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Irie also knew Scott Rothstein — the Broward lawyer who pleaded guilty this past January to crafting a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme. Irie recalls sitting in a meeting with Rothstein at Nikki Beach when a charity employee mentioned they were $500,000 short for a project.
"Without even skipping a beat, Scott was like, 'Oh, I got it. I'll pay it,' " Irie says. "I know some really successful lawyers, and they don't get down like that. I knew right then that something wasn't right. But I never once had a moment like that with Nevin. He seemed legit."
Shapiro stalks through hundreds of high school football players in full pads in the summer heat on Coral Gables' Greentree Field, where the Hurricanes practice. He looks terrible: His clothes are rumpled and stained. His eyes are bugged out in rage. His youthful face is pockmarked and discolored as if he'd lost a street fight.
It's UM's annual summer camp for top high school players from around the state, and Shapiro has been tipped off that an old associate — an assistant whom Shapiro believed owed him money — would be at the practice.
Shapiro juts a finger into the assistant's face. "You need to start answering your fucking phone," he hollers, waving his arms. A few players tense up, but Shapiro pulls him away by the arm. After a minute of screaming, he saunters back to his car and peels away.
It was August 2009, and Nevin Shapiro's charmed life was fracturing. The Ponzi scheme had begun to teeter. Shapiro promised investors they'd receive 10 to 26 percent commissions every month. Since his "grocery diverting" no longer traded so much as a box of Cheerios, the only way to pay that fee was new money. And lots of it.
The first sign of trouble came a few weeks after the king of all Ponzi schemers — Bernie Madoff, who rigged a $65 billion pyramid — was arrested in December 2008.
Susan Grinwis, a Naples retiree with $150,000 invested, reached Shapiro on his cell. She'd always had reservations about the flashy businessman from Miami. Earlier that year, he had shown up for a meeting at Jack Williams' palatial $5 million mansion in Naples with a street-tough bodyguard. In a crowd of genteel retirees, he looked as out of place as a golfer dressed in plaid at a Lil Wayne show.
"Are you a Bernie?" Susan asked Shapiro, reaching him on his cell. "Please tell me you're not a Bernie."
In the slick, confident tones that had roped in so many, Shapiro convinced her to keep her money invested. His business was legitimate, he said. But just six months later, starting around July 2009, Shapiro stopped paying interest to his investors.
He'd done everything he could to forestall that day, court records show. That same month, he called an unnamed investor, begging for $170,000.
Toward the end of July, Robert Nolan and his wife drove to Miami Beach for a confrontation. Shapiro gave no sign his world was falling apart, Nolan says. Meeting in his simple office off Pine Tree Drive, he was reassuring, telling the couple that a grocery chain was slow in paying but that the cash flow would soon restart. Nolan agreed not to immediately demand his $500,000: "[Shapiro] was a very shrewd guy, and we believed him."
But another two months went by, and no payments came. The Nolans confronted their friend, Jack Williams. He told them that if Shapiro went bankrupt, everyone would be screwed. "Just give him a little more time," he pleaded.
By November, it was too late. Sherwin Jarol, the Chicago real estate investor, sued to force Shapiro and Capitol Investments USA into bankruptcy. Three other investors quickly filed suit in Miami-Dade.
Process servers began hunting for Shapiro, who shuttered his office and tried to disappear. A woman named Lily accepted a subpoena at the Bay Road mansion. One server found Shapiro sipping coffee outside David's Cafe, wearing dark sunglasses. He insisted he wasn't Nevin Shapiro until a passing friend ID'd him.
The feds joined in the hunt on November 30, after Jarol filed his involuntary-bankruptcy case.
Shapiro's sham was quickly exposed. In a federal filing this past March, he listed as his personal assets the $5.4 million mansion and $87,897.53 in personal belongings (including $2,750 in scrap gold). His unpaid debts to investors, meanwhile, totaled more than $133 million. The grocery business was worthless.
The search for money quickly turned comical. In a deposition a few weeks later, Shapiro talked about a pair of $120,000 rings. One had "fallen off a boat" a few weeks after he bought it, he said, while the other had been given to someone named "Raul."
More than 60 investors — mostly from Naples, Indianapolis, and Chicago — lined up to file claims against Shapiro. There were big names: Barry Alvarez, the University of Wisconsin athletic director and former football coach, had sunk $600,000 into the scheme; Charles W. Brown, owner of one of the Midwest's biggest Taco Bell franchises, lost $490,000.