For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (2022)

For years, Bruce Smith happily invested in what seemed a wise and lucrative business opportunity. But when a friend finally warned him the venture was likely bogus, it was too late. He and his wife had already parted with a half-million dollars.

That the couple had been conned was troubling enough, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The person who had swindled them for almost eight years, the woman who would eventually be sent to prison for her crimes, had been a friend for more than 30 years — Gina Champion-Cain.

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They had bought a second home together in Palm Springs, regularly dined out with Champion-Cain and her husband Steve, whom Smith had known going back to their days playing in an amateur hockey team together. This was the woman who would affectionately tell “Brucie” that he was like a brother.

“I don’t think I hate her,” said Smith’s wife, Kathy, “but if she were standing in front of me, I might take a swing at her.”

One by one, Champion-Cain had reached out to — and eventually betrayed — close, dear friends in the early stages of what evolved into an elaborate, nearly eight-year-long Ponzi scheme that ensnared more than 400 investors and reeled in close to $400 million, federal prosecutors said.

Retirees, well-heeled investors, financiers, even a Texas hedge fund and an Orange County bank, were lured in by the prospect of double-digit returns.

Former federal prosecutor Drew Galvin, who worked on the criminal probe of Champion-Cain that ultimately led to her 15-year prison sentence for conspiracy, securities fraud and obstruction of justice, is still confounded by the level of personal betrayal.

“Many schemes start out as legitimate investment opportunities and morph over time into fraud,” said Galvin, now in private practice. “Champion-Cain’s scheme was so brazen because it was a fraud from day one ... And she didn’t just target investment funds, she targeted lifelong friends. That takes a special level of deceit and callousness.”

Smith, who up until a few years ago owned a financial investment firm, had few qualms when Champion-Cain first pitched him this idea she’d conceived of: loaning money at high-interest rates to cash-strapped restaurant and bar owners hoping to purchase pricey liquor licenses from the state.

The promise of high-interest rates was seductive, and it seemed a safe bet, the Smiths thought. After all, Champion-Cain was this widely known, well-connected San Diego businesswoman, who, by her own telling, wooed the House of Blues years earlier to a still-gentrifying downtown. Now a budding restaurateur herself with an impressive array of civic accolades, she’d enticed a major insurance company, Chicago Title, to safely secure investors’ money in her new lending venture.

By 2019, Smith’s friend, the one who would eventually caution him, mentioned a friend of his who had done a little digging before investing himself and came away with some troubling information.

“Gina would give us this list of all these liquor stores or bars that supposedly would be an investment,” Smith said. “Well, this guy called these places and he couldn’t find anybody who had one of those liquor license loans; guys were saying, ‘I’ve been in business for 20 years, I’ve had a liquor license forever, I didn’t borrow any money.’”

A couple of weeks later, Smith received a call no investor ever wants to get. It was the Securities and Exchange Commission. Could they talk?

Come August of 2019, news broke that the SEC was accusing Champion-Cain of orchestrating the single largest Ponzi scheme in San Diego history.

Maybe it was Champion-Cain’s charm and standing in the business community that beguiled so many, with seemingly little scrutiny, for so many years.

In retrospect, Smith conceded, there may have been warning signs he missed along the way. Bottom line, he said, Champion-Cain was persuasive without being overly pushy, and people were loath to be left out.

A perfect example was another friend of his — a wealthy developer — who was so impressed with the performance of the Smiths’ investment that he wanted to learn more. They all met for lunch at Champion-Cain’s restaurant at the beach, where she convincingly outlined the particulars of the loan program.

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (1)

Patio on Lamont in Pacific Beach, Champion-Cain’s first restaurant.

(Courtesy of Location Matters)

“She had all the right answers, the right presentation, which I’m sure she thought about ahead of time,” he recalled. “And this is a very sophisticated guy. He’s built hundreds of houses. And he wrote her a big check there.”

‘I felt hurt, so very, very angry’

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In the three years since Champion-Cain’s massive fraud was uncovered, most of her victims have recovered a substantial chunk of their losses in out-of-court settlements with Chicago Title, which has never admitted liability. It’s so far paid out more than $160 million and is poised to pay $24 million more as part of a proposed settlement with the last remaining victims.

Still, the sting of betrayal lingers.

For Jane Gilbert, the financial nightmare began innocently enough a decade ago when Champion-Cain came to the University Heights home Gilbert shares with her wife for some homemade appetizers, wine and a low-key sales pitch.

Champion-Cain had just opened her first restaurant in the fall of 2012 and all of a sudden was navigating an industry that was entirely new to her. She’d begun her career in the world of development and real estate, going back to the early 1990s, but never really intended to become a restaurateur.

By some accounts, it was her move into the hospitality industry that set her on a path to defrauding so many.

In 2011 — the same year that she would solicit the first investment for her phony lending scheme — Champion-Cain had come across a piece of property for sale in Pacific Beach where the old Lamont Street Grill, which had been operating for 26 years, was closing. Her plan was to raze the two-story building, which also included a couple of apartments, and develop in its place a mixed-use project.

The community was so distressed about the prospect of losing its beloved neighborhood eatery that Champion-Cain reversed course and created the Patio on Lamont, a project that she said cost her $2.3 million, including the land.

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (2)

Patio on Lamont, now closed, opened in 2013.

(Peggy Peattie/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As a new restaurant owner, Champion-Cain had learned all about what it takes to get a liquor license, she told Gilbert and her wife. To secure a license, applicants need to place in escrow a sum of money equal to the cost of their license while they await the outcome of their application. That can sometimes amount to tens of thousands of dollars, if not more.

But not all aspiring restaurant and bar owners have that kind of cash on hand, Champion-Cain explained, so she came up with this money-making idea to loan applicants the funds they needed at relatively high rates of interest.

Once their licenses were approved by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the applicants would repay their loans, with interest, a share of which would go to Champion-Cain’s investors. Adding legitimacy to the scheme was the use of Chicago Title to ensure separate, protected accounts for each license loan that was made.

“After she left, my wife and I talked and said, what is this, does it seem too good to be true?” recalled Gilbert, who years earlier had roomed with Champion-Cain when they attended law school in San Diego in the late 1980s and had attended Chargers and Padres games with her. “We had asked a ton of questions and Gina answered every one of them. I thought, Gina’s trying to raise money, help some of her friends, and she made it sound like she was only asking people she cares about who had a little bit of money.

“Ultimately we trusted her. Within a month, we did it and got the promissory note and all these documents that she did to make it look legit. Nine months later, she’d say the license cleared, you made X amount of dollars, and what do you want to do? And we’d just say roll it over, and it made it seem like you were making tons of money.”

By 2019, when the SEC made its stunning announcement, the couple was horrified. Gone in an instant was a sizable chunk of their retirement savings.

“I felt so betrayed, so hurt, so, very, very angry,” Gilbert said. “It never crossed our minds that this was a scam.”

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (3)

What Gilbert and hundreds of others never knew was that the lists of liquor license applicants that many of them had seen were phony. They were compiled from names on the ABC’s website and were largely individuals and entities who had canceled or expired licenses. None had sought loans from Champion-Cain or her company, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego.

In fact, not a single liquor license loan was ever made. And long gone was more than $180 million of the nearly $400 million that investors had entrusted to Champion-Cain.

“All I ever wanted was to take care of people. To be ‘Mama Gina.’”

Over the course of nearly eight years, the millions of dollars flowing into Champion-Cain’s lending scheme clearly enriched her and her company, American National Investments.

Federal prosecutors, who described her lifestyle as “lavish,” said she paid herself more than $2 million in salary between 2012 and 2019 with investor funds and used $745,000 to pay off her credit card bills. She also spent $840,000 on box seats at Padres and Chargers games, bought a $21,850 golf cart, made $20,000 in donations for a university she attended, and spent thousands on Tiffany jewelry, documented the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (4)

Rancho Mirage estate purchased with Ponzi scheme funds

(Courtesy of Paula LaBellarti, Keller Williams)

And just months before federal authorities busted her scheme, Champion-Cain, through her company, paid more than $3 million for a sprawling six-bedroom home in Rancho Mirage that featured an infinity pool, waterfall and koi pond, wine room and full gym.

Bound up in the narrative of the classic con artist is the question of what could possibly drive someone to defraud so many. Champion-Cain, who never went to trial — she instead pleaded guilty to her securities fraud crimes — seemed to puzzle over the same question in a pre-sentencing statement she made to a federal probation officer. She has declined multiple interview requests from the Union-Tribune.

“Ever since I was a little girl my Mom has told me that all I ever wanted was to take care of people. To be ‘Mama Gina,’ to make a real difference in people’s lives,” she said at the time. “And now, things are different.”

Chicago Title attorney Steven Goldfarb tried to tease out the answer in a sometimes snarky exchange with Champion-Cain during a deposition early this year.

“You didn’t just like wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to create a fraudulent Ponzi scheme and take millions of dollars from investors by defrauding them,’ did you?” he asked. ... “Did you go get a copy of a book like ‘Ponzi Schemes for Dummies 2.0,’ something like that?”

“No,” she answered. “And the ironic thing is I was actually a victim of a Ponzi scheme, so I know Ponzi schemes never work.”

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (5)

To successfully pull off a financial fraud at the scale of what Champion-Cain engineered requires certain personality traits — charisma, intelligence, eloquence, says Los Angeles attorney Kathy Bazoian Phelps, who authored the book “The Ponzi Book: A Legal Resource for Unraveling Ponzi Schemes.”

Oftentimes, the motivation can be a series of bad business decisions, she said. In Champion-Cain’s case, extravagant acquisitions seemed secondary to buoying the ANI empire. There were no yachts or private jets, no pieds-à-terre in the south of France. Instead, over nearly eight years, she withdrew at least $60 million of her victims’ money to prop up her legitimate businesses, many of which were failing.

“The skill of deception is well-honed, and a lack of empathy can leave them guilt-free in stealing from their family and friends,” Phelps said. “For a Ponzi schemer, appearance is everything, and to entice investors, they mastermind a very successful image.”

A restaurant empire is born

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (6)

The former Patio on Lamont restaurant

(Courtesy of Location Matters)

Maybe it was her outsized ambitions to become so wildly successful she could one day take her restaurant portfolio public that stoked Champion-Cain’s criminal detour.

Her first venture — Patio on Lamont — was in Pacific Beach, which had never been a neighborhood known for haute cuisine. By the time it opened in late 2012, with its casual yet elevated menu, chandelier-accented loft, and a patio bedecked with a living wall of lush plants, it was instantly popular, filling up most nights.

Bitten by the restaurant bug, Champion-Cain swiftly opened her second eatery in Mission Hills two years later, gussying up the space with two more living walls and a humidity-controlled “cave” for aging cheese — including a cow’s milk blue that had been aged for a year in an abandoned gold mine shaft in the Sierra Nevada.

Jack McGrory, a former San Diego city manager and successful real estate investor, actually made a handsome profit from Champion-Cain’s initial foray into restaurants. But he wasn’t won over by her years earlier when she sought him out as she was trying to make a name for herself in downtown redevelopment in the late 1990s. They traipsed through the dilapidated, debris-strewn California Theatre building that she was trying to buy and then restore. After that, they stopped off at the F Street Bookstore, which she offered up as another potential acquisition for redevelopment.

The theater project never came to pass.

“I thought, wow, why would you want to go into the California Theatre project, this is way beyond anything we would do and we were a shopping center REIT, " recalled McGrory, who at the time was CEO of Price Enterprises, founded by warehouse retail magnate Sol Price. “She was just trying to be a player down there and after one day of looking down there, I wasn’t interested.”

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (7)

The California Theatre building on the corner of 4th Avenue and C Street in downtown San Diego remains closed and boarded up.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

But more than a decade later, he would reunite with Champion-Cain, this time as head of an investor group that raised about $500,000 to help cover her cost of transforming the Lamont Street Grill into the Patio on Lamont. He couldn’t care less about Champion-Cain’s vaunted reputation. He had looked at the numbers and the investment made sense.

Two years later, he and his fellow investors would make a 30 percent return on their money and were out of the deal.

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (8)

Gina Champion-Cain, at her now closed Patio on Goldfinch in Mission Hills

(John Gastaldo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

He would also invest in the Patio on Goldfinch in Mission Hills, which opened in 2014, but there were no grand profits this time. After reviewing monthly loss reports for a year, McGrory wanted out, and Champion-Cain obliged, repaying him and his investor group, plus a small return, he said.

Undaunted, she hurtled forward. A tireless Champion-Cain was pursuing commercial and residential development deals beyond San Diego while also broadening her hospitality holdings. There were spinoff casual concepts, pizzerias, women’s beach apparel, and she even ventured into short-term vacation rentals.

But the rapid expansion was becoming a drain on the Champion-Cain enterprise, and the money she was taking in from the liquor license scam became increasingly crucial. Forensic accounting by a receiver appointed in 2019 after the Ponzi scheme was uncovered is especially telling.

In every year from 2011 through 2018, according to a court filing from the receiver, Krista Freitag, Champion-Cain’s businesses lost money, but those losses were covered up through the money she was raising from duped investors. For example, in 2014, investors gave her $9.5 million. That year ANI had a net loss of $8.6 million.

Just a couple of years later, the stakes had become much higher. More than $30 million was taken in by the scheme in 2016 — just a tad more than the $29.2 million in losses from her legitimate businesses.

Yet Champion-Cain’s ascent in San Diego’s business community seemed unstoppable.

She was a longstanding member of an advisory board for the Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate at the University of San Diego, and in 2014, she joined a group of esteemed business experts who participated in the Union-Tribune’s weekly “EconoMeter” discussions. In 2017, she was one of the principal speakers at the yearly San Diego County Economic Roundtable, co-sponsored by USD’s business school.

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (9)

And that same year, she was among 50 people who contributed money to start Endeavor bank in San Diego. Later, when the bank began operating, she became a director, said bank CEO Dan Yates.

She assumed the role only after an extensive background check was done by federal officials, Yates noted. That includes an FBI background check and a review by federal banking regulators, which requires disclosing all businesses that one is associated with, as well as detailed disclosures of assets and liabilities.

In retrospect, Yates is amazed by the hubris of Champion-Cain, who, in the peak years of her scheme, went ahead with the review.

“It’s pretty brazen to reveal yourself to the federal government knowing how extensive their checks are and knowing it was a house of cards,” he said. “Not many people would take that chance.”

Brian LaGrange, a hospitality industry veteran, witnessed firsthand the slow burn of Champion-Cain’s empire. But when he first arrived at ANI in 2015, he was still captivated by the ambitions of his new boss.

He was quickly put in charge of all “the problem children,” as he puts it, among them a growing portfolio of short-term rentals and a home goods store that he said was losing money.

“That was when she was very Gina Champion-Cain, with the dresses, the long hair, the plaques on all the walls — woman of the year, co-founder of this, articles about her. She was on top of the world, buying other real estate and it was all moving so fast,” said LaGrange, who now oversees business development for an architectural design firm and remained with ANI until the SEC shut it down and then for several months more working with the receiver.

Some ideas made sense, he said, like the Patio Marketplace concept, an all-day, fast-casual eatery designed as a convenient amenity for hotels and office buildings that ANI would receive a fee for running. But his boss had an inflated view of its worth in the early stage of development, LaGrange said.

“I had relationships with all these life science companies, and Gina said this thing (the Marketplace) is worth $250 million. She kept saying that endlessly,” he said. “She’d say, put together an investment deck, I want to take this big time. I said Gina, this is something you do when you have 50 stores, not seven. But she said, oh we’re going to have 50.”

As Champion-Cain was venturing into more and more enterprises that appeared unprofitable, LaGrange became perplexed, even a little troubled, after talking to the company controller, who confided that ANI was losing money every year.

“He said we’re losing this X amount every single year, and I said, where is the money coming from. He said it’s coming from Gina.”

“It didn’t make any sense”

While Champion-Cain was pushing her top lieutenants at ANI to aggressively diversify her business ventures, she was working equally hard — unbeknownst to them — to grow her liquor license lending program. Investments from close friends were not enough to fuel a scheme that would take in hundreds of millions of dollars.

Enter Kim Peterson, a local developer who had known Champion-Cain for several years, running into her at real estate seminars and at The Farms, the exclusive Rancho Santa Fe golf club both belonged to.

“You will probably find this interesting,” Peterson said as he sat at a conference table of a Del Mar firm, a thick file documenting some of his recent history with Champion-Cain at his elbow.

“Before this mess came about, if somebody had asked me — I moved here in 1982 — since you moved here in 1982, what person have you met that really embodied these three things: really hard-working, really smart and kind to people? I would have said Gina. Because she was all three of those things.”

While they had known each other socially for several years, Peterson said he did not begin investing in the liquor license business until 2012, and then only relatively small amounts of his own money.

That changed within a few years.

Peterson would become one of the largest aggregators of investor money, driving what he estimated was $140 million into the lending program. As the venture took off, he saw it could become a major business and in 2015 inked an agreement with Champion-Cain where he would become the primary provider of funds for the loans and would net 80 percent of the profit.

As the volume of investments ballooned, Champion-Cain was having to maneuver an increasingly unwieldy enterprise that required her to cover her felonious tracks. Determined to keep the scheme from imploding, she would, from time to time, use fake Chicago Title email addresses to communicate with investors, and she had even invented a bogus escrow company employee to sign documents, according to federal prosecutors. On other occasions, she would write large checks to a couple of Chicago Title employees, who some victims have claimed helped Champion-Cain keep the lending program afloat, they have alleged in lawsuits filed against the company.

Although federal prosecutors have previously said the investigation into the Ponzi scheme is ongoing, there have been no criminal charges brought against anyone beyond Champion-Cain and her former chief financial officer at American National Investments, Crispin Torres, who was sentenced to a four-year prison term.

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (10)

(Gina Champion Cain Check)

In 2017, the scheme came dangerously close to unraveling.

A representative of Torrey Pines Bank was inquiring about wiring instructions for a $5 million line of credit for Peterson. The bank representative was asking about an escrow officer whose name — Wendy Reynolds — was on a number of escrow agreements. The problem was that there was no such employee. She had been fabricated. Champion-Cain quickly took a series of steps to reassure bank executives but in the end, the bank declined to provide Peterson his funding.

Champion-Cain acknowledged being unnerved at the time by the prospect that her fake lending platform could have quickly blown up. In her deposition, she said as much, explaining that she had been “trying to smooth everything out and making sure that this whole program didn’t blow up over this stupid move on my part.”

Desperation sets in

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (11)

Gina Champion-Cain walks into Federal Court for her sentence hearing for orchestrating the largest ponzi scheme in the district on March 31, 2021. Champion-Cain was found guilty of conspiracy, securities fraud and obstruction of justice and taken into custody immediately after her sentence hearing.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Eventually, the stress of juggling a mammoth Ponzi scheme while also trying to keep her company afloat started to take its toll. Some employees noticed she was losing weight and didn’t appear healthy. Others wondered when she slept.

A former ANI staffer, who was in his early 20s when he joined Champion-Cain’s team as a real estate analyst a year before her company shut down, was, by his own admission, a novice. But it didn’t take long for him to notice that certain things were awry.

As awed as he was by his new boss’ intelligence and savvy in meetings with investors, he couldn’t get past the plummeting performance of ANI’s portfolio, nor some of the reckless moves Champion-Cain appeared to be making.

The company was trying to finance a 72-unit apartment project in Santa Rosa and had aligned itself with a limited partner who claimed to have hundreds of millions of dollars to invest. So it made no sense to him when this supposed well-heeled financier started coming to Champion-Cain for personal loans.

“He asked Gina for 25 grand to pay for his living expenses, saying he’d pay her back, and I thought no way a limited partner investor who is supposed to have all this money is going to ask the sponsor for living expenses,” said the ex-employee, who asked that he not be identified because of his current job. “But she did it.”

What he didn’t know was that the liquor license lending scheme was beginning to implode. On May 13, 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission would serve subpoenas on a handful of people, including Bruce Smith, Kim Peterson and Champion-Cain. The SEC said little about what it was investigating.

As the noose tightened in late August 2019, Champion-Cain made a daring, last-ditch gamble, hoping she could turn heavy losses into a gain. She solicited an investment of $100 million from a high net-worth individual in La Jolla, remembers LaGrange. The potential investor was a friend of his.

“My friend told Gina, if this is legit and not illegal, I’ll get you a $100 million in two weeks but I need this, this and this from your lawyers,” LaGrange recalled. “Gina asked him, ‘Oh, you can’t commit to the money now?’”

The investor told her that once it’s legal and real, he’d consider it, LaGrange said.

“So, she’s on her way out to her car and she says, ‘What about $2 million today?’ and he’s like, ‘No.’”

A couple of days later, the SEC fraud charges against Champion-Cain were unveiled. Even after cutting a deal with the regulatory agency that would freeze her company’s assets and allow the government to appoint a receiver to take control, Champion-Cain worked feverishly to cover up evidence of her misdeeds, according to her plea agreement and sentencing report filed by federal prosecutors.

She admitted to instructing her accounting personnel to alter records that would have shown how she was using investor funds to finance personal expenses, states her plea deal. In that same document, she acknowledges telling other employees to shred large volumes of documents related to the lending program that would prove to be incriminating.

The former real estate analyst said he remembers a very odd day in late August when he and another ANI employee were instructed to start loading onto dollies boxes and boxes of documents stored in a small room behind the company kitchen. They were then to move them into Champion-Cain’s office.

“Why am I doing this? I’m an analyst,” he recalled thinking. “And now I am kind of thinking those were the documents she was trying to shred. It took five hours to move all her stuff.”

Life in a prison camp

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (12)

Omer J. Meisel, Acting FBI Special Agent, (second to right), Aaron P. Arnzen, Assistant U.S. Attorney, (second to left), and Andrew J. Galvin, Assistant U.S. Attorney, (left) attend a Press Conference while Robert S. Brewer, Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California speaks in the Federal Building about Business Executive Gina Champion-Cain who has admitted to being the mastermind behind the $400 million Ponzi scheme on July 22, 2020.

(Ariana Drehsler/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Champion-Cain had much more to worry about than the civil securities fraud charges the SEC was pursuing. She’d also become the target of an FBI investigation. By July 2020 — nearly a year after her Ponzi scheme had been exposed — she pleaded guilty to criminal charges of conspiracy, securities fraud and obstruction of justice, after having cooperated with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego.

Champion-Cain said nothing during the July hearing and exited the courtroom, her attorney by her side, declining to talk to reporters.

Not until eight months later would she return to the same courtroom, this time to learn how many years she would be spending in prison.

The evening before that March 2021 hearing, Champion-Cain met a few friends for drinks at the home of one of the women. She brought the friends custom-made COVID masks, and they shared champagne, remembers Nancy Chase, a public affairs consultant who has known Champion-Cain for years.

“She was so matter of fact. She said, ‘I did wrong, and I’m taking my punishment,’ and she asked us to take care of Steve (her husband) and invite him to dinner,” Chase said of their final conversation. “I gave her a ride home and gave her a hug. And the next day she was sentenced to 15 years.”

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (13)

Gina Champion-Cain walks into federal court on March 31, 2021 for her sentencing in connection with orchestrating San Diego’s largest Ponzi scheme. She was taken into custody immediately after her sentence hearing.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

They corresponded early on when Champion-Cain was transferred in May 2021 to the Dublin prison camp in Northern California, where she developed a daily routine of writing, exercise and mentoring her fellow inmates, Chase said. But it wasn’t long before the correspondence abruptly ended for no apparent reason.

That wasn’t the case with Helen Rowe, a retired attorney and longtime Mission Hills resident who had come to know Champion-Cain through Rowe’s work on the local town council and neighborhood improvement initiatives. Champion-Cain, known for her philanthropy, was a generous donor to the community, and a friendship was born.

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (14)

At her home in Mission Hills, Helen Rowe holds on her lap some handwritten letters from Gina Champion-Cain sent from federal prison.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Even after Rowe learned about the Ponzi scheme, she decided to remain friends, and the two women would occasionally socialize. Champion-Cain, who would frequently host Thanksgiving dinners for friends, would invite Rowe, although she never attended.

So it was only natural that they would write to one another once Champion-Cain went to prison. Rowe, 82, showed the Union-Tribune the handwritten letters, which she kept in a cabinet drawer in her hallway, along with their envelopes. On lined notepaper, Champion-Cain wrote about life at the prison camp, which she described in almost rapturous terms.

She told Rowe about a job she had in the education department tutoring fellow inmates who needed to get their GED’s. “I absolutely love it!” she said of her position. In the same letter, she said she would soon begin teaching for a new restaurant/hospitality program the prison camp was starting. “So much fun!” she wrote.

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (15)

Helen Rowe shares several letters Champion-Cain sent her last year from prison.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

There are no conventional prison cells, Champion-Cain told Rowe, “just bedrooms, which are for two women, just like my old college dorm rooms. I go outside every day to walk/run the track for 4 miles.”

She’d sign the letters with a smiley face and X’s and O’s. As the letters continued to arrive, Rowe learned that her friend was planning to pitch her story to Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming platforms “to buy and create a fun series.”

In the meantime, she looked forward to one day enjoying happy hours and martinis with her good friend Helen.

Then she dropped a bombshell. She was working on pursuing clemency and wanted to enlist Rowe to help contact influential legislators.

For subscribers: 'I felt so betrayed.' Gina Champion-Cain launches a $400M Ponzi scheme that ensnares her closest friends (16)

In a letter to Helen Rowe, Champion-Cain suggests connecting with local politicians in hopes of getting an early release from prison.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“As you know, it’s all about who you know in Washington, D.C.,” Champion-Cain wrote. “So in order for us to get to powers that be, President Biden, Vice President Harris, we will need the help of a congressman or senator. ... Regardless, let’s work on this project next year so that I can get home to work for our community sooner rather than later.”

Subsequent letters would contain similar pleas for help in securing a “commutation of sentence.”

That was it. Rowe had heard enough. She realized she had been used and decided last year to stop corresponding. “I thought that was impractical, wasn’t tethered to reality and a gross imposition on me and our friendship,” she said.

Then in April she received one last letter. It was brief, but Rowe wondered if there was something lurking between the lines of her handwriting.

“Hope you are well and thriving,” Champion-Cain wrote. “Missing our fun and delightful happy hours, but we will enjoy them together again soon.”

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For subscribers

Part I: The woman who swindled San Diego: Inside Gina Champion-Cain’s empire of lies

Gina Champion-Cain made a name for herself in the high-pressure restaurant industry and male-dominated world of real estate development, but a felony fraud conviction triggered the question — how much of her professional career was also built on artifice.

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Podcast: Unraveling the deception and destruction behind San Diego’s greatest Ponzi scheme

A special episode of the San Diego News Fix in which we offer a behind-the-scenes look at how our reporters put together this series on Gina Champion-Cain and her Ponzi scam.

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