He started out as a Saskatchewan farm boy, but made a name for himself as a flamboyant billionaire by catering to the needs of testosterone junkies. He is a self-promoter so cocky that he smirked at police through a Forbes Magazine cover story titled “Catch Me If You Can.”
Yet no matter how much Calvin Ayre, 50, defied the odds and defied authorities, it was always a safe bet that Uncle Sam would catch up to him one day. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did just that – by seizing control of the popular Bodog.com bookmaking site, and by charging Ayre and three fellow Canadian co-founders with running Bodog as an illegal gambling enterprise.
The charges, which carry potential sentences of up to 25 years against each accused, come amid an ongoing U.S. crackdown against Internet gambling. They also effectively make Ayre and his Canadian co-accused fugitives from U.S. justice.
What the prosecution doesn’t affect are Bodog’s Canadian and European sites which, incidentally, were still taking bets for the Toronto Maple Leafs game and myriad other sporting events last night. And prosecutors have not arrested any of the accused.
“None of the defendants are in custody. They are all up there in Canada,” said Vickie Leduc, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department.
Players in the lucrative grey-area Internet-gambling industry have reaped billions over the past decade, by claiming that the bets they facilitate do not violate local anti-gambling laws, arguing that the activity instead occurs inside of computer servers located in offshore jurisdictions.
Yet Washington is cracking down. New York prosecutors last year shuttered the U.S. versions of the popular PokerStars and Full Tilt poker sites, alleging they laundered hundreds of millions of gambling dollars, using front companies and straw men intermediaries, to route the funds to and from U.S. clients. Now, much the same is being alleged against Bodog, a lesser gambling site that had, until now, mostly been known for its outrageous marketing schemes.
“Today’s indictment of Bodog Entertainment Group S.A. and its founder and operators sends a strong deterrent message to those that facilitate illegal online sports betting operations,” said William Winter, a special agent in charge of a Maryland task force that undertook a six-year investigation.
A criminal indictment and affidavit against Bodog, both unsealed Tuesday, claim the company has hundreds of employees “in Canada and Costa Rica” who facilitate illegal gambling inside the United States. Authorities say they have a former employee serving as a confidential Bodog informant.
Ayre, a conspicuous figure who has often been photographed in the company of busty party girls and sometimes with members of the Wu-Tang Clan rap group, could not be reached directly Tuesday.
A message he circulated on his site – CalvinAyre.com – said he will only be making comments online. “I see this as abuse of the U.S. criminal justice system,” his statement said. “... It is clear that the online gaming industry is legal under international law.”
An avid promoter of mostly failed Canadian penny stocks in his past life, he parlayed his past earnings into business success about a decade ago.
Ayre has tended to shy away from discussing the still-murky origins of Bodog, a private company, preferring instead to spin far-fetched comic-book style narratives about himself in a bid to enhance his mystique.
In Bodog press releases and graphic novels, he created fictional alter-egos, casting himself as a man who fights terrorists in his spare time. And after hitting the cover of Forbes’ billionaire issue in 2006, he really revelled in the publicity. He used his fame to branch out into Bodog Music – signing the Iranian-Canadian beauty queen Nazanin Afshin-Jam, to a recording contract, years before she married Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay. He also tried to cash in on the mixed-martial arts craze through a venture called BodogFight.
Many of these ventures fizzled and Bodog itself is about to embark on a rebranding exercise. A spokesman for the site said Tuesday that the U.S. Bodog.com site was essentially defunct, and no longer took bets from U.S. customers.
Meantime, Ayre, who says he is no longer engaged in Bodog’s U.S. gambling operations, posts messages about himself on YouTube, where he has starred in his own “Ask Calvin” videos.”
In one of them, a viewer writes in to call him out for shenanigans that have proved “cocky and destructive” for the online gaming industry – including the infamous Forbes cover.
“I didn’t say ‘catch me if you can,’ ” Ayre retorts, disavowing the quote. But, he adds, “Forbes sold a lot of magazines off of it.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story described Nazanin Afshin-Jam as a fried of Calvin Ayre. The two had a working relationship, including music, film, graphic-novel and human-rights projects. This version has been clarified.