He's a model/actor/world traveler who now finds another title affixed to his name -- alleged Ponzi schemer.
Beyond his pin-up good looks and dazzlingly white smile, former Florida Atlantic University student Donald R. French Jr. stands out from the never-ending parade of South Floridians accused of running investment frauds. Federal authorities say he was just 21 years old when he launched a $10 million "classic Ponzi scheme" he used to transform himself from a boy from Michigan into an international jet-setter.
Local attorneys who track investment fraud cases say they have never heard of anyone so young accused of convincing people to entrust him with millions of dollars. French formed a Boca Raton-based company in March 2008, promising returns of up to 50 percent a year with investments in foreign currencies, emeralds and even a solar-energy project in Italy, according to federal court records.
Using the money, he set up a home in Rome, traveled to 30 countries and was a high roller in Las Vegas, court documents show. His wild ride ended this summer when he was detained in South Africa and brought back to Las Vegas for passing bad checks at casinos. He's now in South Florida facing a wire fraud charge related to his company, D3 Capital Management.
His arraignment in West Palm Beach federal court had been scheduled for Friday, but it was postponed after his attorney wrote that French and federal authorities are "seeking to resolve this matter" -- an indication that they are talking about a plea deal.
Robert Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law school professor, said investors typically fall for financial frauds run by people who have an air of experience and that usually means a few gray hairs on top of the schemer's head. He said a young person trying to pull off a Ponzi scheme would have to overcome that hurdle.
"We know Ponzi schemers have to be very good actors," Jarvis said. "That's what they are at a base level...You have to give people a reason to invest with you. You have to get people to like you."
French clearly harbored dreams of making it as an actual actor, appearing in a 2007 Italian movie "Matrimonio alle Bahamas." He has his acting resume and head shots up on an Italian casting agency's website.
In addition, there's a lavishly filmed four-minute movie trailer on YouTube featuring French and a young boy as brothers. It's not entirely clear what the movie is about -- or even its name -- but there are underwater shots of French and the boy scuba diving with dolphins and elaborate aerial shots of them climbing a mountain, running over a suspension bridge and running on a pier.
There are no indications that the film was ever completed.
Fort Lauderdale attorney Jeffrey Sonn, who represents victims of securities and investment fraud, said that in his 27 years of tracking such cases, he can't remember an accused Ponzi schemer as young as French.
"Ponzis are very similar in that they usually include a charismatic promoter who has the appearance of great success," Sonn said. "People are naturally drawn to other people who appear very successful...The Ponzi scheme promoter normally will live very well -- fancy cars, fancy jewelry, fancy homes and going to the better restaurants."
Federal court documents indicate that once the money started flowing for French, he began driving high-end cars and racked up gambling debts of more than $565,000 in Las Vegas. He made $1.48 million in debit card purchases, while withdrawing $1.28 million in cash, according to court records.
French acknowledged to a FBI special agent in July that he only invested a small fraction of investors' money, using his "gift of gab" to manipulate people, court documents show.
While a 21-year-old taking on the role of successful financier may seem hard to believe, South Florida has proved to be fertile ground for fraudsters shedding their past lives.
Former bar bouncer Sean Healy pulled off a $16.7 million Ponzi scheme before it collapsed in 2009 and he was sent him to prison for 16 years. While Ronnie E. Bass Jr., who once managed a fast food restaurant, masterminded a $12 million Delray Beach-based scam targeting Haitian Americans. He was sentenced last year to 17 years behind bars.
South Florida is second only to the New York City area as far as the number of federal securities and investment fraud investigations and prosecutions. More than 100 people have been arrested in South Florida since December 2010 on such fraud charges.
"South Florida is certainly a good place to go to pick the pockets and pocketbooks of the wealthy," Jarvis said.
None of French's investors -- including one who entrusted him with almost $2 million -- have publicly come forward. No lawsuits have been filed against French locally.
But a consumer website, pissedconsumer.com, offers insight into how investors became increasingly frustrated with him. In August 2011, someone wrote French was ripping off people.
"[French has been] taking money from people (his own friends and family included) only to realize his plans would not work out and since 2008 he has been hiding in Rome, Italy, to avoid any federal consequences," the anonymous poster wrote. "If this man or any of his associates contact you about doing business RUN!'
The comment section that followed become a gathering site for former investors and acquaintances. Someone posting as "Victim101" wrote: "I will do everything in my power to hunt him down."
Others pleaded for French to contact his investors.
"If Donald would contact his investors and tell them what is going on, and where the fund and everyone's money stand, it will allow everyone to understand the situation much better...For a lot of us it's a lifetime of savings," wrote another commenter in January.
firstname.lastname@example.org, 954-356-4491 or Twitter @jkburstein ___
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