Par­adise Lost

Seven High Point Road in the Bri­dle Path was sup­posed to be the ul­ti­mate sym­bol of achieve­ment for the Yeretsians, an am­bi­tious, hard-work­ing cou­ple from Ar­me­nia. To­day, it’s the grand­est rem­nant of an al­leged real es­tate scam that left a trail of vic­tim

Toronto Life - - Contents - By Ni­cholas Köh­ler

Seven High Point Road in the Bri­dle Path was sup­posed to be the ul­ti­mate sym­bol of achieve­ment for the cou­ple that bought it. To­day, it’s the grand­est rem­nant of an al­leged real es­tate scam that left a trail of vic­tims, $17 mil­lion un­ac­counted for and one young lawyer in hid­ing

G

ol­naz vak­ili was the per­fect mark.

A young real es­tate lawyer, she was fiercely in­de­pen­dent and ea­ger to make a name for her­self in a crowded field. In­stead of ap­ply­ing to the big down­town firms, she opened up her own shop in a shared of­fice at Yonge and Shep­pard. The early days were ex­cit­ing, if stress­ful. She car­ried some stu­dent loans and had to cover rent, in­sur­ance, Law So­ci­ety dues, a salary for an as­sis­tant, com­put­ers and ex­pen­sive le­gal soft­ware, and she had to hus­tle to find clien­tele.

In Novem­ber 2010, just a few months af­ter Vak­ili passed the bar, she was in­tro­duced to a man named Arash Mis­saghi. Like Vak­ili, Mis­saghi was orig­i­nally from Iran, and she re­mem­bers him bow­ing slightly in the Per­sian man­ner when they met. Mis­saghi de­scribed him­self as a bro­ker and fi­nan­cial man­ager, and he seemed to have a deep knowl­edge of fi­nance and real es­tate law, lit­ter­ing their con­ver­sa­tion with statutes and bank­ing ref­er­ences. Still, Vak­ili was wary of him. He had pen­e­trat­ing eyes and spoke with a God­fa­ther-like whis­per. When he sug­gested they meet to dis­cuss busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties, she de­clined.

She was right to be cau­tious. Un­be­knownst to Vak­ili, Mis­saghi was one of 23 peo­ple charged (though never con­victed) in Project Tic Toc, an 18-month in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a mas­sive cargo-theft ring in which Toronto po­lice seized drugs, $3 mil­lion worth of stolen goods, $100,000 in cash, a .45 cal­i­bre hand­gun and, most omi­nously, a num­ber of fake York Re­gional Po­lice uni­forms. In 2009, he was charged with con­spir­acy to com­mit mur­der, though the charges were dropped. And though he ap­peared to be wealthy, Mis­saghi had been an undis­charged bank­rupt since 2000.

But he was per­sis­tent and, af­ter re­peat­edly brush­ing off his re­quests, Vak­ili even­tu­ally re­lented. Mis­saghi be­gan to send real es­tate work her way. This was the be­gin­ning of what would be­come a night­mare for Vak­ili and many oth­ers and would go on to gen­er­ate in­ter­na­tional in­trigue and a com­plex web of civil, crim­i­nal and reg­u­la­tory pro­ceed­ings. Mis­saghi is, at present, the sub­ject of al­le­ga­tions and crim­i­nal charges that have yet to be proven in court.

It all started in the sum­mer of 2011, when Mis­saghi told Vak­ili about a deal he was work­ing on for an Ar­me­ni­anCana­dian cou­ple named Vasken and An­nie Yeretsian. They had made their money in real es­tate—res­i­den­tial pro­jects in north Toronto and For­est Hill—and, in 2002, had pur­chased a high-end prop­erty of their own: a huge lot at 7 High Point Road in the Bri­dle Path. They paid $2.8 mil­lion for the place and had bor­rowed al­most all of it from CIBC. With their two daugh­ters, they moved into the ex­ist­ing home on the lot and drew up plans for a 14,800-square-foot palace in the faux French style, com­plete with a tur­ret, Ital­ianate fres­coes through­out, a stun­ning mar­ble stair­case, a four-door garage, a wood-pan­elled li­brary and en­tire rooms de­voted to tea, mu­sic and bil­liards. The Yeretsians quickly fit into the Bri­dle Path scene: Vasken be­came the neigh­bour­hood rep­re­sen­ta­tive for their street, and the girls at­tended the nearby Toronto French School. Ac­cord­ing to one rel­a­tive, Vasken and An­nie be­came so en­am­oured with their sta­tus as ap­par­ent oneper­centers that they grad­u­ally dis­tanced them­selves from their ex­tended fam­ily.

By the mid- to late aughts, though, the cou­ple had run into fi­nan­cial trou­ble. Res­cue came in the form of an un­likely source: a man named Grant Er­lick, who claims to have been

their land­scaper. He was hand­some, chatty and re­source­ful, and he men­tioned that a busi­ness as­so­ciate—Arash Mis­saghi—might be able to help.

Mis­saghi talked a con­vinc­ing game, and he’d soon ex­tended a loan to the Yeretsians to give them a bit of fi­nan­cial breath­ing room. Along the way, he rec­om­mended that they hire his lawyer, Vak­ili, in­stead of their own—a de­ci­sion that would prove to be calami­tous.

As fast as sal­va­tion had ar­rived, it was gone. In a se­ries of quick moves, Vak­ili sub­mit­ted the Yeretsians’ home for reg­is­tra­tion un­der a num­bered com­pany con­trolled by Vasken; a few days later, he was mys­te­ri­ously deleted as di­rec­tor and re­placed by Er­lick, the land­scaper. Sud­denly, the Yeretsians’ dream home was no longer theirs.

When An­nie Yeretsian re­al­ized as much, she pan­icked. She de­manded an ex­pla­na­tion from Vak­ili, who in­sisted that she had all the ap­pro­pri­ate pa­per­work. An­nie threat­ened to sue; Vak­ili calmly re­quested a copy of the state­ment of claim, as if to say, Bring it.

While their le­gal chal­lenge played out, the Yeretsians’ fi­nan­cial woes wors­ened and they were evicted. With the house empty, Mis­saghi moved on to the sec­ond phase of the op­er­a­tion: bor­row­ing money against a prop­erty he didn’t ac­tu­ally own.

He ap­proached Tova Marks, a pri­vate lender from North York with whom he’d had busi­ness deal­ings in the past. Pe­tite, blonde and age 73 at the time, she was an ex­pe­ri­enced in­vestor who’d launched her­self in the mort­gage busi­ness in the early 1980s as a sin­gle mother of three. Her daugh­ter, Cindy Adler, her­self a mother of four, was newly sep­a­rated and had de­cided to use the first equal­iza­tion pay­ment from her ex-hus­band to fol­low her mother into the lend­ing busi­ness.

In Oc­to­ber 2011, the mother-daugh­ter in­vestors met Mis­saghi for cof­fee at Bayview Vil­lage Shop­ping Cen­tre, where he pre­sented a stel­lar in­vest­ment op­por­tu­nity: 7 High Point Road. The home, he said, be­longed to a friend of his named Bob Beiki, a wealthy Ira­nian who needed a pri­vate loan. The truth was that Beiki had come to Canada from Malaysia as a refugee claimant in 2008. Mis­saghi gave him a Bent­ley to drive and, ac­cord­ing to Beiki, coached him on what to say. When Adler ar­rived to check out the prop­erty, Beiki emerged as its glam­orous owner, giv­ing her the grand tour of a prop­erty he knew al­most noth­ing about.

Marks and Adler were in­trigued. Here was an op­u­lent home on a gor­geous lot in Canada’s most ex­clu­sive postal code. If they had hired their own real es­tate lawyer, they might have re­al­ized they were walk­ing into a trap. But Mis­saghi rec­om­mended Vak­ili. Near the end of 2011, Vak­ili and Marks met for lunch at the O&B Café Grill at Bayview Vil­lage, and the two hit it off.

Vak­ili was gre­gar­i­ous, and her story was com­pelling. Her fam­ily had set­tled in North York af­ter flee­ing Iran when the Shah fell. Her fa­ther, Bi­jan, drove a cab and later be­came a jet en­gine tech­ni­cian. Nass­rine, her mother, was a teacher. Vak­ili her­self had grad­u­ated with a BA in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence from York Univer­sity, earned a mas­ter’s de­gree in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at the Univer­sity of Wind­sor and grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Wind­sor and Univer­sity of De­troit Mercy’s dual law pro­gram, which trains stu­dents in both the Cana­dian and Amer­i­can le­gal sys­tems. Her high school boyfriend, Me­hdi, came with her and stud­ied en­gi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Wind­sor. Now, she was open­ing her own prac­tice and look­ing for clients.

“I felt good about the ar­range­ment be­cause I whole­heart­edly felt like I was help­ing her start her ca­reer,” Marks later re­called. The mother-daugh­ter in­vestors agreed to ex­tend $1.45 mil­lion to Mis­saghi, se­cured by what they un­der­stood was a firstrank­ing mort­gage on 7 High Point. Vak­ili passed along the pa­per­work to com­plete the loan, all of it bear­ing the sig­na­ture of the fake owner, Beiki. Of course, the loan wasn’t se­cured—not by a mort­gage or by a strand of hair or by any­thing at all. And what nei­ther Marks nor Adler knew at the time was that on the very day they’d ad­vanced the loan, a com­pany un­der Mis­saghi’s con­trol—his wife was its sole di­rec­tor—pur­chased the real mort­gage against 7 High Point Road, pre­sum­ably us­ing Marks and Adler’s cash. In three mas­ter­ful moves, it ap­peared that Mis­saghi had ob­tained a prop­erty he had no right to, bor­rowed against it and then le­git­i­mately bought into it—all with­out spend­ing a cent of his own money.

The high point road prop­erty was just the be­gin­ning. Po­lice al­lege that Mis­saghi and Er­lick re­peated their schemes across the re­gion, each time mix­ing fi­nan­cial sleight of hand, au­dac­ity and as much

in three mas­ter­ful moves, the yeretsians’ dream home was no longer un­der their con­trol

charisma or in­tim­i­da­tion as re­quired—claims they both deny. All these trans­ac­tions were oc­cur­ring at a time when the fed­eral gov­ern­ment was tak­ing steps to pre­vent an eco­nomic dis­as­ter like the one that took place in the U.S. in 2008 from hap­pen­ing here. New reg­u­la­tions to stop Cana­di­ans from buy­ing real es­tate they couldn’t af­ford, how­ever, drove some cash­strapped home­own­ers, like the Yeretsians, to turn to pri­vate lenders in­stead—a world largely de­void of over­sight and reg­u­la­tion and, there­fore, rife with risk.

There are two main va­ri­eties of real es­tate scams, and the al­le­ga­tions against Mis­saghi sug­gest that he is com­fort­able with both. The first, iden­tity fraud, re­lies on ac­cess: a son or daugh­ter steals their mum and dad’s ID and the deed to their home and bor­rows on the prop­erty as its pur­ported owner. The sec­ond type, value fraud, is of­ten called an “Ok­la­homa,” af­ter the scam his­tor­i­cally com­mon in that state of dig­ging a deep hole, fill­ing it with oil and then sell­ing it as a well. With di­a­bol­i­cal in­ge­nu­ity, Mis­saghi and his co­horts al­legedly com­bined both types of fraud. And, cru­cially, they re­lied on the young lawyer, Vak­ili, to fa­cil­i­tate the en­tire op­er­a­tion.

To­day, in Toronto le­gal cir­cles, Vak­ili’s de­gree of com­plic­ity is a po­lar­iz­ing sub­ject. Some of the sources I spoke to are con­vinced she was a savvy par­tic­i­pant and ben­e­fi­ciary; oth­ers say that she was young, in­ex­pe­ri­enced and un­aware and was hood­winked by a mas­ter­mind. The truth might well be some­where in the mid­dle.

I met with Vak­ili in the early fall of 2018. She claimed she didn’t know that Mis­saghi and Er­lick were hav­ing her sign forged pa­pers un­til May 2012. That’s when Vak­ili says she be­came aware of the ex­tent of Mis­saghi’s meth­ods and ca­pac­ity for in­tim­i­da­tion.

Mis­saghi had con­vinced his lender, Marks, to hand over $550,000 for a com­mer­cial build­ing in Scar­bor­ough. She sent the funds to Vak­ili, who was asked to hold them in trust un­til clos­ing. But a few days be­fore the deal was sup­posed to close, Mis­saghi called Vak­ili and said that “the bor­rower”—in fact, a com­pany he con­trolled—needed the money im­me­di­ately for rea­sons he didn’t ex­plain.

Vak­ili called Marks for per­mis­sion, but she said no. Ac­cord­ing to Vak­ili, when she re­layed her an­swer to Mis­saghi, he be­came en­raged, said that Vak­ili had scotched the deal and hung up. Hours later, ac­cord­ing to Vak­ili, he showed up at her of­fice and handed her what ap­peared to be a let­ter from Marks au­tho­riz­ing her to re­lease the money. Marks, how­ever, had never writ­ten or seen any such let­ter. Vak­ili says she tried to con­tact Marks to con­firm the au­tho­riza­tion but was un­able to reach her. She didn’t want to fur­ther anger Mis­saghi, who ter­ri­fied her. She re­leased the funds. Days later, on clos­ing, Vak­ili says she re­al­ized there was a prob­lem with the specifics of the loan—Marks would, in fact, be the fourth-pri­or­ity mort­gage holder, not the sec­ond—and she called Mis­saghi to try to stop the trans­fer.

Vak­ili says that he again showed up at her of­fice, call­ing her an “id­iot” and “stupid.” On her desk, he spot­ted the let­ter of au­tho­riza­tion he had sup­plied, grabbed it and ripped it up. Ac­cord­ing to Vak­ili, Mis­saghi, pos­si­bly rec­og­niz­ing that she was putting it all to­gether, threat­ened to ruin her if she went to the po­lice: he would put liens on her par­ents’ home and drag them through years of lit­i­ga­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Vak­ili, Mis­saghi said her life would go back to nor­mal so long as she pro­cessed one or two more deals. She thought about go­ing to the po­lice, but Mis­saghi said he had high-rank­ing cops on his pay­roll and, if she talked, he’d hear about it. Over time, he hinted at his vi­o­lent past and crim­i­nal con­nec­tions. Vak­ili de­cided to co­op­er­ate, fate­fully cross­ing from a naive rube into a know­ing ac­com­plice.

Now, with a lawyer on board—how­ever re­luc­tantly—Mis­saghi and Er­lick were set up beau­ti­fully. They ex­panded the scope of their ef­forts, even­tu­ally or­ches­trat­ing at least a dozen al­leged scams across the re­gion, in­clud­ing Yorkville, Rich­mond Hill, In­n­is­fil, Wood­bridge and Vaughan.

The al­leged op­er­a­tion was run­ning per­fectly—a prof­itable and re­peat­able ex­er­cise that seemed to grow more dar­ing with each it­er­a­tion. Then, in the fall of 2012, Mis­saghi went too far. He had met Lor­raine Fusco, a woman with a young daugh­ter who was se­ri­ously ill with a kid­ney con­di­tion. Fusco needed money to seek treat­ment for her in the U.S. She held a prom­is­sory note from a for­mer em­ployer worth $990,000, tied to a mort­gage on a prop­erty in Markham. But when she sought to cash out, the em­ployer re­fused to pay her. Fusco would have to sue to en­force the deal and didn’t have the time or en­ergy for that, es­pe­cially given her daugh­ter’s health. When she was in­tro­duced to Mis­saghi, she was im­me­di­ately buoyed. He seemed so­phis­ti­cated and knowl­edge­able. Mis­saghi of­fered to buy the prom­is­sory note and pay her $700,000 upon res­o­lu­tion of the mat­ter. Fusco agreed. He asked if Fusco had a lawyer to draft and sign off on the pa­per­work and then sug­gested his own. Vak­ili had a new client.

Mis­saghi soon re­ported back that the ne­go­ti­a­tions were un­ex­pect­edly fraught and that he would need to en­gage in com­plex, ex­pen­sive lit­i­ga­tion. He pro­posed a new of­fer: $585,000. Fusco re­luc­tantly agreed. Vak­ili met with Fusco and had her sign a stack of pa­pers. If Fusco had looked more care­fully, she might have seen that the pa­per­work pro­vided no as­sur­ances that she’d get paid any money at all. Two days later, with­out Fusco’s knowl­edge, the ac­tion was set­tled. Vak­ili re­ceived a cheque for $728,803, which she trans­ferred to a com­pany con­trolled by Mis­saghi. Fusco didn’t get a cent.

For weeks, Fusco re­peat­edly asked Vak­ili and Mis­saghi for sta­tus up­dates, but she was stonewalled. At one point, Vak­ili texted to say she was in the hos­pi­tal and med­i­cated, then later on a con­fer­ence call and couldn’t pick up. Even­tu­ally, Fusco con­tacted a se­cu­ri­ties lawyer—one of the cru­cial de­vel­op­ments that would doom Vak­ili’s ca­reer—who in­ves­ti­gated and dis­cov­ered that the funds had been trans­ferred weeks ear­lier. Fusco was dev­as­tated. Her new lawyer called Vak­ili, who even­tu­ally ad­mit­ted the trans­ac­tion had been com­pleted, but she said the funds now be­longed to a num­bered com­pany. The lawyer said he’d re­port her to the Law So­ci­ety and con­tact the po­lice. Vak­ili replied—with im­pres­sive bravado for some­one

vak­ili thought about go­ing to the po­lice, but she was afraid that mis­saghi had cops on his pay­roll

who’d just been found out—with a coun­terthreat: “I do wish to ad­vise you that any losses or dam­ages in­curred with re­spect to mis­lead­ing and fab­ri­cated state­ments to the au­thor­i­ties will re­sult in a claim against your firm and your client.”

Mis­saghi had de­vel­oped what ap­peared to be a thriv­ing Ponzi scheme, with the mother-daugh­ter team of Marks and Adler as the pri­mary lenders. But to keep the ruse alive—and to keep mak­ing in­ter­est pay­ments to Marks and Adler—he needed cash flow. With some au­dac­ity, he went back to them and asked for $2.5 mil­lion, again se­cured by 7 High Point Road.

In the in­terim, though, An­nie Yeretsian had suc­ceeded in hav­ing the ti­tle of the house re­turned to her name (Marks and Adler were un­aware). To pre­pare the way for the new loan, Vak­ili again trans­ferred the prop­erty out of An­nie Yeretsian’s name and this time into Beiki’s—whom Marks and Adler be­lieved owned it all along. A month later, the $2.5-mil­lion trans­fer was pro­cessed. Their to­tal out­lay to Mis­saghi and his var­i­ous com­pa­nies would even­tu­ally reach $6.4 mil­lion.

In­censed, An­nie Yeretsian re­ported Vak­ili to the land reg­is­trar, the provin­cial author­ity on prop­erty mat­ters. Marks and Adler re­ceived a sum­mons to at­tend the re­sult­ing hear­ing and asked Vak­ili what it was about. Im­pro­vis­ing, she con­vinced them that it con­cerned a mi­nor prop­erty-bound­ary is­sue and that they didn’t have to at­tend. The scheme was un­rav­el­ling.

At the hear­ing, Vak­ili con­cocted an­other lie to cover up her pre­vi­ous ones, say­ing that her as­sis­tant had ex­e­cuted the trans­fer and mort­gages in er­ror. They had been in­tended for 17, not 7, High Point Road. The land registry ad­ju­di­ca­tor sensed some­thing was off and de­cided to con­tact the owner of 17 High Point, push­ing the mat­ter over un­til May. Vak­ili’s de­lay tac­tic worked for the mo­ment, but the façade was al­ready crum­bling. A week later, Fusco filed suit against Vak­ili and Mis­saghi.

Vak­ili was a mess. She was sub­sist­ing on cof­fee dur­ing the day and binge­ing on fast food in her car and candy and chips when she got home at 10 or 11 p.m. Her weight bal­looned and she be­gan to suf­fer from back and knee prob­lems. She de­vel­oped chronic acne, her hair thinned, and she be­came short­fused and ir­ri­ta­ble. She told her hus­band noth­ing. “I didn’t want to talk to any­one be­cause I didn’t want to have to lie,” she says.

It’s pos­si­ble that Mis­saghi, Er­lick and Vak­ili might have stick­han­dled their way out of the Fusco sit­u­a­tion or An­nie Yeretsian’s chal­lenge. But what they couldn’t af­ford was for Marks and Adler, who rep­re­sented the main source of funds, to be­come sus­pi­cious. Un­for­tu­nately for them, Adler was dogged—a re­cent di­vor­cée who was re­build­ing her life. She be­came an­noyed that Vak­ili was slow in re­cov­er­ing the pro­ceeds of a sep­a­rate mort­gage that had ma­tured and took steps to have it trans­ferred to an­other lawyer. Vak­ili begged Adler to leave the file with her and claimed she had is­sued a no­tice of sale on the ad­dress. As proof, she gave her postal re­ceipts, but Adler was skep­ti­cal. She con­tacted Canada Post to check whether they were real; they weren’t. Fear­ing the worst, Adler painstak­ingly pored over all of Vak­ili’s trans­ac­tions and dis­cov­ered that she, her mother and the in­vestors they rep­re­sented had been hand­ing mil­lions over to a team of al­leged fraud­sters for years.

Marks was at her grand­son’s wed­ding when she got a call from her daugh­ter, who was hys­ter­i­cal. She said that they’d been the vic­tims of a mas­sive fraud, scammed by the like­able young lawyer they’d grown so fond of. “As she sat there with me in my kitchen, in my home, hav­ing tea or break­ing bread with my fam­ily,” Marks later ob­served, Vak­ili had been “rob­bing me of money that took years of hard work and sac­ri­fice.”

Adler called Vak­ili and ac­cused her of fraud. In turn, Vak­ili told Mis­saghi the news: their fi­nancier was on to them. Ac­cord­ing to Vak­ili, Mis­saghi drove to her of­fice. Wor­ried that the au­thor­i­ties might ar­rive at any mo­ment, he took Vak­ili to an empty condo on the water­front he had just pur­chased. He brought in chairs and a ta­ble and set up a com­mand post to fig­ure out what to do. Mis­saghi al­lowed Vak­ili to go home—oth­er­wise her hus­band would sus­pect some­thing was amiss—but he for­bade her from con­fid­ing in him or any­one else. He had a driver wait out­side her condo in the morn­ing to drive her back to the empty condo, then re­turn her home, some­times as late as 2 a.m. Even­tu­ally, af­ter days of plot­ting, Mis­saghi in­formed Vak­ili that she would have to leave the coun­try. It would just be for a few months, enough time for him to sit down with Marks and Adler, sort ev­ery­thing out and pay them back. Then she could re­turn to re­solve her is­sues with the Law So­ci­ety. Vak­ili re­fused to go—she promised that she’d talk to no one—and even of­fered to take the blame for ev­ery­thing, but Mis­saghi didn’t think she’d hold up un­der po­lice scru­tiny.

Then, early one morn­ing in March 2013, Mis­saghi handed her a plane ticket. He laid out a path de­signed to con­fuse po­lice: she’d fly from Mon­treal to Brus­sels, then take a train to Paris and await fur­ther in­struc­tions. He rushed her back to the condo she shared with Me­hdi and gave her 20 min­utes to gather her things. She ran in­side and wildly threw items into a suit­case—she later dis­cov­ered that she’d packed mostly purses and yoga pants—and then, though Mis­saghi had warned her not to, she scrawled two quick let­ters: one for Me­hdi, the other for her par­ents and brother. She apol­o­gized for leav­ing, said she’d be safe and asked them not to worry. She stuffed each into its own en­ve­lope and got back into the car.

She stayed in a ho­tel that night. In the morn­ing, Mis­saghi and Beiki picked her up and drove her to Mon­treal. At the air­port, once she’d re­ceived her board­ing pass, Mis­saghi and Beiki walked her to se­cu­rity. Mis­saghi bent for­ward, as though

mis­saghi pre­sented vak­ili with a plane ticket and mapped out a cir­cuitous jour­ney meant to con­fuse po­lice

he was about to kiss her on the cheeks. In­stead, he put his lips to her ear and whis­pered, “Get on the plane and don’t look back.”

Vak­ili had left not a mo­ment too soon. Adler went to the Law So­ci­ety with her ev­i­dence, and an in­ves­ti­ga­tor soon ar­rived at Vak­ili’s of­fice look­ing for her and found her files and com­puter miss­ing.

Vak­ili’s hus­band, Me­hdi, ar­rived soon af­ter, up­set and be­wil­dered. He had given his in-laws their let­ter the day af­ter her de­par­ture, and the fam­ily gath­ered at their home in North York. The Vak­ili men tend to­ward sto­icism, but Vak­ili’s mother, Nass­rine, was in tears. They knew their daugh­ter was stressed at work, but she’d put up such a good front that her good­bye notes were the first in­di­ca­tion that any­thing was se­ri­ously amiss.

A few days later, they got their first call: Vak­ili was in Europe, though she wouldn’t say where. She told them she was safe and that they shouldn’t worry. They quickly learned not to ask too many ques­tions: she was pro­vid­ing no an­swers. She wor­ried if they knew the truth, they would go to the po­lice and put them­selves in dan­ger.

Vak­ili spent three months in Paris, walk­ing to the point of ex­haus­tion—she didn’t have enough money to do any­thing else. Around the time that she ex­pected to re­turn home, Vak­ili says that Mis­saghi out­lined a pro­posal: he would give her $500,000 and find her a home and busi­ness in Brazil if she was willing to live un­der a new iden­tity. It would mean never re­turn­ing to Canada and main­tain­ing only lim­ited con­tact with fam­ily and friends. She was livid.

“You have no in­ten­tion of ever fix­ing this for me!” she said. But she was pow­er­less. She had left her credit cards with Mis­saghi so she couldn’t be tracked, and she had no money of her own. Mis­saghi told her he was work­ing on a plan.

Then, in June, Mis­saghi told her she would travel to the Turk­ish Repub­lic of North­ern Cyprus. The re­gion, a prod­uct of a Turk­ish in­va­sion of the is­land in 1974, is rec­og­nized by just one coun­try—Turkey—and is one of the most po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally iso­lated places in the world, sub­ject to trade sanc­tions and travel em­bar­goes. All flights out are Turkey bound. But fugi­tives there never worry about ex­tra­di­tion, and ex­pats tend not to ask one an­other too many ques­tions.

Set­tling in the small town of Kyre­nia, Vak­ili would find odd jobs but was of­ten alone and un­em­ployed. Mis­saghi would send a few hun­dred Eu­ros ev­ery few weeks, but it was barely enough to live on. Mean­while, she would check in with an as­so­ciate of Mis­saghi’s via text, as if to a pa­role of­fi­cer.

Vak­ili spent her days res­cu­ing stray cats and dogs, and they all slept to­gether in her tiny room in the Mediter­ranean heat, some­times shar­ing a can of tuna for din­ner. Sep­a­rated from her fam­ily, her ca­reer in tat­ters, lonely and ashamed of her ac­tions, she be­came de­spon­dent.

Nearly a year af­ter ar­riv­ing, she de­cided she’d had enough and, with money sent by Me­hdi and her par­ents, bought a ticket home. She even se­cured an ex­port doc­u­ment so that one of the dogs she was par­tic­u­larly fond of—a spaniel cross named Archie—could ac­com­pany her. But, she says, men ap­proached her, in­ti­mated that they worked for some­one she knew and sug­gested that she re­main in Cyprus. She can­celled her flight.

Back in Toronto, Vak­ili had left be­hind a tan­gle of civil suits and clients with ru­ined real es­tate in­vest­ments and lost life sav­ings. The Toronto po­lice in­ves­ti­gated but re­al­ized there was lit­tle they could do with­out Vak­ili. In­ter­pol is­sued a war­rant for her ar­rest. In 2014, her pass­port ex­pired and she knew, due to the out­stand­ing charges, that she wouldn’t be able to re­new it. The Law So­ci­ety re­moved her li­cence in ab­sen­tia in 2015.

As Vak­ili be­gan to meet peo­ple in the area, she adopted an alias, Chris­tine Lamb—in­spired by a lit­tle girl she had seen clutch­ing a stuffed lamb one day—so they wouldn’t dis­cover her past if they Googled her. She moved to a small vil­lage in the craggy hills south­west of Kyre­nia with her an­i­mals, which, at one point, in­cluded as many as 70 cats. Her home backed onto a sheep farm and reeked of ma­nure.

Though she had long in­sisted he not come, Vak­ili’s hus­band, Me­hdi, ar­rived for a visit. He was shocked by what he found: she had lost 80 pounds and gained new wrin­kles and threads of grey in her hair.

Fi­nally, in Novem­ber 2016, al­most four years af­ter board­ing the flight in Mon­treal, Vak­ili couldn’t take it any­more. With help from her fam­ily, she hired a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor in Canada and flew him to North­ern Cyprus. There, he in­ter­viewed her about the mort­gage frauds for 11 hours and pro­vided the recorded au­dio to Toronto po­lice.

It was just what in­ves­ti­ga­tors had been look­ing for, and the Toronto po­lice as­sisted Vak­ili with her re­turn. She ar­rived in Canada in March 2017. Po­lice met her at the air­port and, the next morn­ing, she walked hand­cuffed into court for her bail hear­ing. There, in the gallery, she saw her par­ents wait­ing for her.

Since then, Vak­ili has co­op­er­ated with in­ves­ti­ga­tors. Con­ve­niently for Mis­saghi and for Vak­ili, po­lice have been un­able to lo­cate any of her files or her work com­puter. Given the risk to her safety, she has re­mained in hid­ing— “a se­cret life,” in the words of a judge. She and Me­hdi had a baby boy late last year. Even­tu­ally, Vak­ili pleaded guilty to two charges: forgery re­lated to sev­eral of the real es­tate deals, and ob­struc­tion in re­la­tion to her tes­ti­mony at the land ti­tles hear­ing.

In Fe­bru­ary 2018, she ap­peared at Old City Hall for sen­tenc­ing, ac­com­pa­nied by her lawyer, Marie Henein (her

vak­ili set­tled iN North­erN cyprus, where she res­cued aN­i­mals iN dis­tress. some­times, they all shared a caN of tuNa for diN­Ner

par­ents helped cover the bills). Vak­ili was 37 years old. With her fa­ther and hus­band in the gallery, she stood be­fore the judge: “For my part in this and for the poor de­ci­sions I have made, I am sin­cerely sorry, and I don’t know”—and here, Vak­ili be­gan to cry—“that I will ever for­give my­self.” Dur­ing the hear­ing, her in­fant son’s cries oc­ca­sion­ally in­ter­rupted the pro­ceed­ings. The Crown was look­ing for jail time, but Henein ar­gued for le­niency. She as­serted that Vak­ili’s only fi­nan­cial stake in the op­er­a­tion had been her le­gal fees and that Mis­saghi wouldn’t even let her keep the en­tirety of those—claims backed by foren­sic ac­count­ing con­ducted at the be­hest of the po­lice. Over the course of two years, she made just $12,000 from the work she did for the group. The judge gave her a con­di­tional sen­tence of two years less a day, in­clud­ing eight months of house ar­rest.

Largely on the ba­sis of Vak­ili’s in­for­ma­tion, po­lice charged Mis­saghi and Er­lick with fraud, con­spir­acy to com­mit an in­dictable of­fence and be­ing ac­ces­sories af­ter the fact. Mis­saghi has also been charged with forgery, and Er­lick, with money laun­der­ing. Beiki—the pre­tend owner of 7 High Point—was charged with forgery. He claims that he is merely a vic­tim of Mis­saghi. All told, their fraud charges add up to an es­ti­mated $17 mil­lion re­lated to at least a dozen prop­er­ties.

Mem­bers of the Marks group have filed nu­mer­ous law­suits against Mis­saghi and his var­i­ous com­pa­nies, to which he has re­sponded by af­fi­davit, call­ing the al­le­ga­tions “false, mis­lead­ing and scan­dalous” and plac­ing the blame on Vak­ili: “If Ms. Vak­ili has com­mit­ted fraud on the scale al­leged by the Plain­tiffs,” then he and his co-de­fen­dants are “likely vic­tims as well.”

I asked re­peat­edly to speak to Mis­saghi and Er­lick so that they could both pro­vide their side of the story in more de­tail, but both de­clined, in­stead pro­vid­ing a gen­eral state­ment of in­no­cence through their lawyers. The case is ex­pected to go to trial within 18 months, and Vak­ili will tes­tify.

Vasken yeretsian, who spent years try­ing to build 7 High Point Road into a dream home for his fam­ily, was still mak­ing daily site vis­its to the prop­erty as re­cently as last year. Still stately and sprawl­ing from afar, the place is, on closer in­spec­tion, now a sham­bles—a hol­low husk.

One day early last year, on one of his vis­its, Vasken no­ticed that the lock had been re­moved from the gate and re­placed with an or­ange bungee cord. He saw Mis­saghi drive up to 7 High Point in his black Range Rover, then through the gates and onto the prop­erty. A tow truck fol­lowed. Mis­saghi got out of his car and wan­dered over to the four-door garage. He backed a gold Bent­ley out and had it towed away.

In June of this year, 7 High Point sold for $9.5 mil­lion. The le­git­i­mate first lender, a syn­di­cated group, got $3.4 mil­lion. The re­main­ing $4.3 mil­lion (af­ter taxes and fees) is be­ing fought over by Mis­saghi’s al­leged vic­tims—and there are many.

If sub­se­quent Law So­ci­ety ac­tions are any in­di­ca­tion, Mis­saghi is still ac­tive in the real es­tate game. In July 2016, Rasik Me­hta, a young lawyer whose prac­tice fo­cused on real es­tate, had his li­cence sus­pended pend­ing re­view over “the al­leged mis­man­age­ment of trust funds in what is de­scribed as a pos­si­ble Ponzi scheme.” The Law So­ci­ety panel made ref­er­ence to a client both Vak­ili and Me­hta shared, with the ini­tials “A.M.” ∫

Gol­naz Vak­ili (left) was an ea­ger young real es­tate lawyer. A few months af­ter pass­ing the bar, she met Arash Mis­saghi (right), whom she al­leges tricked her into sign­ing off on a se­ries of real es­tate scams

Arash Mis­saghi and Grant Er­lick (left) stand ac­cused of op­er­at­ing a $17-mil­lion fraud re­lated to a dozen prop­er­ties across the re­gion

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