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 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.
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?
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. (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