In the fall of last year, Colin Chisholm strode into a Citibank on Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills, California. Burning a hole in his pocket was a check for $120,000. He asked for cash in $100 bills, then hopped a plane to Minnesota with all the makings of an escape.
From his historic Deephaven mansion on the shores of Lake Minnetonka, Chisholm had steered a series of telecommunications companies with holdings in the Caribbean. As CEO, the 61-year-old with creased eyes and a graying pate wielded the respect and admiration of those around him. No one knew just how dire his situation had become.
Without warning, Chisholm stashed a cache of boxes loaded with dubious receipts in his unsuspecting neighbor's basement. He and his wife, Andrea, yanked their 6-year-old son, Colin Jr., out of school before the semester ended and said goodbye to their pack of orange-and-white Cavalier King Charles spaniels, who had names such as Driving Miss Maisie.
After packing their bags, the Chisholms fled their lakeside home with the chipped white paint and fading green roof, high-tailing it through the forested, winding private road and stone archway that had once been the gateway to new lives.
By the time Hennepin County Sheriff's deputies came looking for the Chisholms, in February, they were nowhere to be found.
The next few weeks were a mad and dizzying affair. Investigators haven't made it clear whether the $120,000 check came from one of Colin's investors or wealthy family members, but if he had that kind of cash, he shouldn't have needed to steal from taxpayers' coffers. In one of the biggest welfare fraud cases in recent memory, Colin Chisholm was accused of raking in more than $167,000 in welfare, food stamps, and medical care from Minnesota and a yet-untold amount of public assistance in Florida.
Although the Chisholm case is unusual — only about 5 percent of welfare-fraud investigations end up in court each year — it highlights a hole in the system, one that's built almost entirely on faith.
There are national databases that can check whether people are receiving benefits in multiple states. But most folks are caught through tips, says Jerry Kerber, inspector general at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. There's nothing "in place to go check people's lifestyle and see whether or not their lifestyle really does match what they're claiming in income."
In Florida also, the system is fundamentally reactive. A February audit of the state's Division of Public Assistance Fraud released notes that Broward County has only five investigators who each deal with 953 cases per year for a salary of $11.83 an hour. On top of being overworked, they're unprepared: Not one of Florida's 42 fraud investigators has a college degree in financial analysis. The audit found that about 13 percent of referrals eligible for investigation were dismissed or ignored and that 12 percent of cases they closed were dismissed simply because there was not enough manpower to investigate them.
So while the Chisholms were able to fly under the radar in Minnesota, they were basically anonymous in Florida, where investigators were overwhelmed.
Regardless of the circumstances, to those who knew the Chisholms, the accusations were inconceivable. The couple was practically royalty, with seemingly bottomless pockets. They rubbed elbows with media power brokers and addressed themselves in social settings as Lord and Lady — the descendants of Scottish aristocrats.
"I'm having a hard time thinking that Colin is this person everyone says, but everything's pointing to it," says Kim Ritter, a family friend. "The facts are speaking loud and clear."
The walls of the Chisholm home shined with oil portraits. In the middle of the rented mansion stood a chapel, where Colin liked to take guests after showing them a registry of notable yachts in North America, one of which he owned.
At dinner parties, Andrea entertained friends with a genuine and affable air. Her seven purebreds were worth an estimated $2,000 each and looked like they had leapt from a Rococo watercolor. Her hair was bright red and immaculately kept under the white puffy hat that made an entrance before she did.
Smart and gregarious, the Chisholms struck many of their friends, neighbors, and associates as New Yorkers who'd just flown in from Gatsby's West Egg.
"They were gracious people," says John Peterson, a fellow Lake Minnetonka Kennel Club member. "They didn't put on airs."
They also cut an imposing figure when they moved to Florida in 2005. There, Colin tooled around town in a two-seater Lexus, squiring guests from marinas to a $1.5 million rental home in Lighthouse Point. He boasted that his yacht had been built by his great-grandfather — Hugh J. Chisholm, a prominent Maine industrialist. And though Colin looked a world apart from the salty sea dogs he employed, he impressed them with his first-rate seamanship.