THE INSIDE JOB
The boss thought she was the hardest-working person on his payroll. Maybe she was. It's not easy building-and hiding-an extravagant second life with company money. But how could a scam this big go unnoticed for so long?
By Neil Swidey
Just after , when John Ferreira was looking the other way, a prankster pushed him into his pool. It's a gorgeous pool, rimmed by smooth boulders and an elaborate waterfall, and surrounded by golf course-quality turf, all set against the backdrop of 120 acres of his private forest. Still, it's no fun being tossed into the water fully clothed.
But Ferreira emerged a few seconds later, flashing a big grin. Standing on the patio, a puddle forming around his feet, he pulled off his yellow T-shirt and wrung it dry, as 500 of his employees and their families looked on, smiling.
Outside of his circle, few
people know the 47-year-old Ferreira, who grew up poor on a dairy farm in
An hour after his unplanned swim, Ferreira, with sunglasses in his dark hair, walked several acres to get to the far end of his lawn. There, an inflatable kiddie land that would rival any small amusement park's had been erected for the day. There was a "Bungee Run," a mechanical bull, and a gladiator pit, which Ferreira stepped into and began jousting with the police chief from a neighboring town. After about 10 minutes, with the police chief sufficiently vanquished, Ferreira stepped out of the pit. He walked by his oversize garage where he stores his helicopter, and then he headed for the patio behind his white, crushed-marble house, to watch the party's second musical act, a raucous R&B band.
Through the evening, right up until the dazzling 22-minute fireworks show, Ferreira shook hands, slapped backs, and made sure his guests were having a good time and that their cups never ran dry.
The party on this muggy July day was Ferreira's 2006 summer bash. When he and his wife began the annual tradition of opening their home to his employees and their families 18 years ago, he had a much smaller home and a lot fewer employees. This year, 989 people had accepted his invitation, and there were security checkpoints, guest lists, and bracelets handed out so the crashers couldn't slip in like last year.
Ferreira is popular with his people. He's a hard worker who demands the same of his employees, but he's always run his operation like a small family business and always enjoyed sharing the spoils. Yet, after a decade of his business's runaway growth, finances had become strained over the preceding year. Ferreira couldn't understand why, even as his sales volume grew, his profits fell. As he pushed his managers to find ways to pump up the bottom line, he came to the conclusion that his enterprise had simply gotten too big. So he began to reverse course. At Christmas, he cut way back on his usually generous employee bonuses. In January, he began downsizing his front-office staff . In February, he closed two of his landscape supply stores.
But by the time his party rolled around in July, Ferreira and every one of his remaining employees could explain the mystery behind his company's cash-flow problems with a single word: Angela.
FERREIRA HAD MADE UP HIS MIND.
It was March of 1999, and every time he needed a figure calculated or a report run, Angela Platt, the woman the temp agency had sent over to help out in accounting, was there with it. In her mid-30s at the time, she was tall, quiet, and big-boned. Besides her mouth full of protruding teeth, she had the ordinary, familiar look of a diner waitress who calls everyone "Hon."
Ferreira has a preference for
chopped sentences and quick movements, and is more of a talker than a listener.
During this period of aggressive growth for his various construction, real
estate, and landscape supply companies, he was particularly hard to keep up
with. But Angela always did. He knew little about her, other than that she had
recently moved from
"'Why isn't everybody like Angela?' " Ferreira would ask the other women on his business staff . "She never leaves her office. She doesn't hang out at the copy machine and talk. She just works all day long."
He paid the temp agency a fee so he could make Angela his permanent employee.
Ferreira had reason to trust his gut. It had taken him far. His company, Ferreira Construction, had ridden the building boom of the 1980s, but he downsized and regrouped before everything went bust. When his competitors went into bankruptcy, he went shopping, snatching up land and equipment at auction for pennies on the dollar. In 1991, he bought a foreclosed 14-acre swath of prime space on Route 6, not far from I-195, but didn't know what to do with it. So he put up a trailer and started a cash-and-carry business, selling stone to small-time contractors. He named it J&J Materials, after his young kids, John and Jennelle.
By the time they were in high
school, the business had grown to four locations and was grossing more than $13
million a year. In 1997, he paid $285,000 for a troubled company called
Nantucket Pavers. It grew into a multimillion-dollar business, supplying
manufactured bluestone patio blocks to Home Depot stores from
"You have to have respect for money," he said, "and where it comes from."
Ferreira keeps no computer on his desk, but he knows his way around financial reports and insists on stamping his checks and reviewing weekly cash reports himself. He grew his companies in an ad hoc way, often buying small businesses and either selling them off and keeping the land or integrating them into his larger operation. (Full disclosure: Ferreira sold one such small business to my brother-in-law.) The result was a phalanx of nearly a dozen companies, eight or so of them active, each with its own financials, in an enterprise that grosses $25 million a year. Within a year of working for him, Angela had advanced to the point where she was controlling the books for four of his companies.
THE EMBEZZLER'S DILEMMA: You want the money you steal to change
your life, but, unless you plan to run off to the
She still wore nondescript,
discount-rack outfits. Her home was a dumpy, cluttered split-level in
Kevin is a short guy with a big gut, a scruffy, red-gray beard, and, as everyone said, "more gold chains around his neck than Mr. T." One acquaintance described him as "kind of rednecky." He did not work, leaving him ample time when October rolled around to turn his front lawn into a mini Spooky World. (In fact, when Spooky World went out of business and auctioned off its ghoulish attractions in 2004, Kevin was a big buyer.) He had animatronic ghouls, a skeleton in the driver's seat of a customized Buick hearse, and a 20-foot monster called "The Slayer." The display inevitably drew the attention of the local papers and TV stations, and then so many drive-bys that he and Angela had to hire a nightly police detail.
Angela's co-workers took notice.
Some carpooled to check out the scene, among them Cheryl Santos, Ferreira's
sister and credit manager. Everyone around the office called
There were other things that
made Punkie curious. Angela once remarked that she
had property in
NOT LONG AFTER Sandy Brown
opened Stonebridge Stables in the spring of 2003,
Angela brought in her redheaded 10-year-old daughter and signed her up for
riding lessons. The bubbly Brown was not yet 30 and was excited to make a go of
her new business in a leased horse barn in
At the start of 2004, Angela told Brown she wanted to buy her daughter a horse. For $7,500, Brown found her a quarter horse/Thoroughbred cross. A few months later, Angela overheard Brown talking about how she was looking for an investor to go in with her on a horse purchase. "People do that?" Angela asked. "I want to do that." Angela had money to burn. In 2004, her take from Ferreira's kitty galloped to nearly $2 million.
She quickly took to the life of show-horse impresario, paying for Brown to fly across the country, eventually finding and buying Angela eight more horses, with escalating price tags - one horse alone was $85,000. Every time a stall opened up in Brown's barn, Angela claimed it. The show-horse world can be a rarified scene, and Brown sensed that Angela liked being a somebody in it. Before she dispatched Brown for one shopping trip, she told her, "Get the biggest, nicest jumper these people have ever seen."
Brown felt grateful for the
gift of her well heeled customer. Angela was so giving, showering her with
Christmas and birthday gifts like all-expense-paid trips to
IN SEPTEMBER OF 2004, John Ferreira had a scare.
The certified public accountant he had hired six months earlier to be his controller just disappeared. Eventually, Ferreira learned the man had been facing domestic violence charges, and in due course had been convicted and sent to prison. Ferreira was nervous. What else didn't he know about this guy who had been in charge of his company finances? He decided to bring in a forensic audit team to pore over his books.
Meanwhile, Angela was feeling
pressure from elsewhere. There was at least one person in Ferreira's operation who didn't see her as sweet and competent. Mike Albernaz is a beefy, middle-aged guy with a salt-and-pepper
goatee and a Rodney Dangerfield laugh. The general manager of the Nantucket
Pavers plant, he often found the inventory and profit-and-loss reports that
Angela gave him didn't make sense.
Albernaz took his concerns to Ferreira, but the boss was more worried about his companies that weren't making money. Albernaz thought maybe Angela was just following Ferreira's orders, transferring funds from one of his healthy companies to one that was struggling. As much as he didn't like Angela, Albernaz never took her for a mastermind.
Neither did Ferreira. When the forensic auditors showed up, they said their protocol was go directly to the banks to get all company statements. Ferreira thought that was a waste of time. He designated one of his most trustworthy employees as the point person to work with the auditors. "Angela will give you anything you need," he told them. "She's got it all under control."
KEVIN AND ANGELA married in
1993, a few years after the death of his first wife. Their time living in
His supplemental income became less necessary as the family's economic outlook improved. As Kevin spotted some vintage hot rod or antique gun that he wanted while he trolled eBay, he'd ask Angela, "What do you think?" Angela, who always managed the family finances, would usually reply, "Yeah, go get it."
If he wondered where she was getting all the money, he never pressed the issue.
That changed one day in December 2004, according to accounts they both would give later. Standing in their bedroom, crying, Angela told Kevin she'd been embezzling from Ferreira.
"How much?" he asked.
"I don't know."
"Well, it needs to stop right now."
It didn't. And that didn't seem to trouble either of them.
In June of 2005, Angela and
Kevin threw an open-house party to celebrate the near completion of the
Still under construction was the building that was to house some of Kevin's garish hot rods and high-end snowmobiles on the first floor, with a cavernous second floor where he would keep his full video arcade.
To those who asked how they had come into the money, Angela spun a specific tale about being the CEO of seven small but highly profitable corporations. Kevin would joke that his job was "spending my wife's money." But most people assumed a different explanation. "Around here," said 81-year-old Bonnie Weston, who lives on the next farm over, "if you got a dollar, you must have won it somehow." The word went out: Angela and Kevin had scored big in Tri-State Megabucks.
Weston and her husband enjoyed their new neighbors, and benefited from their company. To expand their original 53-acre property, Angela and Kevin had bought 50 acres from the Westons, at $2,000 an acre.
Most of the neighborhood welcomed Angela and Kevin with warmth and evident curiosity, with a notable exception. Dale Pettis, a 42-year-old farmer, took an immediate disliking to Kevin and his bragging. "He threw it all away. People that make their money don't do that," Pettis said. "He didn't impress us hillbillies. He amused us hillbillies."
However they'd gotten rich, Angela and Kevin seemed excited to share. The invitations for the open house were printed on ornate scrolls, and Angela and Kevin made sure most people in town got one. The menu included whole lobsters, steaks, and rattlesnake meat. There was a kiddie land for the youngsters and an endless supply of booze for the adults. A cover band called Secret Service performed by the pool. Angela would later give a testimonial blurb for the band online in language that was part boardroom, part trailer park: "As a CEO of several corporations, I have been to many functions, but have never heard a band as talented as Secret Service. . . . Their utmost goal was to provide client satisfaction. . . . People will be talking about the Hendrix solo during the fireworks for years to come. . . . You truly ROCK!"
The only downside to the day was the theft of few kegs of beer. Kevin would complain later, "Can you believe someone would do that?"
IN THE FALL OF 2005, as
contractors put the finishing touches on their spread in
Around this time, Angela
dispensed with her pattern of small checks, at times writing three checks a
week that each exceeded $40,000. In October and November alone, she took nearly
$1 million. While the embezzling had been relatively easy to hide in prior
years because of the aggressive growth of Ferreira's companies, the combination
of her more brazen check-writing and the cooling of the real estate market made
the vanishing money more noticeable. With his cash flow constricted and the market
beginning to slide, Ferreira pounced when he unexpectedly received a top-dollar
offer to sell the
Back at the Nantucket Pavers
plant, Mike Albernaz's frequent complaints about
Angela were finally addressed, though not in the way he expected. Angela, it
was decided, would be moved on
But Ferreira continued to see Angela as part of his company's future.
In addition to her duties with his companies, Angela was the bookkeeper for Starr Quality Homes, which Ferreira's wife, Tricia, owns. When Christmas rolled around, and Ferreira reluctantly concluded he couldn't afford to hand out many bonuses, Tricia insisted that Angela make the cut and receive an extra $200. Angela, of course, had already done her own calculations. For 2005, she had decided she deserved a total bonus of around $3.4 million.
ON THE FRIDAY before Memorial Day 2006, everything changed.
Two months earlier, after tiring of Angela's stall tactics in moving to the Nantucket Pavers plant full time, Albernaz had brought in his own bookkeeper, an experienced 41-year-old named Amber Rebello. He was blunt when he hired Rebello, who has a face full of freckles and a throaty laugh. "We need to watch everything 'cause we're getting robbed."
During Rebello's first week, Angela trained her. Right away some of Angela's accounting practices struck Rebello as odd. When invoices and inventories didn't match up, Angela instructed her to simply override them to make them agree in the computer, rather than researching the discrepancy. In subsequent weeks, she noticed checks being cut on Wednesdays, when Rebello did that only on Fridays. Once when she asked Angela why the last page of a bank statement was missing, Angela told her that Punkie, the credit manager, had a habit of throwing those out.
For the first month after Rebello arrived, Angela cut back on her recreational
check-writing. But by the end of April, she ramped it
back up. She needed the money. Angela had hired a staff of professionals to
arrange a spectacular June wedding reception for her brother and his fiancee at her
As Angela was watching the
wedding expenses climb past the million-dollar mark in
Ferreira dispatched his vice president, Sal Rao, to Slade's Ferry Bank, to examine copies of the cashed checks from that dormant company. A little while later, Rao called him from the bank. "I'm looking at a check here for $44,000, and it's made out to Angela Buckborough."
"Bring the check back here," Ferreira said. "I'll call the police, and call her in."
His mind was racing, but he was still hoping this was a one-time thing.
Around , Ferreira called Angela into the conference room. There she found Rao and two Rehoboth police officers.
After she waived her Miranda rights, Ferreira slid a copy of the $44,000 check across the table to her. "Angela, do you know anything about this?"
She didn't blink. "Yes. I've been stealing money."
"Two hundred thousand dollars! What have you done with it?"
Angela said she'd bought a horse for her daughter and a few other things. She said she'd been under lot of stress, and had begun drinking.
The cops wanted to arrest her. Angela pleaded that she not be sent to jail, saying she would make things right.
"I can't believe that you stole from me," Ferreira said. "But I want it back. How much cash do you have in bank accounts right now that you can give me?"
She said she had $30,000 each
in two local banks. And she promised she would come in on Tuesday morning and
sign over the deed to her house
Ferreira asked to speak with the cops privately. "Look," the former selectman chairman told them, "if you guys lock her up now, I get nothing. If she goes to the bank now, I get back 60 grand. And if she don't come in Tuesday with the deed, we can still lock her up, but at least I get 60 grand." The cops agreed.
Rao followed Angela to the banks and got the money.
At on Tuesday morning, Angela walked into the conference room and told Ferreira and his lawyer, "I did some figuring over the weekend and it was a little more than I thought."
She slid a piece of paper over to Ferreira.
"A million, five hundred and thirty thousand?" He laughed. "This is a joke, right?"
Above the bottom line, she had
itemized her purchases: the
"You took that all from me?"
"Yeah, but I'm going to give it all back."
Rather than waste time on
feeling betrayed, Ferreira shifted into recovery mode. He called in additional
lawyers to preside over a massive transfer, with Angela signing over deeds to
property big and small. He dispatched some of his guys, with a car carrier and
horse trailers, to reclaim the assets. The next day he sent them to Angela's
Tricia was furious. "Send her to jail!" she told her husband. "I can't believe I trusted her and even gave her a bonus."
Ferreira countered, "Look, let's get our stuff back first."
He was determined not to end up like so many victims of embezzlement, who never get a dime back because all their money went up somebody's nose or all their assets were seized or hidden. But he had to act fast. It helped that he had friends in the right places, namely the police and sheriff 's departments. Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson got involved, persuading the FBI to hang back for a couple of weeks while he and Ferreira tried to bring order to the mess.
In his first meeting with
Angela, which took place at Ferreira's accountant's office in
Eventually, the sheriff emerged from the conference room. With Angela's help, he had a new estimate for Ferreira of her total take: $9 million.
"What, was she embezzling from the mob?" Ferreira asked. "That can't all be my money."
ON A BEAUTIFUL SATURDAY evening in June, John and Tricia
Ferreira enjoyed a bottle of wine on the wraparound porch of their new
The last few weeks had been a
blur, as Ferreira turned his life over to uncovering - and recovering - assets.
The list seemed endless: show horses, plasma TVs, the house in Foster,
But at least the
Kevin had been known to pick up the tab for everyone in the restaurant, and pass around $300 tips to each waitress.
As he listened to these
anecdotes, Ferreira felt the anger boiling up - really for the first time since
Angela's scheme had been exposed. With his money, Angela and Kevin were trying
to buy friends, to buy fame. "That's something you just don't do," he
said, "no matter how much money you have. It's having absolutely no
respect for money." Then he wondered if Angela assumed his popularity was
simply a product
of his willingness to throw nice parties. "Is that why she thinks people like me?"
Just how much money Ferreira has, of course, had become a hot topic around his company and around his hometown. How do you lose $9 million and not feel it? In reality, Ferreira had felt it, without really knowing what he was feeling. And he insists that if business hadn't been growing so aggressively during much of the time when she was stealing, he would have figured it out much sooner. "I'm still in shock that I made that much money," he said, "that much extra money." Still, he's the first to acknowledge that he was far too trusting and that as far as victims go, he was pretty lucky.
Angela's adventure produced more victims than just Ferreira, and all of them had less to fall back on.
Employees lost their jobs
after Ferreira closed stores and downsized. Early in 2006, Angela and Kevin's
A host of small-business
And then there's Sandy Brown. Despite her husband's warnings not to let her business become reliant on one customer, the horse trainer had done exactly that. On the Tuesday after Memorial Day, Angela called to confess that she'd been caught embezzling. She said that Ferreira would be sending someone to retrieve four horses, including one a 16-year-old girl had already paid Angela to lease for the year. Still, Brown forgave her. After all, Angela assured her she was making full restitution. Brown figured the expenses of the wedding had driven her to desperation. But, a week later, when Ferreira's guy showed up again, this time to reclaim the rest of the horses, there was no warning call from Angela. Brown realized Angela had been lying all along. The blow proved too much for her young business. On July 31, she shuttered it for good.
Like everyone else involved, Brown has been puzzling over what would drive someone with no hint of a criminal background to steal so much money. Was it smarts or luck that allowed her to keep it going for so long? Was it greed that kept her from knowing when to stop?
After several lengthy meetings
with Angela, Sheriff Hodgson came to one conclusion: Her motivation was less
greed than a need for control. She was more likely to be extravagant in gifts
for others - her husband, her brother, her horse trainer - than in treats for
herself. When Hodgson went to Angela's house in
Of course, control is what Angela lacks most right now. Hodgson finished up as a friend-of-Ferreira fact-finder, and Angela and Kevin sat for depositions with Ferreira's lawyer. The FBI, US Attorney's office, and the US Treasury Department are now involved. Last month, Angela and Kevin signed a consent agreement in Rhode Island Superior Court, returning a vast inventory of property to the man whose millions had funded their shopping spree. Still, given the sums involved, it seems likely that Angela will go to jail.
As of a few weeks ago, though,
she was still living in the
She said more in a private letter she sent John and Tricia Ferreira in June, insisting they could trust what she was telling them. Then again, she'd made that claim before.
Dear John and Tricia,
I cannot say enough about how sorry I am that I stole money from you. As you are aware, Tom [Hodgson] has been working with me to not only sort it out but to find out why. Please understand I respect you both tremendously - to the point I never cashed the bonus check that Tricia gave me at Christmas because I felt so unworthy. Tom has asked me to delve deep within myself. I think I was trying to re-create your lives into mine hoping I would get the love and respect that I see so many people give to you. I know I was completely wrong in what I did. It never occurred to me that I was hurting anyone but myself. Last November I wanted it to end and I considered telling you myself but I was so scared. Please know that I am deeply sorry for hurting you - the very people I looked up to and admired. I am being totally honest with you now in trying to correct this terrible action. I am so sorry that I did this to you.
Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.