On the April day when federal agents raided TelexFree Inc.’s office in Marlborough, co-owner Carlos Wanzeler hopped into a BMW with his daughter and drove north, slipping into Canada through the tiny town of Lacolle about 11 p.m. Two days later, they caught a flight to Sao Paulo.
Wanzeler’s wife, Katia, was not so lucky. On Wednesday night, federal agents arrested her at JFK International Airport in New York as she was steps away from boarding a plane bound for Brazil, to join her husband.
The details of Carlos Wanzeler’s departure are part of a court document released Thursday, shedding new light on the moves of TelexFree’s owners in the days before they were accused of running a billion-dollar global fraud.
Prosecutors say Carlos Wanzeler and his business partner, James M. Merrill of Ashland, led an international pyramid scheme that persuaded thousands of people to invest in TelexFree and promote its Internet phone service in exchange for rich returns. Victims in Massachusetts, many of them Brazilian immigrants, may have lost up to $90 million, regulators say. Merrill is in custody on wire fraud conspiracy charges.
Katia Wanzeler was being held as a material witness Thursday, but had not been charged with a crime. The Wanzelers’ lawyer, Paul V. Kelly, said her arrest was “really unnecessary.” He said there was no legal reason to keep her from traveling to Brazil. “I’m sure we could have worked something out,” Kelly said.
But the court document described how Katia Wanzeler allegedly misled investigators about the location of her husband and played an active role in the movement of huge sums in TelexFree accounts.
When agents from Homeland Security Investigations visited the Wanzeler family’s home in Northborough on April 17, Carlos, 45, was nowhere to be found. Katia Wanzeler told the agents her husband was staying at a hotel “on the advice of counsel.’’
In reality, he had already left the country, according to the affidavit filed in federal court Thursday. That was two days after the agents had seized computers and records from TelexFree.
The court record depicts the Wanzelers and Merrill moving millions of dollars as investigators closed in on the company and before TelexFree filed for federal bankruptcy protection on April 13.
As early as Feb. 28, two bank transfers at Wells Fargo totaling $3.5 million moved funds from a TelexFree account into one bearing Katia Wanzeler’s name, according to the affidavit. After that, $1.5 million of the money moved again, this time into her Wells Fargo brokerage account.
Then, on April 11, Katia Wanzeler and Merrill allegedly traveled together to a Wells Fargo bank in Connecticut to fetch more than $27 million in cashier’s checks. Most of the checks were made payable to TelexFree entities, but one of them — for more than $2 million — was made out to Katia B. Wanzeler.
That check surfaced during the office raid, when TelexFree’s chief financial officer tried to leave with a bag stuffed with $38 million in checks.
While Carlos Wanzeler’s departure seemed brazen, his lawyer said no one told him not to leave the country.
By May 9, his business partner, Merrill, had been arrested on Route 9 in Worcester.
Four days later, “someone in Brazil” paid cash to buy Katia a ticket to Sao Paulo, prosecutors said.
At a hearing in federal court in Brooklyn Thursday, Katia Wanzeler, 49, was denied bail and kept in custody. Her lawyer in court said she had no reason to flee and was planning to return at the end of the month, according to the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Merrill is scheduled to appear in federal court in Worcester on Friday for a detention hearing. He is being held in Rhode Island, according to people who know him. If found guilty of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, he could face 20 years in prison. So could Carlos Wanzeler — if US authorities are able to arrest him.
Under Brazil’s constitution, the country does not turn over its citizens accused of crimes in the United States. Wanzeler has dual citizenship and entered Sao Paulo using a Brazilian passport, authorities said.
Since TelexFree’s bankruptcy filing a month ago, investors around the world have been wondering if they will get their money back. And other firms with similar multilevel marketing approaches have come to light, many of them also apparently targeting Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking immigrant communities.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office filed civil fraud charges Thursday against one such firm, Wings Network, which allegedly enticed more than 8,900 Massachusetts residents to invest $12.5 million with the company over the past five months. Galvin said his Securities Division has received tips on other apparently similar or related ventures as well.
“We’re starting to see connections between these various promoters, and they are often victimizing some of the same people,’’ Galvin said.