It was then, only seven months into the Ponzi operation, that the wheels began to fall off. Homepals was down to its last $400,000 — against $12 million still owed to investors. On the day after Christmas 2008, Bass sent letters to investment club presidents lamenting that "as a consequence of heavy losses suffered," the company would not be able to repay investors until the next March.

He was stalling, says "business manager" St. Fleur. "Nobody would show up at the office, and I'd call them, and they wouldn't pick up," he recalls. "It was like, What is going on? Investors were on my phone, calling me a crook."

In October 2009, Bass was hit with the felony charges related to conspiracy and money laundering. Free on $50,000 bond, he faces up to 75 years in prison if convicted — although his clean criminal record will likely inspire leniency. Muzio, who will be sentenced April 29, faces a maximum of 190 years in prison.

Haitian–American Abner Alabre hustled his own people.
Courtesy of Broward Sheriff's Office
Haitian–American Abner Alabre hustled his own people.

The sentences are of little solace to victims like St. Armand, who's not sure if his daughter, an aspiring lawyer who was accepted to both Harvard and Columbia universities, will be able to attend. "The financial-aid people don't take Ponzi losses into account," he says.

He'll likely never be paid back. "We are hopeful of some recovery," says Robert Levenson, an attorney representing the feds in a civil lawsuit against the group. "Unfortunately, by definition, Ponzi-scheme cases collapse because the enterprise runs out of money."

But a message board of victims at pinkinvesting.com betrays dogged hope. "I just want my money back and for this to be over," says a commenter named Paul, "as if it was just a bad dream."

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