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Monadnock Region Ponzi scheme shatters community's trust

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 26. 2016 8:12PM

CONCORD — After four years of silence, the victims of a $28 million Ponzi scheme are finally having their say, as the perpetrator of a scam that rocked the Monadnock Region prepares for sentencing on Friday.

Aaron Olson of Rindge has admitted to masterminding a fraud that traumatized a close-knit community of families with shared ethnic and religious ties in the Rindge and New Ipswich area. Victim impact statements submitted to the court in preparation for the sentencing show just how deep that trauma was felt.

The victims say Olson's deception cost them much more than money, leaving psychological scars that may never heal and turning lives upside down.

“He took me for just about everything that I had worked for in the last 18 years,” wrote one 38-year-old victim. “Not only did he take my money, he also took a lot more. He betrayed me. He shattered my sense of trust. Made me look like a fool to the community. I can't even put into words what this did to me physiologically.”

That statement from A.K., who claims to have lost close $1 million, is one of nine that prosecutors were able to obtain from a long list of victims.

The statements were sealed by the court, pending the sentencing, but were released in redacted form after the New Hampshire Union Leader filed a motion to have them unsealed.

Olson's attorney objected to the release of the statements, alleging they contain false information that harms Olson's reputation and won't be subject to cross-examination.

“The victim impact statements are factually detailed and contain several allegations concerning not only the tax evasion counts to which Mr. Olson has pleaded guilty, but also Mr. Olson's underlying conduct related to claims of securities fraud,” wrote defense attorney Michael Connolly of Hinkley Allen.

U.S. District Court Judge Landya McCafferty denied Olson's objection, and ruled on March 22 that the victims' statements would be unsealed, with the victims' identities redacted.

“Although he pleaded guilty to attempted tax evasion, Olson does not dispute that his underlying criminal conduct involved his creation of a Ponzi scheme whereby he defrauded multiple investors of millions of dollars,” McCafferty wrote in her order.

Authorities decided not to prosecute Olson on more serious charges of securities fraud in connection with the Ponzi scheme that collapsed in 2012, instead obtaining a guilty plea on four counts of attempted tax evasion in connection with $2.6 million Olson admits to converting to personal use.

He faces a minimum of 3½ years in prison and will be ordered to pay restitution, according to a plea agreement.

Reluctant witnesses

In a 2014 consent order with the state Department of Securities Regulation, Olson admitted that from 2007 to 2012 he obtained approximately $27.8 million from investors, combined investor funds with his own and sent false earning statements — a classic Ponzi scheme.

Despite the evidence, prosecutors had a hard time lining up witnesses and took months to establish a restitution schedule due to the difficulty in determining the identity of all Olson's victims.

“It's been a feature of this case that some, certainly not all, victims have been reluctant to come forward, and to this day still don't want to be considered as victims for purposes of this prosecution,” said U.S. Attorney Mark Zuckerman, who is prosecuting the case.

The same insular qualities of the community that Olson exploited to perpetrate his scam may have also complicated his prosecution.

Among the nine victims who agreed to submit impact statements are some of Olson's own family members.

“Aaron was a trusted relative,” wrote J.R.S. “The betrayal to my family has been emotionally exhausting.”

Common themes

Savings accumulated over years of hard work up in smoke, confidence shattered, a comfortable existence turned into a life of hardship are some of the themes echoed in the statements.

“Mr. Olson robbed us of a lifetime of savings, our 401k retirement savings, the fruits of many years and thousands upon thousands of hours of good, hard, honest work to provide a quality living and comfortable home for our family,” wrote J.S. “Our dignity, as well as our trust in our ability to make the right decisions, the resources to take some family vacations that we could have taken, as well as many family memories which cannot be replaced due to our additional time away working as a result of this situation.”

J.S. goes on to write: “There are many other families impacted by this Ponzi scheme as well ... each with a story and an emotional and financial burden to bear, including my parents, siblings, relatives, friends, in-laws and many others.”

In addition to family connections, many of the victims share Olson's roots in the Finnish community of the Monadnock area, served in large part by the Hope Fellowship Church in New Ipswich, and the Christian Outreach Church in Rindge. Ministers at those churches talked of the pain among their congregation when the scandal broke and forgiveness as the years wore on.

Many of the victims reflect on how their faith has sustained them, and even led them to forgiveness.

After a long description of how they were defrauded out of $100,000 and had their marriage tested by the trauma of the ensuing years, M.S. and S.L.S. tell Olson, “We have already chosen to forgive you, whether or not you are sorry. The Lord clearly states to forgive as we have been forgiven.”

Some still bitter

There are strains of bitterness among some victims, as in the case of N.R., who lost $70,000 and wonders why Olson is only facing tax evasion charges: “He has no respect for the working people, and clearly the law doesn't either if they think this is only tax evasion,” N.R. writes.

One of the biggest losses in the scheme can be attributed to a victim identified as S.R.S., whose construction company invested heavily in Olson's firm, AEO Associates, and lost $1.5 million.

Yet, S.R.S. goes on to write, “I have forgiven him. I fully expect that I will never see a penny of the money he stole from us. I have no desire to see him punished in any way. My only hope is that he will repent and tell the truth before he stands in judgment at the end of time.”

What resonates through much of the victim testimony, beyond forgiveness, is a sense of disbelief that they could be so abused by someone they had, in many cases, known and trusted since childhood.

“I do not understand, nor do I want to, how someone could lie, cheat and steal from their own family, wife's family, relatives and community of friends and acquaintances,” writes S.A., who lost $136,500. “The prayers that went up, even on Aaron's behalf, feel almost foolish, knowing now what we do.”

Olson, meanwhile, has remained a free man, continuing to pursue his business interests in the Monadnock region.

State land use officials last year gave his company, KMO, a permit to remove stone from a quarry in Fitzwillam after years of opposition from townspeople and a lawsuit by KMO against the town.

He has changed lawyers several times during civil suits, Securities Department investigations and his tax evasion case in U.S. District Court, where sentencing has been delayed six times since late last year.

Attempts to reach Olson and his attorney by email and telephone were unsuccessful.

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