After Claudia Nelson's mother and sister were murdered in 1990, she broke off her 32-year-long traditional Mormon marriage, something she said was "almost worse than the murders in a Mormon society." Nelson then embarked on a spiritual journey that took her to the jungles of Peru and the canyons of the Sierra Madres.
But tragedy struck again when Nelson and her second husband wound up in an international Ponzi scheme that depleted her retirement savings. Not one to give up, Nelson decided to take down her con-ers--Dennis Cope and his investment firm, the Millennium Group.
She waged an eight-year battle in her former home state of Arizona--with the help of the FBI and a "deep-throat" source--to put Cope behind bars, which finally happened in 2009. Nelson recently published Rising from Ashes: Discover your Hidden Power Through Adversity, which details her journey.
How did you first get involved with the Millennium Group?
Through a friend of my husband's who said that he had this fabulous business deal for us with this fabulous man who was just amazing.
That was through the Mormon church?
Yes, he had been a Mormon seminary teacher, and at the time, I was quite active in the church. I used to write lessons for the whole worldwide church at one time, so this was a big deal.
Did you have to pay money to join?
Yeah. It was $8,900 to become part of the group.
And that wasn't a red flag to begin with?
It's so interesting, people have asked me, "Did you have any red flags; did you have any idea?" The answer to that is, "yes and no." At an eagle level, no, because I wanted to see it one way; at a spiritual level, yes, I did because when I first heard him speak, I got an image of a riverboat gambler with his face with a mustache slipping a card up his sleeve. And do you know what I did? I said, "Oh, I must've got the wrong impression. A riverboat gambler can't do what he says he can do." And that's the way the mind works when you're vulnerable ... I was vulnerable because I thought, "Well, if I can just get this high interest that he promised us."
Which was how much?
It was 10 percent a month and then it kept changing ... I thought "then I can give my kids each $100,000 and maybe that will soften the blow of breaking up this Mormon family, this temple-marriage Mormon family."
How much money did you initially invest?
I initially invested $100,000, but guess what? I sold my gold at $200 an ounce and now gold is $1,788 an ounce, last time I checked. So although I put $100,000 into it, I actually lost about $800,000 because my gold was my retirement.
When did you start to realize that things weren't what had been promised?
It was real gradual. I kept kind of zeroing-in on him and asking questions of [Cope.] And finally I said to him ... "Denny, there's a problem here. I'm going to mobilize these people to do a big group prayer." ... He said, "Oh, that's wonderful," but then I never heard from him ... I called him and said, "Something's wrong here; I'm going to the Attorney General's Office and get us some help." He said, "Claudia, just give me six months to try to straighten this out, and if I can't, I'll go with you because I'm one of the biggest investors." Of course, after six months, I called him and he said he was going to be out of town. I said, "No way, Denny, I'm going without you." And that's when he said, "You can't do a thing to us; we have friends in high places." And that's when I knew for sure.
So, after this phone call in which he basically threatens you, what was your next step?
It made me mad. That's when I said, "Denny, you watch what can happen when a group of women get together." ... When I set my mind to something, I'm a bulldog. In fact, in my office I have this sign ... It's a stork swallowing a frog and the frog's got his hands around the stork's neck refusing to be swallowed ... I guess I've got myself programmed like that. I just couldn't give up; that's why the FBI couldn't even believe that I stuck with it for eight years.
What happened in those eight years? How did you gather information on what these people had been doing?
This is very interesting. I had a deep throat ... I had a person that had been pretty involved and knew the insides and outs ... I was given information from this person and then because my name was in the newspaper [in a 2005 article in Forbes], I was given information from the U.K., I was getting it from Japan ... I pretty much was the one that kept at it and held it together and got the information.
So, you got together with other people who had been defrauded and you all sent information directly to the FBI?
No, I became the contact person for the FBI and worked directly with them and they sent all the information from me. They check people out and they checked me out and found out the worst I've ever had is a parking ticket. Well, I've had speeding tickets, too. Quite a few. But it didn't damage my credibility with the FBI. They came to admire the fact that I knew as much as I did, and they told me they could've never solved the case without me.
What was the final kicker that got these guys put in prison?
[Cope] got involved in another Ponzi scheme while he was under indictment for this one. He talked to the prosecuting attorney--because he wasn't supposed to leave Arizona--he talked him into letting him go to California to help his son move, and they started another Ponzi scheme ... I called the attorney general and said, "Do you know about this?" They knew about it and didn't have him in jail. I said, "This man needs to be in jail." And they finally put him in jail after he'd been out for almost eight years.
When did he go to jail?
We got him actually sentenced in 2009, so it was just a few months before that.
How long is his sentence?
He got seven years, which is not very much.
How much were investors defrauded for?
The information I have from my deep-throat source is they probably got over $100 million internationally. In our group, there were probably 40 people, and if you have 10 groups of that, maybe 400 people?
Do you feel like the perception of white-collar crime has changed since the Bernie Madoff scandal broke?
Yeah ... few people knew about Ponzi schemes before Bernie Madoff ... But Ponzi schemes since then have gone up over 300 percent. In fact, one in 18 Americans was defrauded last year.
How has that experience changed you, and how has that manifested in your book?
What I recognized is that I used all of the tactics that I learned to pull myself out of the murders and the divorce [to] make myself healthy again. One of the reasons I could do what I did in this Ponzi scheme is because I knew the tools; I knew what to do. I would not let myself go into victim [mode]. I have a choice of whether I remain a victim of this or whether I become victorious over it. A lot of people don't realize when something like this happens that they actually have a choice.