Swindle in Swanton, VT
Tatiana Bechard was working at a bank outside Burlington when she met John Byors. The Russian-born woman, vivacious with curly blonde hair, was coming off a traumatic divorce from her husband of more than 20 years. All her life she had scrimped and saved, hoping to build a comfortable cushion for retirement while raising two daughters, and now her divorce had left her feeling financially and emotionally unmoored.
It was the fall of 2003, and Bechard was the head teller at Charter One Bank in Williston. Byors, glued to his cell phone and casually dressed in shirts and baseball hats bearing his VMIG (Vermont Marble Investors Group) corporate logo, was one of her biggest accounts. That winter, after Bechard had left the bank to work for a software company, she ran into Byors at a restaurant, and he began talking to her about his marble business.
“I needed a new future,” she says. “I needed a passion and a nest egg.”
Byors told her that he was going to purchase a mausoleum, which was being designed in Massachusetts, and resell it for $300,000. In May 2004, Bechard agreed to loan him $50,000, and Byors signed a note promising to pay her back $100,000 within six months.
A month later, Byors introduced her to a Florida man whom he described as a NASA engineer, and Bechard loaned him another $50,000. The engineer had worked with a special glue that was used to attach the heat-shield tiles to the space shuttle, explained Byors. He wanted to relocate the engineer to Vermont to test the glue on attaching building insulation to marble tiles.
Later that month, Byors told Bechard that he needed $600,000 for a down payment on a marble-crushing plant, his third, which would allow him to become the exclusive North American and Dubai distributor for a big Italian marble company. Bechard mortgaged a three-family house in Boston that she had inherited from her parents and loaned him another $475,000. In August, Byors told Bechard that he had trucks waiting to deliver polished marble tiles to Home Depot stores across the country, but he needed money to pay the truckers. Bechard came up with another $30,000.
By now, Bechard was nervous enough to check Byors’s passport for confirmation that he had, in fact, been to Dubai. She also felt reassured when she saw the paperwork for a $48 million contract arrive in an envelope from Dubai. The first shipment of marble tiles from Swanton was due there in December 2004. Then Bechard’s money would start rolling in.
That Christmas Eve, while Tatiana Bechard was anticipating her windfall from Dubai, a fateful meeting was occurring some 250 miles away, in the old fishing port of Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Elizabeth Bonnie Akerley, a Gloucester fisherwoman who owned her own small commercial boat, was discovering some alarming news about her own investment in the Swanton quarry. Over the previous two years, she had loaned Byors more than $600,000, and he’d promised to double her money. As collateral, Byors had put up marble blocks he said were worth $80,000 apiece.
A divorced mother of two, Akerley had gotten into the marble business after losing $1 million in the stock market thanks to her broker’s speculative technology investments. An old family friend, a former police officer, recommended a respected local lawyer, Jon Conant, a Harvard grad and coach of the high school hockey team.Conant, who was handling a real-estate closing for Akerley, suggested that she invest some of the surplus cash from the transaction in a quarry that he owned with John Byors. Conant described the prized Swanton Red marble and showed her tile samples and photos of the quarry. He also showed her an appraisal that said the quarry was worth $130 million, as well as documentation for $7 million worth of orders.
Akerley and the ex-cop invested $100,000 in January 2003, $40,000 in February, $40,000 in March, $40,000 in June, and then, after receiving the first repayment of $10,000, another $30,000 in August. Akerley received two more payments, totaling $22,500, in the fall, but then the money stopped. One reason for the delay, Conant told her, was that a substantial payment from a Middle Eastern customer, wired to a bank in Florida, had been frozen by the U.S. government as suspected terrorist funds. Another reason was lack of working capital to fill all the orders flooding in. Byors was unavailable, Conant said, because he was traveling in China and the Middle East, procuring new orders.
Following an interest payment from Byors, Akerley and the ex-cop agreed to invest another $325,000 each in January 2004, and $100,000 more over the next two months. Byors and Conant put up their life-insurance policies as collateral. Akerley waited for her money. And waited. Payment was “just around the corner,” she was told. Then Byors stopped taking her calls, and Conant filed for bankruptcy. In December 2004, she called an old acquaintance, a Gloucester accountant who had been Conant’s bookkeeper.
They met on Christmas Eve. The bookkeeper confided that she and a friend had also invested with Byors and Conant — more than $100,000 — and hadn’t been repaid. Furthermore, a local charitable foundation had sued Conant for misappropriating $10 million, including nearly half a million that had gone to Byors’s marble venture. The bookkeeper told Akerley that Conant would solicit funds from clients who came away from real-estate closings with surplus cash.
Furious, Bonnie Akerley vowed to sue. Her case found its way to Bob Wolfe, a Vietnam-era graduate of Hamilton College who jokes that he takes the cases that other lawyers don’t want. Wolfe had also developed condos in Boston in the 1980s and knew something about marble.
“When I was a developer, I wound up on the mailing list for a stone magazine,” he says. “Every month I would read how the stone industry was getting creamed by cheaper imports from China, Pakistan, India. Now here I have a client who comes to me, having invested all this money, and my first question is: ‘How could this be — how is Byors doing it?'”