Jeff Cassman’s two feet were planted, at 9:15 in the morning on Tuesday, Dec. 21, in the same place Ponzi schemers Michael J. Park and Gordon Grigg had stood before. To U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger, Cassman admitted — just as his forerunners had — that he defrauded people of their life savings for his own personal gain. Once a Franklin-based financial adviser and aspiring conservative politician who often touted “family values” in his pursuit of office, Cassman is now sitting in a federal holding facility in Kentucky and awaiting sentencing on March 28.
There has been a tidal wave of financial crimes in the past few years in Middle Tennessee. Joining the 34-year-old Cassman were Park and Grigg, both from Brentwood, as well as the late Barry Stokes of Dickson, Sheila Kennedy of Clarksville, William Walter Spencer of Franklin, and even more who were snared by the economic downturn and couldn’t keep up the lie when investors came for their money. The problem became so evident on the national level that the U.S. Department of Justice implemented what it called “Operation Broken Trust” to hunt down fraudulent financial advisers.
“Investment fraud continues to pose a significant threat to the economic stability of the U.S. economy,” said Jerry E. Martin, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. “The United States Attorney’s Office is committed to its responsibility to aggressively investigate and prosecute investment fraud and other significant financial crimes. To that end, we will continue to rely heavily on the strong relationships we have with both our law enforcement and regulatory agency partners.”
According to a federal indictment issued in February of last year — after which the FBI and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation joined the pursuit — between January 2003 and November 2005, Cassman defrauded a number of investors through a series of misrepresentations. He told them, among other things, that he would invest their money in tax liens and other types of investments, saying these were “guaranteed” or “foolproof,” according to the Dec. 5, 2008, indictment, and that investors would receive a high rate of return. But Cassman didn’t invest client funds in tax liens or anything else.
What makes Cassman’s story unique is that, unlike his counterparts, he didn’t stick around and wait for people with badges to knock on his door. For the last two years, he has been hiding in Antigua, Guatemala, using assumed names and living with his wife, Sara, and their 10 children.
Before he ran, Cassman had lived in Franklin basically since high school. He spent time in the Air Force, then returned to Middle Tennessee, where he ran for state House of Representatives twice — losing both races, the second to Rep. Glen Casada in a Republican primary.
Cassman was boastful, full of bravado. He fabricated grand stories of how he worked hard and graduated with a master’s degree in theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn. But that wasn’t true, Cassman admitted to Trauger when asked about his highest level of education. “College … and some graduate courses,” he told the judge.
There were a lot of lies in the various lives Cassman would lead.
How could a family that large disappear? The answer is simple: It’s easy to hide when no one is looking for you.
In 2008, when the Cassman family went missing, there was only one federal agent on the case. It wasn’t an agent from the FBI, SEC or treasury department. It was a member of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and he was about to be transferred out of the region. Over the past few years, postal agents have been integral parts of the teams that apprehended Ponzi schemers like Park, Grigg and Stokes, to name a few.
When Cassman landed on the agent’s radar, he was — and frankly still is — small potatoes in the eyes of most law enforcement. Compared with other fraudsters in Middle Tennessee, Cassman stole lunch money — defrauding more than 20 investors of some $1 million. He was wanted, but his capture was not a priority compared with those who’d been running multimillion-dollar scams.
Unlike the more sophisticated scams, Cassman stole from his family and people he went to church with who knew he had a large family. At places like St. Christopher’s Church in Dickson and Corpus Christi Chapel in Franklin, he preyed on people he thought would have sympathy for the fact of his many children.
After the initial postal agent assigned to find him was transferred out of the area, the Cassman file was handed off to another agent who was also inundated by the wave of fraud exposed by the economic downturn. Given the fact that the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is one of the smallest law enforcement agencies in the area, it is of no surprise that agents did not have the resources to devote to the fleeing Cassman.
After disappearing from Middle Tennessee, leaving behind at least two homes that had been foreclosed on before that was such a common occurrence, the Cassmans made their way west, first to Arizona, where they had briefly lived a few years before, then to Mexico, and finally to Antigua.
By this time, Jeff Cassman was using myriad assumed names. He came to be known as Mark Lassman, Mark Lessman, Mark Francis, Don Marco, and even used the name of popular Daily Show host Jon Stewart.
The fact that the name “Mark” was his most frequent choice of aliases is no surprise. Cassman’s younger brother is named Mark and currently does data entry work for a health care company in Cool Springs. Mark is also one of his brother’s most strident defenders.
When The City Paper’s sister publication, NashvillePost.com, broke the story of this saga in February 2010, Mark Cassman responded by emailing the reporter to say the stories were “malicious and misinformed,” and he demanded to know the origins of the reporting. He added, “The anonymous source you cite in your reports is laughable. Who is this person? What must I do to find this person’s name?”
Instead of revealing the source, of course, the reporter urged Mark Cassman to speak with federal law enforcement agents. Cassman said he had no interest in doing such a thing, adding that he was “only interested in this story because it publicly destroys [his] family name.” Without having been asked the question, Mark Cassman added, “I know nothing about Jeff’s whereabouts.”
Despite his protestations, The City Paper has since learned from sources both inside and outside the government that Mark did in fact have regular contact with his brother. Apparently, there are pretty good Internet connections in Antigua.
Antigua is a small and beautiful city located in the central highlands of Guatemala, the country that borders southern Mexico. It boasts a year-round average temperature in the 70s, making it a popular destination for American ex-pats. With a population of some 35,000, the city is full of churches, some ruined by previous earthquakes and eruptions, and bars that cater to gringos.
At the center of all this is Parque Central, a popular gathering place among the locals. For the last two years, more often than not, one person could reliably be found lingering in the park, taking advantage of the free wireless connection provided by the city: Jeff Cassman.
Cassman settled into the ex-pat community in Antigua, invariably saying his name was anything but his real one, and quickly became well-known there. He did that mostly through a website called GUateliving.com, which he created and billed as a guide for those seeking to move to or invest in Guatemala.
On GUateliving.com, Cassman posted daily observations about life, promoted business ideas, offered to have drinks with those looking to invest in the area, bragged about how he knew how to bypass or manipulate Guatemalan government officials, and appeared to generally take pleasure in goading readers into Internet fights. Using the nom de plume Don Marco, he quickly became a pariah to some and a mysterious friend to others.
In one post, Cassman seemed to present himself as a successful businessman, while in another, he belittled and berated citizens of his adopted home. This happened frequently. Ex-pats living in Antigua who met him there have told The City Paper that he would say little in detail about his past except to claim he was from Phoenix, where he worked as an investment banker and had cashed out because he saw the current economic crisis coming.
Using the website, Cassman attempted to lure potential investors to business concepts of his. For example, he writes in one post: “I’m inching closer to our first ‘Green in Guate’ program. We’re going to manufacture specially designed low wind vertical axis wind turbines. I have the technical specs, the skilled labor and the equipment.
“This design is intended to generate electricity at relatively low speeds. It’s not your typical huge propeller-style wind project. These babies will work in a residential setting, and the data I’m getting from outside advisers suggest they could be perfect for Guate.
“So … if you’re interested in following the details, please email me with ‘Green in Guate’ in the subject line. I’ll post occasionally here on the project but don’t plan on putting all the details here. And, I’m not sure whether there will be a business opportunity with this or whether it will end up being a nonprofit endeavor, but I’ll let you know when I have a better grip on the financials and the market.
“If nothing else I plan on getting a check from Electrica Empresa [the local power company] instead of the other way around …”.
Wind power wasn’t the only thing he was hawking.
“I began to look at maps to see if I could identify river systems in close proximity to electrical lines, on the premise that the electric company would be happy to buy power from me, especially if I hired a [local] to be the front man for my company. Through a series of meetings in the park, hushed conversations in Zone 1 [a section of Antigua], and at least three bizarre meetings in a compound outside of Antigua, I came to know an engineer who works for the government and has managed to ‘acquire’ the rights to, well, any river in the country as long as certain licenses were ‘acquired.’
“There was one river in particular he was particularly fond of based on his flow analysis, and had been bugging me to visit for some time. We had already brainstormed the concept, and he was happy to know that should anything come of this, I would pay all the expenses and take all the risks and he would get a commission each month from whatever we sold to the ‘electric company.’ ”
In another post, Cassman recreates a conversation with a local he claims suspects him of being an agent of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. Cassman brags that people suspect this of him because of a disturbance that occurred at a bar while he was playing a game of chess.
“I was minding my business, enjoying the benefits of my Que Pasa VIP card [a discount card for area bars that was advertised on his website] and a chess game, when all of a sudden these Antiguenos who were stoned and drunk started hassling these ladies at the bar, and more importantly, breaking my concentration. So the owner of the bar tried to throw them out, but the guys were a little more than what he could handle. I just waited for the right minute, put a full nelson on the big one and took his legs out from under him. There was a sickening thud as he kissed the floor and was immediately very compliant.”
According to Cassman, the “old guy” he was talking to said, “I guess that’s nothing for you Mossad guys.” To which he replied, “Yeah, well, he was seriously built, but I had 30 pounds and surprise on my side. It kind of put a damper on the evening … blood does that.”
While Cassman was cataloguing his adventures online, his wife and kids were living in a squalid home where the children slept on tile floors. In 2009, his wife gave birth to their 10th child (she is currently expecting their 11th). In a letter to his in-laws, which they shared with The City Paper, Cassman’s children wrote that his then-14-year-old son delivered the baby and that Cassman couldn’t be reached because he was in church.
Cassman was actually at a bar smoking cigars, drinking and playing chess, his main activities most days. Writing about his children on GUateliving.com: “Our kids go outside only under our supervision, during the morning hours when local kids are most likely to be in school, with a guard dog we don’t feed until after play time, and we always have one person scanning the surrounding area for threats.”
While Cassman tried to put on the front that he was a devoted father, others have a different opinion. NashvillePost.com first reported in February 2010 that a friend of the family had witnessed Cassman punishing his son by pouring hot sauce down his throat after a disagreement. The person who saw that incident confirmed it to The City Paper, calling Cassman a “psychopath.”
While much content and commentary from GUateliving.com has been deleted since Cassman’s arrest, in the days after he was apprehended, commenters on his website ranged from bewildered to betrayed. One man said he wasn’t surprised. “I watched him try to juggle, in his words, ‘three bitches’ from his iPhone during a poker game. A poker game, I might add, that had a 200Q [approximately $25] buy in and re-buy, yet ‘Mark’ deemed it necessary to put 20K [approximately $2,500] on the table. This before he took another call from one of his ‘bitches’ (not his wife) and was deemed persona non grata at our table and locked out for the night.”
Still, Cassman spent most of his days at the computer, offering to perform “due diligence” for potential investors, luring them to put money in windmills or riverfront properties, or perhaps advertising on his website. He even rented out rooms in houses that he told tourists he owned, houses where renters said they would see Cassman regularly sleeping on the couch instead of being at home. They didn’t find out until after he was arrested that he didn’t own the homes whose rooms he was renting, according to an American businesswoman who is starting a “fair-trade fashion business” in Guatemala.
Guatemalan police arrested Cassman at Parque Central on Oct. 5, and he was deported to Tennessee to face trial two weeks later. In the days after his arrest, word trickled back to his extended family in Nashville that a pair of impromptu street parties broke out in Antigua in celebration of the local authorities’ big capture.
It’s unclear now what kind of penalty Cassman will face. The maximum for mail fraud is 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. For securities fraud, it’s 20 years in prison and a $5 million fine.
In a time of heightened awareness of financial crimes, judges seem to have developed a certain assertiveness in sentencing. Gordon Grigg will spend the next decade behind bars. Michael Park begins an eight-year sentence in the next few weeks. In November, Shelia Kennedy was sentenced to more than 11 years. And in August, William Walter Spencer racked up a six-and-half-year sentence. Right about the time Spencer was being sentenced, Barry Stokes, barely a year into his 12-and-half-year sentence, died of an undisclosed disease at a federal prison in North Carolina.
Cassman, whose family has returned to Tennessee, is not likely to face the same amount of time behind bars as those fraudsters. But given his history and escape to Guatemala, it is also unlikely he would be placed into the kind of minimum-security facility to which other white-collar criminals might ultimately spend retirement.