An investment adviser charged with orchestrating a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme spent nearly three-quarters of a million dollars on prayers by Hindu priests in India to ward off a federal investigation and save her failing business, according to testimony at her trial this week.
Using investors’ money, Dawn Bennett paid a man in Washington state about US$720,000 between 2015 and last year to arrange for the priests to perform religious ceremonies meant to ease her troubles, a US Department of Justice prosecutor and the man Bennett paid said.
For one of these yagya rituals, Bennett spent US$7,250 for five priests to pray for her across 29 consecutive days.
“I am in a very very tough fight going against my enemies and I need all the help I can get,” Bennett wrote in an e-mail to Puja.net Web site operator Benjamin Collins.
Six-figure payments for prayers did not spare Bennett from a 17-count indictment on fraud charges. Neither did the hoodoo spells that investigators suspected her of casting to stymie federal investigators, a claim fueled by a peculiar discovery during an FBI search of her home.
Collins, a government witness at Bennett’s trial, on Tuesday testified that he sincerely believed the religious rituals would help Bennett, whose payments accounted for about half of his Web site’s income.
“We don’t necessarily pray with a guaranteed outcome,” he added.
Bennett, 56, raised more than US$20 million from at least 46 investors in her luxury sportswear company, often preying on elderly clients who knew her from a radio show she hosted in the Washington DC area, authorities have said.
They said she used investors’ money for her personal benefit, including jewelry purchases, cosmetic medical procedures and a US$500,000 annual lease for a luxury suite at the Dallas Cowboys’ home stadium.
One of her trial lawyers, Dennis Boyle, said Bennett invested US$13 million of her own money into the fledgling apparel business, selling assets and mortgaging homes to generate cash.
“She clearly believes that this is a legitimate company,” he said. “It catered to only the most discerning people.”
However, her apparel business, DJBennett, never made a profit and had at least US$15.6 million in liabilities and only US$550,000 in revenue by December 2016, according to a complaint filed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
The indictment says she also used money from some investors to pay others, but many lost everything they paid Bennett.
Joan Barney, a retired travel agent whose husband has Parkinson’s disease and dementia, said she invested a total of US$200,000 in Bennett’s business.
Barney on Wednesday said that she had known Bennett for more than 25 years and believed her promise that she could get her money back, plus 15 percent interest, whenever she needed it.
She said Bennett sent her a business plan that purportedly showed the company was profitable.
“I trusted Dawn,” said Barney, who added that Bennett “knew that this was the only money that I had to care for my husband and his illness.”
Barney received a US$37,500 return on her investment, but lost the rest.
Another investor, Diane Keefe, fought back tears when she testified that she has not recovered any of the US$816,805 she paid Bennett.
The FBI’s investigation of Bennett began in December 2015 after the SEC formally accused her of defrauding investors by inflating the amount of assets she managed and exaggerating the returns on her customers’ investments.
When FBI agents last year searched Bennett’s home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, they found instructions for placing people under a “Beef Tongue Shut Up Hoodoo Spell” and biographical information for at least three government attorneys working on the SEC investigation of Bennett, according to an agent’s affidavit.
FBI agents also found the initials of SEC attorneys written on the lids of Mason jars stored in Bennett’s freezers, suggesting she had cast spells in hopes of “paranormally silencing” the SEC attorneys, the agent wrote.
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