The promotional videos paint a portrait of an exotic hideaway, nestled amid enchanting waterfalls and serene seaside vistas, bathed in amber sunsets and dotted with model homes with names like Sandpiper and Macaw. Retirees and investors saw them and were charmed.
But nearly a decade after American and Canadians began buying into Dreamscapes of Belize, a planned residential community in Central America’s only English-speaking country, there is no electricity, no marina, no 18-hole golf course.
Also, no homes.
There are, instead, plenty of disappointed and bewildered customers, some of whom claim in litigation that they were duped into buying dreary, landlocked scrub land by slick YouTube animations, Google ads and an ambiguous sales contract.
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Mixed up in the dispute are a pair of offshore companies set up by Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm at the center of the Panama Papers scandal, and a Florida-based skin-care company that is now defunct. It’s not exactly clear what role the offshores played in the drama, although one of them — registered in the Bahamas — was a holding company for the Belize properties, according to a Mossack Fonseca file. More could come out in pending litigation.
But experts said they aren’t surprised to learn of the offshore companies’ presence in a case involving allegations of fraud and missing money.
We have people who are a part of this lawsuit for whom this was their retirement, their dream. Some of them have died since this started. Some have medical bills and will never experience Belize. It makes me angry.
Thad Akins, buyer
Although there are legitimate uses for offshore corporations, they can also be used to hide assets and secretly move money beyond the prying eyes of tax authorities, regulators, investors and people bent on suing.
The Dreamscapes tale emerged from a review of Caribbean connections in the Panama Papers, a massive cache of documents leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and shared with the McClatchy Washington Bureau, the Miami Herald and others.
“We were buying it for our parents to have a vacation place to go to, to retire and have family gatherings,” said Thad Akins, 34, an Oregon-based buyer and litigant who estimates that $10 million was collected by Dreamscapes Belize, including $115,000 from his own purchase of lots and a model home that the group pitched to those who previously bought lots.
“We have people who are a part of this lawsuit for whom this was their retirement, their dream,” Akins said “Some of them have died since this started. Some have medical bills and will never experience Belize. It makes me angry.”
The Dreamscapes saga is a cautionary tale for those who might be thinking of handing over money for unbuilt homes in a faraway place, based on little more than alluring images. It echoes a bygone era when Northerners bought Florida property sight unseen, only to learn it was remote swampland.
The cast of characters includes a disbarred lawyer whose penny stock offering ran afoul of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, another disbarred lawyer who went to prison for scheming with mobsters, and two Palm Beach County-based company directors — one past, one present — each of whom blames the other for the project’s troubles.
According to a lawsuit filed in 2015 in West Palm Beach, buyers responded to a Dreamscapes website and were induced to pay from $20,000 to $30,000 for vacant lots in a 563-acre expanse in the Stann Creek district of Belize.
The lawsuit names director and founder Clifton Goodrich and Kenneth Dunn, among others. Dunn is a lawyer with a troubled past. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy charge in connection with a money-laundering scheme orchestrated by the Florida branch of the Bonanno crime family.
Dunn, who blamed a cocaine habit for his transgressions, would be sentenced to 43 months in prison and surrender his law license.
Goodrich said he hooked up with Dunn after the disbarred lawyer served his time. They connected with previous lot buyers and convinced some, including Akins, to ante up an additional $50,000 to build model homes. In exchange for letting the homes be used as a showcase for one year, the buyers got discounts on the retail price.
Buyers were told the Dreamscapes revenues would be plowed into improvements, like access roads, a potable water supply, waste treatment facility, a school and police and fire stations. None of that happened, the litigation alleges. They were also promised an 18-hole golf course, clubhouse and marina facility with dockage, none of which exist.
Akins alleges the developer was supposed to build only six to eight model homes, but in fact roped in 27 individuals with the same offer.
Along with his wife, Rochelle, Akins is among 16 individuals suing to get their money back.
Over the years, the project in Belize came under the control of different corporations, one of which was Oasis Communities. Thomas Dougherty was a director and is named in the Akins lawsuit. A lawyer who is also defending the case, Dougherty said the accusations have no merit, at least with regard to the current management team.
He said the legal complaint involves a “minute fraction” of buyers who have convinced others to go along. He believes the allegations stem from a disgruntled former colleague and shareholder, Scott Carlson, who repeatedly asked to see Dreamscapes’ books.
According to Carlson, it “appeared the corporate account was being used like a personal account.”
Dougherty said the current management “has been seeking financing so that the development can be built out,” and that the process is now hampered by what he calls a “frivolous” lawsuit.
Lawyer and defendant Thomas Dougherty said the legal complaint involves a “minute fraction” of buyers who have convinced others to go along. He believes the allegations stem from a disgruntled former colleague and buyer who repeatedly asked to see Dreamscapes’ books.
But when Carlson took issue with the finances, the developers sued him, Carlson said.
Colm King, the current chief executive officer of the Dreamscapes project and a defendant in the buyers’ lawsuit, said the developers are in negotiations over financing and expect to be ready to begin construction in 60 days. He blames the current problems on Goodrich, who was forced out of Dreamscapes in 2013.
According to the MF files, both King and Goodrich had or have ties to the offshore companies. One offshore, Dreamscapes Holdings of Belize, was incorporated in the Bahamas in 2008. The other, Dreamscapes of Belize, was incorporated later in the Seychelles, a popular offshore haven in the Indian Ocean.
The suit by buyers makes no mention of Mossack Fonseca. Russell Forkey, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said he hasn’t yet been able to figure out what role the offshore companies played. The developers have fought “tooth and nail” to block access to financial information, he said.
Asked why the project needed offshore corporations, King deferred to Goodrich.
“Why he set them up, I have no idea,” King said. “We are not using them.”
According to the lawsuit, King’s involvement in the development dates back at least to 2012, when Dreamscapes was still actively marketing to potential customers. He took control of the offshores in 2014, according to Mossack Fonseca files.
Goodrich explained that he set up the offshores so that he could “transfer money between the United States and Belize.”
U.S. experts consulted by the Miami Herald questioned that explanation.
“You don’t need an offshore bank account for that reason,” said Jeffrey Rubinger, an attorney at Bilzin Sumberg who specializes in international tax law. “You can easily have a U.S. bank account.”
Two years ago, a company called Big Bear Developers was retained to help develop the project but walked away months later after the directors couldn’t come up with the money even to survey the area.
Marco Gallo, Big Bear’s CEO, had a number of problems with the project. Among them: The marketing suggests Dreamscapes is on the Caribbean coast, when it really isn’t.
“When you get there, you realize it’s two miles from the water and the water is very murky from the river dumping into the ocean,” he said. “It’s very unappealing and in an unappealing part of Belize.”
The model home buyers’ lawsuit claims Goodrich alone diverted more than $2.7 million for his personal use.
Goodrich said he never tried to “weasel anybody out of their money.” He blamed King and his other former associates and a bad economy for the project’s troubles.
As for his allegedly lavish lifestyle, Goodrich said: “I didn’t have to spend as much as I did. But we were successful and there was no reason to live as if you were not.”
Goodrich said the model home gambit “was a great idea if things had gone the way it was supposed to have gone.”
Lot owners like Akins were allegedly told they could own a fully constructed home valued at between $150,000 and $275,000 for less than $100,000.
The problem, according to Akins: “Not one dime went into the project.”
King acknowledges that the money wasn’t used as it should have been, but says that is the fault of Goodrich.
“I am not accountable for his personal sins, but I did inherit the baggage,” King said.
King says the turnaround of the company is “almost complete.”
Late last year, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint against a Florida skin-care start-up called Caribbean Pacific Marketing and two individuals, David K. Hirschman and Manny J. Shulman.
The men, both from South Florida, were involved in the sale of penny stocks to generate capital at least partly intended to prop up the project in Belize. Or so they said. In fact, the SEC claimed, Caribbean Pacific raised $270,000 but spent just $2,200 on legitimate business expenses. The rest the men allegedly pocketed.
The SEC complaint further alleges that Caribbean Pacific also did not disclose the day-to-day involvement of one William Reilly, a disbarred attorney who pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 2013. Shulman himself had been barred in 2011 from selling unregistered penny stocks or serving as an officer or director after violating SEC fraud rules.
Akins and other Dreamscapes buyers alleged they were issued thousands of shares in Caribbean Pacific as well as Dreamscapes, which were later voided.
Dougherty said a planned merger with Caribbean Pacific “never came to fruition.”
The Dreamscapes saga echoes a bygone era when Northerners bought Florida property sight unseen, only to learn it was remote swampland.
Kenneth Rijock, a convicted money launderer who is now a financial crimes consultant, said the buyers are partly at fault for failing to get professional advice before signing onto the deal.
“No buyer in their right mind would buy property without having a lawyer do due diligence,” Rijock said.
As to where all the money went — into an offshore corporation or somewhere else — right now it’s anybody’s guess.
Akins said he last visited Belize a year and a half ago, but more recently hired someone to go to the site to see if any progress had been made.
“The roads were washed out, the grass overgrown. Everything had turned back to jungle,” he said.
Akins said there is a sign on the property: “Dreamscapes coming soon.”
He said it has been there since 2008.
Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.