During a lavish party for hundreds of guests, North Miami Beach developers Victor and Natalia Wolf unveiled their most ambitious project: a new city in the heart of Texas.
There, the couple envisioned a futuristic community known as Sky Station, featuring thousands of homes, luxury stores, hotels and office towers.
“A poster child for development,” said one investor.
Now, with the Wolfs already indicted in a land scandal in Florida, federal agents are investigating the spectacular collapse of a Texas project — one of the largest of its kind, wiping out dozens of investors with millions of dollars still missing.
In the end, a plan that promised to be a model for the country is now covered by barbed wire, cattle and brush — not a single home built.
“These people destroyed lives,” said Coral Springs businessman Peter Mazzarino, who invested with the couple in Florida.
The Wolfs are wanted by the FBI for concocting a massive land swindle on Florida’s Gulf Coast, but little is known of their push into Texas that cost investors and lenders nearly $77 million.
The move was the last major venture by the couple to attract clients across the country before fleeing their stately waterfront home in Miami-Dade.
They set up a headquarters in a glass tower near Biscayne Boulevard in Aventura, boasting a new name: Sky Group of Texas — but in the end, it turned out to be an empty office with no working phones.
Even company letters showing luxury stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus coming to the project were bogus claims.
Years after the Wolfs fled the country, the failed project has caught the attention of federal postal inspectors and state agents in a widening investigation.
Texas regulators are moving to strip the license of the title company that performed the land deals — a subsidiary of Miami’s Lennar Homes — saying the firm falsified records showing where the money was diverted.
Key records were just released in a federal lawsuit, prompting investors to accuse the Wolfs and others of running a massive Ponzi scheme that snared 31 investors, five banks and three other lenders.
Investors say millions moved through various bank accounts, including 30 separate companies, but just a fraction was put into construction.
“It’s just staggering that millions of dollars got spent, and there’s nothing there,” said Brian Vodicka, a retired accountant who lost $915,000.
“This was supposed to be Austin’s new stamp on the map for creating a living community. They were going to build a city. There should have been roads. There should have been homes. What do you see? A broken-down barn and a head of cattle.”
Two other key partners in the project, Vitaly Zaretsky of New Jersey, and Eugene Borokhovich, 48, of New York, could not be reached for comment.
In earlier interviews, their lawyers said the partners didn’t break any laws and that all their land deals were overseen by title companies.
But investors say state regulators have already found enough fraud with the title company’s handling of the project to shut down the firm.
The FBI’s Fort Lauderdale office refuses to comment on the Wolfs, now suspected of being part of a network of Russian nationals who preyed on investors during the housing boom.
For nearly a year, the couple jetted between Florida and Texas, touting what was considered one of the most unique projects in the country.
Sky Station was to include four developments — collectively known as the Wildhorse Ranch — featuring 9,200 lots spread around lakes, nature trails and trees along with 375 stores, hotels and restaurants.
Government leaders even jumped on board, pledging up to $25 million in utilities in the largest such deal ever struck by the city of Austin.
“People expected a lot of good things would happen,” said Charles Heimsath, a local real estate analyst.
During a yacht party thrown by the Wolfs on the Floridian Princess, the couple bragged about their celebrated plans that featured stores like Gucci, Cartier and Macy’s, guests recalled.
“They were looking to scam new people,” recalled Alexandra Krot, a retired oncologist who invested in the deal. In addition to the project with the Wolfs, the other partners began attracting investors to jump into four other surrounding developments.
What followed was a series of moves by the Wolfs and their partners that would later reach law enforcement agents and state regulators.
First, the Wolfs were forced to flee the country in late 2006 after they were found fabricating bogus deeds on 256 lots they didn’t own in Florida, selling them to unsuspecting buyers.
Then, two years later, the entire Texas venture collapsed when the other partners were forced into bankruptcy after failing to make payments on $55 million in loans, records show.
Investors said they discovered that nothing was ever built — no roads, sidewalks or even a home on the 1,665 acres.
Krot, 70, said she learned she was scammed after wiring $625,000 to invest in the deal, but the Wolfs ended up pocketing her money.
Then, another partner, Zaretsky tapped into more loan money — $1.4 million — to pay a debt to a Russian investor before taking the rest to Atlantic City, he swore in a statement.
Investors say the biggest surprise turned out to be the massive land flips orchestrated by the partners to squeeze more money from lenders.
After setting up different companies, the partners sold the same land to their own entities twice — to artificially pump up the value 188 percent, records show.
In just 38 days, land that once sold for $30,500 an acre was now flipped for $88,000. “A trifecta of fraud,” said a New York lawyer representing Borokhovich.
The two remaining partners have since split over the land collapse, with Borokovich accusing Zaretsky in a court filing of committing widespread fraud.
Another partner in the flips, Jeff Turner, a mayor of the nearby town of Manor, collected more than $189,000 in consulting fees from the project. Turner did not return repeated phone calls from The Miami Herald.
Four years after the demise of the plan, investors say they are still fighting for records to find the whereabouts of approximately $25 million.
“It’s like one lie on top of the other,” said Chet Tutor, 72, a Vietnam War vet who lost $600,000. “I’m one of the guys who really got ripped.”
Vodicka said investors will continue to press for answers from the remaining partners, but the people who may know the most are now international fugitives: the Wolfs.
Natalia Wolf, 37, fled to Germany with the couple’s infant daughter, but federal agents were unable to trace the whereabouts of Victor Wolf, 53.
“Just like the money, they vanished,” said Vodicka.
A former Broward prosecutor who has been investigating the Wolfs for four years said the couple targeted Texas because the land boom was reaching a peak.
“It’s not because they were running out of deals in Florida,” said Roman Groysman, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who is fighting in court for a burned investor to win ownership of the Wolfs house.
“If they could have, they would have gone to all 50 states,” he said. “But I think what they found in Texas was that America really was the land of opportunity. Where else can you find a mayor to work with? Where else can you work with developers who had been doing this all their lives? They broke into the top levels of society. It’s not that [the Wolfs} ran out of money. They ran out of time.”