A businessman who portrayed himself as a real estate expert and taught investment seminars in Southern California has until noon on May 13 to surrender his freedom following a conviction for running a Ponzi scheme that duped victims out of $3 million.
Onetime Orange County Sheriff’s Department reserve deputy, Shawn Watkins used his The Equity Growth Group and Investors Workshop Inc. to commit mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering from at least 2010 to 2013, according to federal prosecutors.
Watkins and co-conspirator Angel Bronsgeest of Lake Forest promised investors they would make legitimate profit-producing real estate deals but instead diverted victims’ money for their own use and maintained the mirage by partially repaying older investments with newer incoming funds.
Prosecutors say the scam robbed life savings from numerous individuals.
“You gave monthly speeches on how easy it was to not only make money but at the same time uplift the lives and living conditions of renters so they could become homeowners themselves one day,” one angry victim told U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney about his experience with Watkins. “You were regarded highly by your peers in real estate, giving many examples of your success and problems you overcame. You made sure we knew you had been a policeman, which gave you an air of respect and trustworthiness we are supposed to have for law officers. . . . You have taught me not to take people and situations at face value, no matter how good the snake oil looks.”
This month inside Orange County’s Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, probation department officials as well as U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors sought a punishment of 41 months instead of the potential maximum 20 years.
Watkins—who graduated from Orange High School in 1987 and is now a resident of Branson, Missouri—sought leniency, citing his poor health, dire living conditions and family commitments as a single father.
But Carney determined the crimes justified a federal prison sentence of 51 months.
Because of the plethora of ultra-rich residents here, Southern California is a target rich region for investment con artists who promise unrealistic rates of return.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; earned six dozen other reporting awards; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; featured in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.