Drink the good wine, sell the Louis Vuitton: Alleged Ponzi scheme mastermind told wife to hide assets, feds say

With his accounts frozen and luxury cars towed, Kevin B. Merrill allegedly planned to flash his wife instructions to hide his remaining treasures.

Instead, prison guards found the note hidden in the sock of the jailed Towson businessman.

“Have your dad take my golf clubs,” he allegedly wrote. “Hide cash or checks … drink good wine in sub zero’s, replace with sh-- wine in basement.”

Federal prosecutors revealed the note in criminal charges filed last month against Amanda Merrill, the 30-year-old wife of the millionaire. They charged her with conspiracy, obstruction, disobeying a court order and removing property to prevent its seizure. Her attorney has declined to comment.

Kevin Merrill was headed to a jailhouse visit with his wife when prison guards found the note, prosecutors say.

“F--- them. They have taken enough! Get stuff out,” he allegedly wrote.

The charges against Amanda Merrill bring the latest development in the case against her husband, the 53-year-old businessman who prosecutors say funded their lavish lifestyle with a $364 million Ponzi scheme.

He swindled hundreds of investors around the country, prosecutors say, including retirees, small-business owners, bankers, lawyers and doctors. U.S. Attorney Robert Hur called it one of the largest Ponzi schemes ever charged in Maryland.

Linda Wahlig, 66, a retiree in Monterey, Calif., said she lost $150,000 to Merrill. She had been saving the money to pay for her grandchildren’s college tuition.

“It’s not the end of the world, but it’s the end of a lot of dreams,” Wahlig said. “How many cars do you need?”

Merrill had a fleet of Rolls Royces, Ferraris and Lamborghinis, prosecutors say.

Federal agents arrested him in September and raided his $1.06 million home in Baltimore County. He and his business partner, Jay Ledford, 54, of Texas and Nevada, have been indicted on federal charges of wire fraud, identity theft and money laundering. Each man faces more than 200 years in prison if convicted.

Investors believed they were buying “consumer debt portfolios,” bundles of debt on student loans, credit cards and car loans. Instead, the businessmen were shifting money from new investors to old investors, prosecutors say, while skimming millions off the top.

Merrill spent his riches freely, buying a $950,000 Bugatti Veyron, one of the fastest cars in the world. Prosecutors say he spent $37,500 on designer watches and jewelry, $50,000 on private flights and $100,000 at Las Vegas casinos. They say he collected rare wine and decorated his mansion with art of the mustached Monopoly character Rich Uncle Pennybags.

A federal judge issued a restraining order barring him and Ledford from selling their sports cars, mansions and designer clothes.

Officials have filed documents with the courts that they intend to hire Sotheby’s International Realty to sell a dozen houses the men owned in Maryland, Florida, Texas and Nevada. Together, the homes are worth more than $20 million.

Authorities are also searching for a broker to sell off the fleet of 34 cars, motorcycles and boats that tops out with a $1.4 million Pagani Huayra.

Merrill and Ledford have pleaded not guilty. Their trials have not yet been scheduled.

Now prosecutors allege Kevin and Amanda Merrill tried to hide and sell his valuables, such as his Louis Vuitton belts, shoes and backpacks. He spent $800,000 on Louis Vuitton over five years, prosecutors say.

In October, Merrill allegedly phoned his wife from jail as she flew to their $10 million house in Naples, Fla. They spoke in code, prosecutors say, referring to the Florida mansion as the “restaurant.”

Officials recorded their jailhouse calls and say she traveled with her brother-in-law. They did not name her brother-in-law.

In Florida, Amanda Merrill tried to open a safe, prosecutors wrote. They wrote that husband and wife discussed the keypad code.

She flew back and checked two large suitcases, prosecutors say, paying extra for overweight baggage. Then agents raided her Towson home, finding about $15,000 in cash, prosecutors say. The agents flew to Florida and tried to open the safe.

“Agents were able to successfully gain access to the safe based upon the instructions Kevin provided Amanda,” prosecutors wrote.

The charging documents also mention a letter from Amanda Merrill’s attorney stating the two suitcases merely held children’s clothing and toiletries.

The agents continued to listen to Kevin Merrill’s phone calls from jail. In December, guards intercepted the note, prosecutors say. They wrote that Merrill met his wife “agitated and upset.”

Their conversation was quoted in the charging documents.

“They’re going to say I’m obstructing or some bull----,” he told her.

He allegedly told her the note had instructions to sell his golf clubs, drink the good wine and hide the art.

“I’m not going to do any of that,” she told him. “They’re listening to everything.”

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/tim_prudente

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