The two men were supposed to meet at the 99 Restaurant in Hudson.
Just before noon on Wednesday, a man going by the name of “Pete” pulled into the parking lot, driving a red Nissan SUV he’d rented days earlier.
Federal agents were watching, including one stationed at the bar. But Pete didn’t go into the restaurant. He pulled alongside a white Lexus, and motioned to the driver to follow him across the street to a supermarket parking lot.
Moments later, Pete — whose real name is Cleber Rene Rizerio Rocha, a Brazilian with ties to TelexFree Inc.’s fugitive co-owner Carlos Wanzeler — pulled a suitcase from the SUV’s trunk. It was packed with $2.2 million, he told his contact, placing the bag in the Lexus, according to a detailed affidavit filed in US District Court in Boston.
What followed was a multihour odyssey that led to the discovery of nearly $20 million in cash hidden inside a box spring, Rocha’s arrest by agents from Homeland Security Investigations, and his confession that he was moving money for Wanzeler and the former TelexFree executive’s nephew.
The agents followed Rocha that day as he met up with Wanzeler’s wife, Katia, at another 99 Restaurant and handed her a purse. That night, they would seize $19.4 million from a Westborough apartment that Rocha, 28, had visited earlier in the day. The money — in $20, $50, and $100 bills — was jammed into a box spring.
It’s the latest bizarre twist in the $3 billion global TelexFree fraud, which ensnared nearly 1 million investors around the world before collapsing in 2014.
The company nominally sold Internet phone service plans, but brought in the vast majority of its money by luring participants to open small investment accounts that promised large returns. TelexFree became the biggest pyramid scheme ever, as measured in the number of victims involved, prosecutors say.
The filing Thursday offers evidence that Wanzeler has continued to access and move money reaped from TelexFree, even as he has refused to return to the United States to face trial. His American business partner, James Merrill, has pleaded guilty to his role in the fraud and is facing up to a decade in prison. His sentencing is next month.
This arm of the investigation goes back to mid-2015, when Brazilian Federal Police told US authorities that Carlos Wanzeler allegedly sent three people here in October 2014 from his native Brazil, where he was hiding out, to pick up money and bring it to Brazil. One of the three people was Rocha, according to the filing.
Homeland Security in October 2015 hired a foreign man with “experience moving money internationally” to help with its investigation, paying him $2,500. That man, unnamed in the court filing, was the one driving the white Lexus on behalf of the federal agents this week. He had been contacted in the past by Wanzeler’s circle to help launder money in the United States, sending the funds through Hong Kong accounts to buy Brazilian currency, which was then moved to Brazil.
Over a period of many months, the man was in contact with Wanzeler’s nephew and a female intermediary through phone calls, texts, instant messages, and in person. The nephew sometimes used code words for the money, referring to it as “steaks,’’ according to the affidavit.
In an October 2015 meeting, the intermediary allegedly told the man hired by Homeland Security that she was interested in moving about $40 million in TelexFree cash out of the United States. She allegedly said the money “needed to be moved because Wanzeler’s wife (still in the United States) was filing for divorce and knew where the money was located.”
Paul Kelly, a lawyer for Katia and Carlos Wanzeler, said there has been no divorce filing and the couple remains married. He said Katia was “as stunned as everybody else when she heard about this.”
Katia Wanzeler was briefly in custody in May 2014, picked up at JFK International Airport in New York about a month after Carlos Wanzeler fled to Brazil via Montreal. She has not been charged in the case and has kept a low profile.
But on Wednesday, she was anything but discreet, driving into the restaurant parking lot in a red Hummer with license plates registered to her husband, the documents say.
Inside the restaurant, an undercover agent saw Rocha hand Katia Wanzeler a purse, according to the filing. After Wanzeler left, she allegedly went to St. Mary’s Credit Union in Marlborough, exiting about 10 minutes later.
Kelly said Katia Wanzeler went to the bank only to deposit about $2,000 from rental units she manages. The purse was a gift from Rocha, a family acquaintance who has worked with her husband in Brazil, Kelly said. When she got home and found cash in it, Kelly said, Wanzeler was shocked.
“She didn’t anticipate receiving any money,’’ Kelly said. Wanzeler set the purse and its contents aside and plans to provide it to authorities, Kelly said.
As for the money hidden in the bed, Kelly said any notion that she knew where the money was stashed is “completely false and unfounded.”
Christina Sterling, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office in Boston, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment on the investigation.
Before meeting Wanzeler at the restaurant, Rocha had stopped at a Walmart in Hudson, where federal agents secretly placed a GPS tracker on his SUV while he was in the store. They followed him to the Westborough apartment, where they would discover the cash-stuffed box spring.
Rocha was arrested at 4 p.m. Wednesday at a shopping mall in Natick, according to the affidavit. An agent told him his Miranda rights, in Portuguese. Rocha waived his rights, according to the filing, telling the agents he had traveled to this country to transfer money for Wanzeler and the nephew.
Rocha was charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering. He is being held until a detention hearing on Wednesday, according to the US attorney’s office. A lawyer said to be representing him did not respond to requests for comment.
Wednesday night, federal agents returned to the Westborough apartment, where they found the millions of dollars in the bed, according to the affidavit. They spent Friday counting the money, with a final tally of $19.4 million. It was Rocha who had told them there was about $20 million there.
Authorities previously have frozen $120 million in TelexFree assets belonging to TelexFree, Carlos Wanzeler, and his ex-business partner, Merrill.
Read the affidavit of special agent Aaron Lindaman:
Beth Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.