sense of entitlement but little or no empathy for their victims.
They test responses from possible targets, moving on if they are confronted by someone who doesn't buy their grandiose stories.
And it's not uncommon for victims to support the people who conned them even after a scheme is exposed. That's because the victims bonded with a snake, the psychologist said, but the snake did not bond with them in return.
"When you watch these criminals pitch stuff," Lichtenwald said, "you have to stand in awe."
Called himself a financial guru
Local authorities have dealt with everything from delivery men who steal milk to contractors who take upfront payments for work they never perform to an employee who dipped into funds meant for foster care children.
Ward, 49, took things to another level, promising 40 percent annual returns to investors who paid at least $50,000 to join the Joel Nathan Forex Fund, which was based in Turlock, federal prosecutors said in legal papers.
The Beyer High School graduate had no formal training, but he worked as an estate planner and developed an interest in foreign currency trading.
He billed himself as a financial guru who could make millions by betting on the value of the U.S. dollar against the Japanese yen or the European Union's euro or the British pound, making his pitch at trade shows in Las Vegas and Florida, online and on infomercials that aired on cable television.
He traded in an unregulated forex market that is known for scams.
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the federal agency that regulates commodity futures and options markets, warns investors to be wary of traders who promise unrealistic returns, downplay the risks of trading or claim to trade in the "interbank market."
The term refers to currency transactions between large banks, investment firms and major corporations, and it's not open to little guys who go online to bet on the fluctuating value of the world's currencies.
Ward sent investors monthly statements showing profits, even as he misappropriated their money. He crafted profit and loss statements by making "demo" trades in a software program that teaches would-be investors how to trade.
He diverted money to a development project in Mississippi.
He bought his daughter a small airplane.
Court records said he stole from 92 investors, including family and friends.
Promised to repay debts
In a series of letters to investors in fall 2006, Ward said he used the ill-gotten money to support a Sacramento-based school he had purchased in February 2005, called Learn: Forex Inc. He also promised to repay his debts by trading, saying he could turn $100,000 into $8 million in two years.
When the FBI arrested Ward in April 2007, federal prosecutors said his fund was a Ponzi scheme, with Ward using money from new investors to pay "returns" to earlier investors. In August, Ward pleaded guilty to five counts of wire fraud, two counts of mail fraud and two counts of money laundering.
He is free on $125,000 bail, though he surrendered his passport and wears an electronic monitoring bracelet on his ankle.
During a recent interview, Ward said he rejected two plea deals a prosecutor offered because the authorities won't consider a restitution plan he and his supporters have crafted. He said he can repay investors if a judge sentences him to home detention and lets him keep trading.
U.S. Attorneys Benjamin Wagner and Ellen Endrizzi said they oppose Ward's restitution plan because they don't think he was a successful trader.
Barbara Collett of Groveland, who contacted investors on her former son-in-law's behalf because the court has barred Ward from reaching out to any investor who is not a family member, said the authorities are ignoring 53 of 92 investors who support the restitution plan.
Ten people have written to a federal judge on Ward's behalf.
One called Ward a "wildcatter" who likes to push the envelope. Another said Ward's embezzlement is out of character because he didn't steal from clients when he worked as an estate planner. Yet another said Ward's seemingly lavish lifestyle was not out of line for the owner of a startup company with big plans.
Edgar Spitzke of Monticello, Ky., said he lost $100,000 but disagrees with prosecutors who contend Ward's fund was a scam since its inception and never made money.
"I find it hard to believe that he would purposely start a business that had no other purpose but to defraud, especially his closest friends and relatives," said Spitzke, who said Ward is his wife's nephew.
Bruce Beeley of Nevada City said the restitution plan would have external controls Ward's private fund lacked.
"The plan only allows him to remain trading as long as he is successful, so I don't fear that he will somehow weasel out of his sentencing with this as a guise," he said.
The notion that Ward could make the money back seems ludicrous to at least two investors.
"If the courts go lenient on him, what does that say to everybody else out there," said insurance agent Dave Rothell of Bryan, Texas, who lost $16,000.
"What goes around comes around," said auditor Nancy Jones of Dallas, who lost $50,000.
Ward, a husky man with blue eyes and a ruddy complexion, insists he is not a demon, though he was portrayed as a devil with horns in an illustration in The Wall Street Journal.
He said his fund peaked at about $15 million, though a full accounting is in the works. He said the federal authorities estimate losses of $10 million, or $3 million more than prosecutors initially alleged.
He said he borrowed money believing he could pay it back, dipping into the fund because he had a big ego and did not want to acknowledge his losses. He said he will make good, even if his restitution plan is delayed by a long stint in prison.
"I'm guilty," Ward said. "I did it."
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2338.