By all accounts, Robert Mander looked like a successful businessman.
He owned a portfolio of real estate properties, ran an investment firm and managed an art gallery in Oakville, Ont., that boasted an exclusive collection of "paintings, sculpture and glass in a range of styles by Canadian and International, emerging and recognized artists."
Mr. Mander also lived well. He enjoyed luxury cars, claimed to have a $35-million place in New York and recently built a $100,000 playhouse for his son that included a pirate ship and a castle.
But now Mr. Mander is at the centre of a growing mystery and dozens of creditors have gone to court alleging he owes them at least $40-million. Complaints have also been filed with the Ontario Securities Commission and the RCMP.
If the local newspaper was thrown on his driveway, he was the type of guy who would drive over it for a week. Neighbour of Robert Mander
For now, no one is sure of Mr. Mander's whereabouts.
Police found a dead man at Mr. Mander's home in Flamborough, Ont., a week ago, but won't confirm the identity. Sergeant Terri-Lynn Collings of Hamilton police would only say that the death was "not suspicious" and officers had ruled out homicide. One investor has claimed Mr. Mander committed suicide and a neighbour is convinced the body taken out of the house was Mr. Mander. Meanwhile, a funeral for him is scheduled Wednesday night at a Buddhist temple in Caledon, Ont.
"He is a mystery guy. He has been a mystery to me since he came here," said Michael Brazeau, who lives on the same cul-de-sac as Mr. Mander. Mr. Brazeau described Mr. Mander as a nice, quiet guy who lived by himself, had a elementary-school-aged son and drove a Range Rover SUV. In the past two years, Mr. Brazeau recalled maybe a dozen conversations about various matters.
The playhouse, he added, "looks like something right out of a theme park. Took three months to build."
Overall, he said Mr. Mander kept to himself. "If the local newspaper was thrown on his driveway, he was the type of guy who would drive over it for a week."
Rumours are flying. According to court filings, Mr. Mander told one investor he'd been disabled by a heart attack last November. Then he changed the timing of the attack to Dec. 11, 2009, the day he was supposed to pay another investor $455,000. Other investors said in court filings that he applied for a passport last month and quietly put several properties up for sale.
I don't believe [Mr. Mander]currently engages, or ever did engage, in the business of investing. Davide Amato, an investor and former dentist, said in a court affidavit
"I don't believe [Mr. Mander]currently engages, or ever did engage, in the business of investing," Davide Amato, an investor and former dentist, said in an affidavit filed in court. "I have seen no evidence of the investments that were purchased with the funds provided by [Mr. Amato and others]rdquo;.
Mr. Amato, who lives in Mississauga, was unavailable for comment. But he is leading the charge against Mr. Mander in court.
Last week he won a court order putting Mr. Mander's company, E.M.B. Asset Group Inc., into receivership. In court filings, Mr. Amato alleged he feared Mr. Mander was about to liquidate his assets and flee.
In an affidavit, Mr. Amato said he met Mr. Mander in April, 2007, through a friend, Peter Sbaraglia. The two had started an investment company called CO Capital Growth that guaranteed returns of 25 per cent annually, the filing alleged. Mr. Amato was sold - and put $4-million into CO Capital, using a line of credit secured by his home. He also encouraged some friends and family to sink in $1-million.
A few months later, Mr. Amato alleged, the two persuaded him to set up a company to attract other investors. The idea was simple. Investors would lend money to Mr. Amato's company, which he would then lend to CO Capital. Mr. Amato would make money on the difference between the higher interest he received from CO Capital and the lower interest he paid his clients.
Mr. Amato agreed. He sold his dental practice and created SA Capital with help from Mr. Mander, who became a co-owner. He soon attracted roughly 40 investors.
Mr. Amato eventually fell out with Mr. Sbaraglia and moved SA's money out of CO Capital and into Mr. Mander's E.M.B. Mr. Sbaraglia declined comment Tuesday and he is not part of the receivership order.
All the loans carried specific terms, but Mr. Amato alleged Mr. Mander encouraged him to keep rolling them over and to draft the loan agreements in a way that made it hard for SA investors to seek redemptions. He also alleged Mr. Mander told him E.M.B. invested its money in publicly traded equities although Mr. Amato said he never saw any paperwork to back that up.
If so, tell us your story.
By November, 2009, Mr. Amato said he was becoming concerned. He'd raised more than $18-million for E.M.B. and several client loans were coming due. Mr. Amato alleged that when he started asking for payments, Mr. Mander stalled. First he pleaded illness, then he claimed Mr. Amato had cut off their relationship and finally he tried to assuage Mr. Amato. "It will all get worked out," he told Mr. Amato in an e-mail filed in court. "You need to be calm."
Mr. Amato alleged Mr. Mander had bought up several properties, sometimes paying in cash. They included his $900,000 house in Flamborough, a $2-million property in Caledon, a $1.2-million building in Oakville that housed the art gallery and an adjacent building worth $1.5-million.
Mr. Mander also claimed to have a $35-million property in Manhattan that he was about to sell, promising to use the proceeds to pay off investors, according to Mr. Amato's affidavit.
Mr. Amato said he hasn't heard from Mr. Mander since Feb. 4, when he refused to meet with Mr. Amato and a friend to go over the investments. Fed up with waiting, Mr. Amato headed to court on March 15, seeking an order to put E.M.B. into receivership. Two days later, the dead body was found at Mr. Mander's house.
With research by Celia Donnelly