Holocaust survivor scammed in SoCal Ponzi scheme

WOODLAND HILLS, LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- A Southland scam is busted. But now it's the lives of the victims left in pieces.

Bernd Stevens is 95 years old and unable to recover from financial ruin.

"This changed my life. All I can do is exist," said Stevens.

His story reads like both a thriller plot and a tragedy. During WWII in Germany, his father and brother were killed in a gas chamber while the rest of his family disappeared. Stevens twice escaped execution.

"Luck and God's help," he said.

By his 90s, the retired CPA thought surely his life's worst nightmare was over. Then came con men Joel Gillis and Edward Wishner of Woodland Hills. Stevens said what they did to him was worse than the Nazis.

"I would rather deal with those crazy Germans," said the Holocaust survivor.

The betrayal cut even deeper for Berywyn and Elaine Friedman of Thousand Oaks. The con men were people they had known and trusted for years. Berywyn Friedman confronted one of the scam artists in the hallway of the federal court.

"We were friends, how could you do this to me," he asked.

Friedman's former country club buddy just shrugged. The Friedmans and 1,300 other victims had missed the danger sign in a contract. According to prosecutors, it had promised a 20 percent return on their investments.

"Guaranteed returns are a red flag. There is no such thing as a guaranteed investment," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ranee Katzenstein.

The scam was pegged on ATM machines. Gillis and Wishner told the victims to give them money to buy an ATM machine. The con men told the victims they would operate the machine for them and the victim would get 50 cents from every transaction. The victims never suspected the ATMS were imaginary.

"The checks came in at the first of the month without fail," explained Berwyn Friedman.

That early money though was from new investors who were buying in. After a decade passed, the pyramid collapsed and investors were left wiped out.

"There was a married couple who talked about how they were going to have to start working for a maid service and they were over 70," Prosecutor Paul Stern said.

For Stevens it was worse, as he contemplated suicide.

"I would like to kill myself, then I wouldn't have to worry about it," Stevens said.

The bottom fell out of Stevens' health plan. He lives on Social Security and instead of the one-on-one help he had before, he had to move to a converted home in Hawthorne where he shares care providers.

For the Friedmans, an extra hit came when federal receivers demanded the couple pay back their ATM dividends. Even money they spent a decade ago when they didn't have a clue it was scammed money. The stunning sum was $4.3 million.

To pay up, the Friedmans are selling their 3,700 square-foot house and moving to an apartment.

Wishner and Gillis are serving nine and 10 year prison terms. As for Stevens, he thinks of his father who had used every penny to help him escape Germany.

Stevens said the con men stole from him what he planned to leave for his children.

"I don't have a dollar to spend on anything," said Stevens. "They are crooks. They saved money for themselves, took it away from us."
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