The Guardian reports: On 10 November, 2003, Gerry Florent, and Ralph Abercia, plus his son, Ralph Jr, left the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, and drove to the Stirling Club, a high-end private venue just off the Strip. They were to attend separate meetings with Sir Richard Benson, but had met each other that morning, when they were collectively coached on the etiquette expected of them: speak only when spoken to, stand when he comes in. They were happy to comply. This was a man who had bailed out the Queen, after all.
Both Florent and the Abercias wanted the same thing from Sir Richard: money, of which he had plenty. Sir Richard, who was portly, balding and elderly, explained to them that he owned a company named Sherwin & Noble, which was worth billions and was prepared to finance their business projects. At their meetings, the prospective investors received a glossy spiral-bound summary of S&N’s balance sheet, which showed it to be a financial firm of significant size.
Florent wanted $55m to buy land on which to build a hotel in Florida; the Abercias needed $105m for an “aquarium/entertainment complex” in Houston. In return for the money, all Sir Richard asked was that they pay advance fees (two payments of $412,250 each from Florent, and two payments of $787,500 each from the Abercias) to signal their commitment to the projects. If S&N decided not to go ahead with the loans, the fees would be repaid.
The investors left Las Vegas, instructed their lawyers to wire the first tranche of the fees over, and settled down to wait for their money. They waited. And they waited. When they rang or faxed the S&N office in London, they were reassured that there was nothing to be concerned about. But, over the next few months, Florent and his business associates became suspicious. They held off wiring the second half of the fee, and brought in a private investigator, who discovered that S&N, far from being worth billions, was an empty shell company. The glossy booklet detailing its assets had been copied from the banking company HBOS, with the names changed.
Thus, the fraud fell apart. The Abercias, who had wired the whole fee asked of them, were devastated. “That was a lot of money,” Ralph Sr told a local journalist. “We’re still paying the damgum thing back.”
The whole saga had been scripted by a conman named Lal Bhatia. Sir Richard Benson was an actor. He had never rescued Buckingham Palace from foreclosure. The billions and the knighthood were fictitious. S&N had no assets, beyond a registered presence at a house in London – 29 Harley Street. [Continue reading…]