Next Level Investments, Chris Uitvlugt

Kingston Police reflect on ‘ruthless’ Next Level fraudster

Local detectives have described the mastermind behind Next Level Investments as ruthless, carried away and, in the final 11 months in business, “living life like a rock star.”

Now that he is in prison for the next four years and nine months, police are finally able to describe what went into investigating the multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.

“I don’t blame people for taking the chance and believing in it,” Det. Brad Hughes, who co-led the investigation, said. “(Next Level) did their due diligence to convince people. They had a business front, they had a website, they had a guy who knew the language, salesmen who were great with people.

“That’s why when I hear from the victims, and I hear from a lot of them every day, they all start with that they’re embarrassed and ashamed, but I tell them: don’t be.”

Last Monday, Next Level Investments’ ringleader, Chris Uitvlugt, was sentenced to four years and nine months in prison. Justice Gary Tranmer did not hold back during the sentencing. He told the 29-year-old father of three daughters, that had it not been a joint submission, his sentence would have been much longer.

Chris Uitvlugt's leased orange Lamborghini

Chris Uitvlugt’s leased orange Lamborghini and black Mercedes-Benz 550 S, which were seized during the Next Level Investments investigation.

“You did this,” the judge said. “You lost everything. You took yourself out of your children’s lives. It was your choice to trade that for the assets and a (rental) Lamborghini.”

He told Uitvlugt, “you preyed on these people, you preyed on their trust, their hopes, their dreams.”

Hughes sat down Thursday with the Whig-Standard to tell the story of the Next Level Investments investigation, dubbed by the Ontario Provincial Police as Project Springfield. He said they first learned of Next Level Investments in early 2016 when potential investors called the fraud unit to ask if the local company was legitimate.

Trophy photo of roughly $126,000 found on Chris Uitvlugt's cell phone

A photo found on Chris Uitvlugt’s cellphone when it was seized during the Next Level Investments investigation. (Supplied Photo)

After hearing what the potential client had to say, police would say that it looked like a scam. It was a classic “too-good-to-be-true” sales pitch. Next Level was promising a 550 per cent return on investments by using the Foreign Stock Exchange, more commonly referred to as the FOREX. Investors would receive 50 per cent of the return and Next Level would retain the other half.

Then in December 2016, police heard of individuals who had actually made money. Confused, the investigators looked into the company’s Ontario Securities Commission licencing and found that there wasn’t any. How could they be offering expert advice in the financial field and investments if they didn’t have a licence to do so?

Trophy photo found on Chris Uitvlugt's cell phone

A photo of roughly $276,000 found on Chris Uitvlugt’s cellphone when it was seized during the Next Level Investments investigation. (Supplied Photo)

The question was enough for Hughes, Det. Jason Alblas and Det. Cam Gough to put together a production order for a search warrant based on the company operating under false pretences. A move the OPP would describe as “gutsy,” Hughes said.

“They were floored that we’d taken down a Ponzi scheme and recovered over a million bucks, they just said, ‘this never happens,’” Hughes said. “The fact that it all worked out is amazing … we just went on basic fraud investigator knowledge.”

Once the company’s bank accounts were restrained, officers “hit the door” of the company’s storefront at 1309 Princess St., figuratively, on March 14, 2017, at 10:45 a.m.

“That’s when we got to go in and see that there was lots of money coming in from people, but there was no other source of money coming from any investments,” Hughes said. “It looked like a clear-cut Ponzi scheme …

“Right from the beginning, we knew it wasn’t above board.”

Chris Uitvlugt's Audi R8 seized during the Next Level Investments investigation.

Chris Uitvlugt’s Audi R8 seized during the Next Level Investments investigation. (Supplied Photo)

As they searched the offices, officers were watching Uitvlugt’s home. Like in a movie, minutes after they started their search, a man went to Uitvlugt’s home and ran inside. A few minutes later, he left the home carrying a bag of cash. The man was later identified in an agreed statement of facts read out in court as Jordan McGregor. McGregor was later found not guilty of possessing proceeds of crime.

The court found there was no evidence that McGregor knew of the Ponzi scheme and the judge found “McGregor was conned by Mr. Uitvlugt, as were other investors.” It was also agreed that Uitvlugt was the only person known to have access to and knowledge of the company’s trading activity on the Foreign Exchange markets.

The drama continued to unfold when, after the office’s search, they received a tip: there’s a safe behind a false wall with a million dollars cash inside.

Investigators had missed the false wall and the safe all together, Hughes said, so the investigators turned right back around. They found the wall and the safe, but once they busted it open back at the police station, there was only about $60,000 inside.

The same day they searched the business, they searched Uitvlugt’s home and seized his three vehicles: a bright orange Lamborghini, a Mercedes-Benz 550 S and an Audi R8. It only took three days of examining the evidence for the local crew to realize that they were in over their heads.

“We realized the scope of it — how many people were involved victim-wise — and realized that we needed some help,” Hughes said.

The police investigation determined that there were 678 victims. Hughes said the victims in this case were mostly from the east region of Ontario, but there was also a couple in Nashville, Tenn., involved, and some others in Alberta, where Uitvlugt had previously worked.

When the OPP came on board, it became a “true” joint-force investigation with the majority of the work split down the middle, Hughes said. With Alblas and Gough also remaining on the case, Hughes became a co-lead investigator with OPP Sgt. Tim Wright under the leadership of OPP Insp. Dave Robinson. Robinson then brought in “the best” from across the province: detectives Jennifer Shaw, Jeff Blackstock and Ed Finn.

Hughes said Robinson would get the crew anything they needed, and the Kingston Police leadership allowed them an entire year to live and breathe the case.

“There were a lot of days looking at numbers on a computer, a lot of days travelling to interview victims,” Hughes said. “It definitely entailed a lot of brain space. For that year, that’s all my brain was wired to. I knew it inside and out.”

Hughes also noted that they also needed the OPP to come assist them for transparency reasons because some of their own officers had invested with Next Level. This made the force a target of criticism once news of the investigator hit the newspapers.

“Part of some of the victims trusted the company because they did see Kingston Police officers around the business,” said Hughes, not elaborating further. “(We thought) to keep transparency, to let them know that Kingston Police was not involved with the structure of this business, that we bring in the OPP, just to show that this was an investigation that was on par, that there was no favouritism anywhere.”

Aside from examining the bank accounts, the key pieces of the evidence actually came from Uitvlugt’s personal cellphone. The most important piece was a fake trading account that showed successful returns that he was showing clients and potential clients.

“When you looked at the real account, it just didn’t jive up,” Hughes said. “It was the demo account. That was a nail in the coffin.”

The truth was that Uitvlugt only invested about $24,000 into the FOREX and the trades Uitvlugt did make actually resulted in a net loss of $5,000. Despite this, Uitvlugt made more than $1 million in his final month of “business,” Hughes said.

“He’s a guy who got carried away,” Hughes said. “He was good (at trading) on this demo account because there was no real-life emotion in it. But it didn’t translate into real-life on his own, so I think he just hoped he could get the same sort of luck that he got on his demo account on his real account. He just couldn’t pull it off.

“Then once you get a taste of driving Lamborghinis and having close to $300,000 cash on your bedroom dresser, and then people going around town praising you and calling you a genius. … How do you come out and tell everyone you’re a liar?”

Hughes credited Uitvlugt for being a dedicated father who treated his immediate family well, but he described him as “ruthless” when choosing his victims. In many of the cases brought up at court, his investors said they considered him a friend.

Hughes interviewed Uitvlugt four times throughout the investigation. He described those interviews as a game of poker.

“He didn’t show his hand very much, but he was interested in what we knew,” Hughes described. “I was very open with what we had and told him my views and thoughts, but it wasn’t until the sentencing the other day that he admitted it.”

Of the 197 people who did make money off the Next Level scheme, only one elderly woman gave it back. Hughes estimated it was $70,000 that she didn’t want, knowing it was dirty.

They can’t force everyone to give the money back because they cannot prove they knew where it came from. It would essentially be making more victims of the crime.

“Morally, should you give the money back? Probably. But legally, I can’t take it from you,” Hughes said. “The people from which we did, we were investigating criminally, and they do have some sort of responsibility within the company. They weren’t an innocent investor who made some money early on.”

Hughes suggested that anyone who did receive a return report it to the Canada Revenue Agency.

Uitvlugt was not the only person charged and convicted during the investigation. In March 2018, Kenneth McGuire, described as the face and voice of the company, pleaded guilty to possession of proceeds of crime and was sentenced to two years probation.

Crown counsel Brian McNeely at the Ministry of the Attorney General in Toronto said that victims of Next Level will be able to apply for restitution within the next couple of weeks. While it will not cover the full amount that they invested, perhaps not even half, it is supposed to be a starting point. Anyone wishing to get all their money back will have to pursue that through civil court at their own expense.

Victims will be able to apply by emailing a contact at the Ministry of the Attorney General, with their full name, contact information and proof of claim. A notice will be sent out at a later date with information where victims can send their information and by what date.

Currently, there is just one more matter of forfeiture that is in dispute and is currently before the court. Once that is settled, that should be the end of the Next Level investigation.

As Uitvlugt was being escorted away after his sentencing, Hughes said he turned to him and thanked him.

“I don’t hate the guy; I hate what he did,” Hughes said. “I don’t hate anyone who was involved — the three that were charged and the other that is put forward for forfeiture. I don’t hate these people. I could care less. I just hate what they did.

“At the end of the day, it’s not personal. We all came in the same way and we’re all going to go out the same. It’s what we do in between that makes us who we are.”

Published on: November 16, 2019, last Updated: November 18, 2019
Steph Crosier, the Kingston Whig Standard

Support increased dramatically: witness

The mother of Chris Uitvlugt’s children told Justice Larry O’Brien on Monday that the support payments she received from him increased from $750 to $11,000 to $12,000 a month in the latter part of 2016, coinciding with Next Level Investments opening offices on Princess Street in Kingston.

Kirstie Saxton-Robinson, 24, said it didn’t occur to her that he was doing anything illegal, however.

Saxton-Robinson was testifying in Kingston’s Ontario Court of Justice at the trial of Jordan D. McGregor, an associate of Uitvlugt’s and one of the investors in Next Level Investments, which later operated as Next Level Capital Group but never registered with the Ontario Securities Commission.

Uitvlugt, who was identified on Facebook as Next Level’s CEO, was charged with fraud, possession of proceeds of crime and conspiracy after police raided the operation’s 1309 Princess St. office in March 2017. His case is still before the courts.

McGregor is on trial for possessing proceeds of crime in connection with a bundle of cash, part of which was delivered to Saxton-Robinson a day or two after Uitvlugt’s arrest.

Saxton-Robinson testified that Uitvlugt had their children for the day on March 14 last year but brought them back early, some time between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., and told her only that he was going to the police station and “he would give Jordan money and I would get it.”

By then, she told Justice O’Brien, she regularly received $6,000 on the first of each month and “another five or six [thousand] around the 15th.”

But she said “no one brought money to my house,” so she reached out to McGregor via Facebook.

She told the judge that he replied that he’d “passed along the money” to somebody else to give to her, “and then he blocked me.”

She told the judge she was subsequently contacted by Cory Macdonald, a local businessman and investor in Next Level, who declined to meet with her in person. “He didn’t want me to know what he looked like,” she said. Instead, he told her that he was going to Wild Wing restaurant at the Kingston Centre and would leave the money for her in his SUV.

Saxton-Robinson said she went to the parking lot on March 15 or 16 around noon, found Macdonald’s unlocked vehicle and retrieved a Walmart bag containing the cash from the front passenger seat.

She told the judge when she counted it there was between $40,000 and $46,000 inside, which she took home and put in her closet.

The next day, she said, police came and seized the cash.

McGregor’s lawyer, Leo Adler, questioned Saxton-Robinson about what she thought was going on, and she told him she initially believed Next Level had some sort of licensing problem.

Then later, “I felt like if he [Uitvlugt] was going away, my kids should be taken care of.”

She denied threatening McGregor over the cash but admitted she was “upset” when it wasn’t delivered.

She agreed she’d texted him that she was going to get a lawyer, but disputed that it was in response to him saying he needed legal advice about the cash.

She also agreed that she’d sent an email to one of the officers involved in the case, complaining about how she was characterized by Macdonald in his testimony last week. The officer, she confirmed, told her not to worry because Macdonald had deviated from his original statement.

But he didn’t talk to her about the case beyond that, she said.

In his closing argument, Crown prosecutor Alexander Hrybinsky said Next Level Investments and Next Level Capital Group were represented to potential investors as “high risk, high reward.”

It’s been the prosecution’s contention since the company’s offices were raided last year, however, that the whole operation was a Ponzi scheme that simply paid early investors with later investors’ money.

It purported to invest in foreign exchange markets, earning extremely high rates of return. But a police review of the company’s trading accounts found little evidence of actual trading and a net loss on what trading there had been.

Hrybinsky told the judge that the day Uitvlugt turned himself in to police, someone left his home at 12:27 p.m. carrying a rectangular package believed to have contained the money that was supposed to be delivered to Saxton-Robinson.

Later that day, he said, McGregor handed that same package off to real estate agent Louis Tavakoli.

And he suggested that Tavakoli, Macdonald and McGregor all considered the possibility that the money was illegitimate.

Adler argued that there were rumours, but said there’s no evidence,  that his client knew that police had been to Uitvlugt’s Fisher Crescent home on March 14.

Uitvlugt, he said, had told everyone it was “just some misunderstanding.”

He also noted that “it’s Cory [Macdonald] and Louis [Tavakoli] who ultimately makes the decision to release at least some of the money to Kirstie [Saxton-Robinson].”

Justice O’Brien will deliver his decision in the case later this month.

syanagisawa@postmedia.com

DIY Investing

Next Level representative on trial in Kingston

The trial of Jordan McGregor continued Wednesday afternoon at the Ontario Court of Justice with the testimony of a local business owner who claims to have lost about $95,000 at the hands of Next Level Investments.

McGregor has been charged with possession of proceeds of crime in connection to the massive fraud investigation by Kingston Police and Ontario Provincial Police into Next Level, also known as Next Level Capital Group.

Chris Uitvlugt, who used to identify on Facebook as Next Level’s CEO, was charged by police with fraud over $5,000, possession of property obtained by crime and conspiracy. The charges have not been proven in court. Uitvlugt will be appearing in Superior Court, but a date for trial has yet to be set.

Kenneth McGuire, once described as the “the face and voice” of the company, was placed on two years probation after he pleaded guilty to possession of proceeds of crime in March 2017.

At McGuire’s sentencing, Crown prosecutor Alex Hrybinsky stated that investigators have found that investors paid $4.8 million into Next Level and $3.1 million was paid out. However, he told Justice Allan Letourneau that there was little evidence of actual trading by Next Level.

Cory Macdonald, owner of a local supplements store and proprietor of 60 real estate units across the city, testified in front of Justice Larry O’Brien on Wednesday that he invested $95,000 in three instalments over six months. The last investment of $35,000 was in January 2017.

Crown prosecutor Alex Hrybinsky asked Macdonald how he thought the investments went.

“I ended up here, so not very well,” Macdonald said. “I never made anything and lost $95,000.”

Macdonald said he was introduced to Uitvlugt by McGregor. When questioned by Leo Adler, McGregor’s lawyer, the former Correctional Service Canada officer of 12 years told the court that Chris Uitvlugt was very convincing. Macdonald agreed with Adler when he suggested that Macdonald initially thought Uitvlugt was “a nice guy” and a “smart businessman.”

“He was a good salesman,” Macdonald testified.

Macdonald said Uitvlugt told him that in a year they could either double his money in six months or lose it all. Macdonald was so convinced that Uitvlugt and Next Level Investments were legitimate that he told his mother and his friends, many of whom are local police officers and correctional officers, about it. Macdonald told his friends that he’d guarantee their investments.

He testified that he didn’t receive a percentage or kickbacks from Next Level. He said he “thought I was helping people.”

“We were all stupid enough to believe whatever Chris told us,” Macdonald said.

On the morning that the Next Level Investments offices at 1309 Princess St. were raided by police on March 14, 2018, Macdonald said he woke up to “thousands” of text messages from his friends who had also invested with Next Level.

Macdonald met with McGregor and Louis Tavakoli at McGregor’s home the same day, though when questioned by Adler, Macdonald wasn’t sure if Tavakoli was present. A local real estate agent, Tavakoli also testified on Wednesday.

Macdonald recalled that on the table of the room they were in was a package containing paperwork and cash. Uitvlugt, who was in police custody, had instructed that the package should go to his partner, Kirstie Saxton-Robinson, Macdonald said. He added that Uitvlugt told them that the police had been called by accident, that it was all a misunderstanding with his licensing.

Macdonald said the three men didn’t know what to do or whom to trust, and they decided they couldn’t trust Saxton-Robinson.

The next day, Saxton-Robinson started to call Macdonald and McGregor, demanding the cash, Macdonald said. He agreed with Adler when he described Saxton-Robinson’s constant calls as harassment. Macdonald alleged in his testimony that Saxton-Robinson tried to blackmail him, McGregor and Tavakoli. He claims she said that she’d go to the police and say that they were behind Next Level’s dealings.

In a 20-second phone call, McGregor and Macdonald agreed to give Saxton-Robinson the cash, he testified.

“I didn’t think anyone would believe us over a crying girl,” Macdonald said.

Macdonald would be the one to hand it over as McGregor was on his way over to the police station to turn himself in. He told the court that he picked up the package from Tavakoli’s house and went to a Loblaw’s parking lot. He told Saxton-Robinson that he would park his SUV, leave it unlocked and walk away, he testified. If the package was still in the vehicle, he’d hand it over to police. He told the court the package was gone when he returned.

Macdonald testified that when he went to the police, he, too, was charged with fraud, but the charge was later dropped by the Crown.

McGregor’s trial continues next week.

— With files from Sue Yanagisawa

scrosier@postmedia.com

Twitter: @StephattheWhig