You can't go far in Crescentwood without seeing the colourful and modern work of the late architect Ernie Walter. He and his companies say they've developed $2 billion in real estate, including condos, houses and commercial buildings over several decades.
"I think Ernie was an individual that was larger than life. Very flamboyant, very creative and boisterous," said Brian Wall, a former colleague.
What many Winnipeggers didn't know was that Walter had been in trouble with American authorities and faced mounting court actions over condominium developments in Belize.
The Colorado Securities Commission ordered him to stop selling investment condos in its jurisdiction in May 2009. The commission said Walter and his staff were in violation of state securities laws, as they were trading securities without being registered to do so and advertising investments in a newspaper.
The advertisement ran on Jan. 11, 2009, in the Denver Post and was calling on investors: "Retire Smart — Purchase a sea front Caribbean lot, San Pedro Belize for $40,000 USD and earn rental income over $32,000 USD over next 5 years or swap it for a $500,000 condo and own clear title in 10 years from the rental income," it read.
In a sting operation, a Colorado investigator communicated with a member of Walter's sales team over several months, posing as a prospective investor. The investigator was reportedly promised returns of 16 per cent over five years and offered $2,000 for bringing in other investors.
The investigator was told that the team was also advertising in Miami and Houston and that the funds of nine investors would be pooled to fund land development and construction in Belize.
Ernie Walter was on his way to Belize when he died on Dec. 20, 2013, in a Texas hospital. The coroner's report says the cause of death was a heart condition.
Court records paint the picture of a man who left behind no investments, no will and no life insurance policy. Walter reportedly owned a mere $10,000 in assets at the age of 71 and left behind nearly $300,000 in unsettled debts.
One of the most intriguing things left unsettled is a dispute over a $5-million plot of land in Belize.
"The property in Belize is only a potential asset of the estate," his son, Yaron Walter, told a Winnipeg probate court.
"I do not believe that funds will be available to pursue the litigation in Belize to establish ownership of the Belize property in the name of the deceased."
'Everybody is going to be rich'
Winnipeg architectural technologist Brian Wall shared office space with Ernie Walter on Corydon Avenue between 2006 and 2007. In an interview with the CBC News I-Team, he said Walter and his ex-wife, Margaret Ireland, were focused on promoting condo developments in Belize during that time.
"The phone was ringing constantly with people inquiring about it, contracts were being written. I don't think a week went by where somebody wasn't coming into the office and going into the meeting rooms to talk about Belize," said Wall.
Wall's services would have cost Walter $120,000, the courts later determined.
"It was 'everybody is going to be rich' as a result of the projects that will happen in Belize, and I would see sketches and drawings — just hand drawings — and wild paper napkin sketches of concepts. And the way I'm trained, I see that thing and I automatically think I can turn that into a reality," Wall said.
Promotional materials filed in court show investors were being offered a "guaranteed return" on their condo investment. They state Margaret Ireland's company, Elite Properties Ltd., "has, to date, completed over $18,000,000 in condominium pre-sales."
The documents state that Walter International Inc. and its president, Yaron Walter, would oversee the projects.
In an email, Yaron Walter disputes the claims on the page, which he says was extracted from a marketing brochure and "is not a legal document." He adds that he was not a decision-maker on the Belize project.
In December 2006, Wall and his family made their way to Belize to see his drawings come to life. Instead, he discovered something shocking.
"Nothing had been done," he said. "It was bare land. I knew at that point that things had gone sideways…. You realize there's a possibility that there might be some fraud involved."
Wall photographed the land that was supposed to be developed. He said a majority was swampland with mangrove trees, meaning the ocean floor would have to be dredged to fill it in.
Wall said when he returned to Winnipeg, he confronted Ernie Walter.
"I asked some very simple questions — what is happening with the work that I've performed?" said Wall. "I wanted to know why that work hadn't started."
Wall said he and his staff were kicked out of the shared office space.
"I was told to get out. And departing words from Ernie, when I was leaving and speaking to my employees saying, 'Pack up your computers, we need to leave now,' was, 'I could have made you so rich'. That, those were the last words I heard from Ernie," Wall said.
Investors raised concerns
Investors were raising their own concerns about the condominiums Walter and his team were promoting.
In 2007, a Winnipeg court decided that Ernie Walter violated his agreement with a Winnipeg couple that invested more than $50,000 in a condo development called Casa Corbu in Belize.
The couple wanted out of the deal after visiting Belize and discovering little in the way of construction on the land.
William McGirr, another investor from Winnipeg, is currently looking for a resolution in his court case against Ernie Walter, which was ongoing when Walter died.
In court documents, McGirr says he paid Walter a $56,000 deposit for a condo unit in "The Village of Canals." McGirr later discovered the condo had not been built and that Walter began demanding more money from McGirr to cover court costs in a dispute over the land in Belize.
If the money Walter and his colleagues were collecting from investors was not used to construct condominiums, that has left Wall with questions.
"Where did the money go? I'm convinced it's in a personal account somewhere that can't be traced," he said.
"It's obviously not in Winnipeg, or we would have found it. It's not in his company because the law said he had to disclose everything that he had so that I could be paid from this judgment."
Since he never obtained condos in exchange for his work, Wall was awarded $120,000 by the court for the work he did drawing condominiums that were never built by Walter.
Wall said the courts were unable to enforce the judgment, so he never recovered the money.
"It was a great lesson. Really," he said. "I mean, it cost me a lot of money. But it was a great lesson."
CBC News tried to arrange interviews with Yaron Walter and Margaret Ireland without success.
In an email, Yaron Walter said his father headed up the project in Belize. He is now involved as the executor of his father's estate, he added.
"Please do understand that I have never been in a decision making position for this project, and have only 'inherited' this mess due to my father's unexpected passing," Yaron Walter wrote.
"My father was an honest man who is only guilty of being a visionary and often saw the world through rose colored glasses."
Walter's connection to Tradex Ponzi scheme
- Walter said his team in Winnipeg had a partner in the Belize condo developments. Walter later discovered the partner and his company “received their funds from a Ponzi scheme” called Tradex and “tried to duck” obligations to investors.
- Tradex purported to offer clients investment in foreign currency. It was owned and operated by Arthur Allen Ferdig between 1995 and 2003, when investment dollars went missing.
- The FBI investigated the scheme, which cost U.S. and Canadian investors $120 million to $150 million. Ferdig, a U.S. citizen, was indicted in the United States for tax evasion in 2009 after the investigation revealed he had been arranging for Tradex funds to be wire transferred into bank accounts he controlled, including overseas shell companies.
- The liquidator of Tradex, PricewaterhouseCoopers, has launched a legal action in Belize in order to recover funds it believes were invested in land there.
- Court documents show that Walter sent an email to one of his investors, William McGirr, in 2010 stating that due to the partner’s activities, a court dispute over the land in Belize would require McGirr and others to "anti-up" [sic] thousands in legal funds.
- According to litigators involved in the court battle, the land in the dispute remains largely undeveloped.
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