Naturalised Vincentian, Britain-born Dave Ames, former chairman of Harlequin, the company that owned the former Buccament Bay Resort, has been sentenced to 12 years in jail in the United Kingdom for running what a judge described as a “gigantic Ponzi scheme”
Ames — who is wanted in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) on to tax evasion and theft charges – was sentenced to nine years for one count of fraud by abuse of position and three years for another count. The sentences will run consecutively.
Last months, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in the United Kingdom successfully prosecuted Ames, who was behind the fraud involving celebrity-endorsed luxury resorts in the Caribbean, including Buccament Bay Resort, in St. Vincent.
In handing down his sentence on Friday, the judge, Christopher Hehir, described Ames as a “slick salesman and thoroughly dishonest with it”
The judge said that Harlequin sales material was full of ambiguous, evidently false and misleading claims in his name”.
“The prosecution was careful not to use the word before the jury but the plain truth is that from January 2010 the operation was a gigantic Ponzi scheme and could only be keep going by attracting new investors and you knew they would almost inevitably lose everything.
“The jury heard evidence you told a lie in person to an investor that the money they paid you was ringfenced and this was entirely untrue as you acknowledged when you were interviewed by the Serious Fraud Office when you said the business model would not work if it was ringfenced.”
The judge said that Ames had no relevant experience entering the property business.
“You had sold garden furniture and double glazing and been in the loan business, but were twice declared bankrupt, a fact you did not readily declare to those whose money you were after.
“You said you were a visionary and an entrepreneur, but you were not, you were a slick and plausible salesman and thoroughly dishonest with it … You are a menace to anybody unfortunate enough to do business with you,” the judge further stated.
He noted that there were “real issues with land ownership at resorts”, adding that Ames “marketed and sold more units at Buccament Bay than the land could support and made sales of properties where there was no land at all”.
“It is greatly aggravated by the fact that you ignored repeated warnings from others that the business model was deeply flawed.”
The judge said that Ames ignored and dispensed with the services of those that gave it.
“…you are someone very keen to blame others for your own actions and misfortunes and sought throughout the trial to blame others, but the only person responsible for the massive fraud and massive losses caused and the fact you are sitting in the dock awaiting a significant sentence is you,” Hehir said.
“You involved celebrity endorsements and very lavish entertainment indeed and the generous levels of commission to agents played a part, but the fail of others to stop you cannot mitigate you culpability in the slightest.
“Most of the money went into the Harlequin black hole, but £6.1 million found its way to you and members of your family.”
In presenting its case, the FSO said that a jury at Southwark Crown Court found Ames, 70, guilty on two counts of fraud by abuse of position.
He offered no evidence in his defence and will be sentenced in September.
An SFO investigation uncovered how Ames deceived over 8,000 UK investors in the Harlequin Group, a hotel and resorts development venture. Victims were led to believe they had a secure investment in property whereas, in reality, Harlequin Group was never operating as promised, the press release said.
The business model relied upon investors paying a 30% deposit to purchase an unbuilt villa or hotel room, half of which went toward fees for Harlequin and relevant salespeople, while Harlequin put the remaining 15% toward construction.
Investors were fraudulently told that the building of the properties would be further funded by external financial backing.
With no additional source of funding, three properties needed to be purchased to finance just one of the luxury accommodation units.
This led to the exponential expansion of the scheme, the diversion of investor money between resorts and ultimately a funding shortfall of over 1.2 billion pounds by 2012 — seven years after Ames launched the scheme.
By this point, an expert accountant told Southwark Crown Court that investors were exposed to a near 100% risk of loss, which Ames did not contest.
The SFO investigation revealed that by the time it went into administration in 2013, Harlequin had sold around 9,000 property units to investors, with less than 200 ever actually being constructed.
Throughout the entire eight-year project, only 28 of over 8,000 investors ever completed on a purchase, leaving well over 99% with no return on their investment. The Harlequin Group ultimately lost a total of 398 million pounds of investor funds.
Several thousand victims lost pensions and life savings to the fraud, while Ames enriched himself and his family by 6.2 million pounds.
The Harlequin companies were family businesses, employing at certain times both David Ames’ wife and his son, who was paid 10,000 pounds per month.
Ames had been temporarily barred from serving as a company director due to a previous bankruptcy and therefore styled himself as the “Chairman of Harlequin”.
The SFO uncovered how he repeatedly ignored warnings that the business was likely insolvent, while concealing this reality and continuing to sell more units to investors.
Ames sacked associates who raised the alarm, and on one occasion told colleagues that concerned investors needed “to be put in their place” to avoid attracting “bad press”.
Ames made publicity a key priority, promising celebrity-sponsored tennis, golf and football academies with marketing videos in which he personally explains his vision for the resorts.
Predicting major tourism development opportunities, he even secured the endorsement of politicians in the region, including the Prime Ministers of Barbados, St Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Lisa Osofsky, director, Serious Fraud Office, said: “David Ames committed fraud on a huge scale, knowingly exposing thousands of UK investors to losses totalling hundreds of millions of pounds.
“Diligent SFO investigators reviewed millions of documents, traced over 8,000 investor deposits and called on more than 25 witnesses, to expose the full extent of Ames’ deception.”
In SVG, in June 2016, Ames fled the jurisdiction and returned to the UK after being summoned to court to answer to tax evasion and theft charges.
Ames is alleged to have either stolen, or evaded the payment of EC$8,282,792.28 representing monies owed to the government from value added tax and income tax receipts, as well as customs dues.
He fled SVG by boat two days after being summoned to appear in court in June.
The prosecution withdrew the charges in 2018, saying that was the better option than having them dismissed by the court.
Once a charge is withdrawn, the prosecution can lay them again in the future.
In 2020, the government acquired the former Buccament Bay Resort, which was closed in December 2016 and sold it, as well as additional surrounding lands t
Sandals Resort International for US$17.5 million (about EC$47 million).