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07.12.12

Did Aubrey Lee Price Kill Himself, Or Is He Just Hiding in Central America?

A bank director from Georgia under investigation goes missing and wants to be presumed dead, but there’s evidence to suggest he’s still alive and on the lam. Matt DeLuca reports.

Aubrey Lee Price wants you to think he’s dead at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, but as far as federal investigators are concerned, he could be almost anywhere.

The 46-year-old bank director from southern Georgia disappeared last month while under investigation for swindling investors out of $17 million. He was last seen boarding a ferry from Key West to Fort Myers, three-and-a-half hours up Florida’s Gulf Coast. On June 18, two days after Price said he was going to Guatemala for a business trip, friends and family received a rambling 22-page letter from Price, laced with scriptural references.

“My time has just run out. I die and will be buried in shame and regret as I should,” the letter read, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Titled “Confidential Confession for Regulators,” the letter goes on to say, “I created false financial statements and defrauded investors, regulators, other work associates and bank employees.”

But that didn’t close the case for the FBI, whose agents are still trying to determine whether Price, described as a former financial advisor for Salomon Smith Barney in securities filings, is in fact dead or if he is still on the lam.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which froze Price’s assets after he went missing, referenced the letter in its July 2 complaint alleging investment advisory fraud (PDF). And on June 28, prosecutors filed a complaint in New York federal court (PDF) detailing suspicions that Price had “devised a scheme and artifice to defraud and to obtain money.” The FBI is investigating the case.

In interviews, both FBI representatives and those who had business dealings with Price before his alleged embezzlement described to The Daily Beast a man who cast the glow of faith and family.

But according to Assistant Special Agent in Charge Douglas Leff, many of the specifics of Price’s case match the profile of someone with no intention to commit suicide.

“We’ve seen people do these types of things before, and it has a lot of hallmarks like someone who isn’t going to take their own life,” Leff said.

No allegations of wrongdoing had been filed against Price when he disappeared, but Leff said that’s not unusual of people who have engaged in long-running financial scams.

According to documents filed with the SEC, Price has had at least one prior brush with the agency. In 2003, $14,350 in compensation was paid to an investor named Deborah Lee Morse after she made allegations that Price, then an employee at Salomon Smith Barney in Atlanta, had engaged in “unauthorized and excessive trading and breach of fiduciary duty,” causing her damages of more than $113,000, according to financial documents (PDF).

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Morse said a friend recommended Price to her in 2003, when she was recently coming off a divorce and had made some bad investments in tech stocks. “From what he told me, from my memory back then, Lee Price never had any formal training or education in the finance department,” Morse said.

The friend told Morse that he and Price had been classmates at a Christian college and seminary near Atlanta, so Morse went to speak with Price at a Salomon Smith Barney office in Atlanta.

“You know, he had this perfect setting, the pictures of all the kids and the wife all over the office, and he’s a very soft-spoken guy,” Morse said. But Price kept her in the same volatile stocks, she said, and she kept losing money.

“We met several times, because I was scared to death and I would go to his office,” Morse said. “And every time I’d go he’d sit there in his soft-spoken, neat, shy way, telling me over and over again, ‘I wouldn’t put you in anything I wouldn’t put my mother and my sister in.’”

The same downhome charm may have ingratiated Price with the people of Ailey, Georgia, a town of fewer than 450 people and home to the Montgomery Bank and Trust, where Price was a director from 2010 until his disappearance.

When the bank was taken over by Ameris Bank this week, the town was shocked, said Robby Smith, a director of mission at Daniell Baptist Church in Ailey.

“It was a big surprise come Monday morning” when the takeover happened, Smith said. “The bank changed over just like that.”

Ailey’s small-town atmosphere, mixed with Price’s financial credentials and Baptist bona fides, may have helped him operate under a “shroud of legitimacy,” the FBI’s Leff said.

‘The facts we’ve had so far in our possession are mostly uncorroborated, but indicate a high likelihood that he’s still with us.’

According to the FBI affidavit and SEC complaint filed in connection to the fraud allegations, Price embezzled $17 million through his involvement in Montgomery Bank and Trust, primarily by wiring millions of dollars into a Goldman Sachs account. The Goldman name was one of the assurances Price gave his clients that their money was safe, Leff said, “though their money had long been laundered out and the account was basically empty.”

Now, the FBI is running down leads that Price may have hotfooted it to Central or  South America, where he has longstanding connections. Documents filed with Georgia’s Corporations Division list a Lee Price (PDF) as CEO of Global Discipleship Ministries, Inc. A Lee Price is also listed among the board of directors on a website for Global Discipleship Ministries, which also includes information about the organization’s activities in Venezuela. The site also has information for planning mission trips to Venezuela, including the cost for airfare and bus rides.

The FBI’s affidavit states that Price is believed to “own a boat that would be large enough to travel from Venezuela from Florida.”

“We’ve been told that’s he’s been affiliated with a church that’s primarily centered in South America and that perhaps Mr. Price has gone to the length of not just providing funding but actually assisting in building church properties,” Leff said.

The FBI has agents on the ground in Guatemala and Venezuela, where it is believed Price may have purchased property, Leff said. When pursuing white-collar fugitives, he added, the FBI has to deal with them as people who may have an extra ounce of wit in their favor.

“The facts we’ve had so far in our possession are mostly uncorroborated, but indicate a high likelihood that he’s still with us,” Leff said. “But if his body were to wash up on shore tomorrow, would we be shocked? No.”