By Chip ScanlanWhen one journalist falls, others rise to take up their cause. That’s the animating principle behind a long history of journalists completing untold stories left behind by murdered or jailed reporters. Such memorial work gained attention 1976, when 38 journalists from 28 newspapers and TV stations around the country teamed to pick up where Don Bolles left off before the Arizona Republic reporter was killed by a car bomb while investigating mob activities; their stories added momentum to the recently formed Investigative Reporters and Editors. Today, the Forbidden Stories project, started by a French journalist in 2017, builds coalitions of journalists who put aside competitive pressures to complete stories left behind by slain or jailed reporters.
Lizzie Johnson of The Washington Post honored that principle when she took up the mantle of Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German after he was stabbed to death in September 2022, allegedly by a county official he was investigating and who now sits in jail accused of his murder.
The Post, knowing the Las Vegas paper was overwhelmed by investigating his death, offered to help. An editor flagged one of the last stories German was working on, which was a probe of a Ponzi scheme that targeted Mormons that was brought down by federal authorities, and the idea found its way to Johnson at the Post.
“I didn’t have to think about it twice,” Johnson, an award-winning journalist on the paper’s local enterprise team, told me. “It was an immediate yes.”
Johnson picked up the thread of German’s research a month after his death. What followed were three intense months of reporting — crisscrossing Las Vegas and tracking court records in search of victims, tracking court records — writing, editing and fact-checking.
“The whole endeavor was a lot of pressure — carrying the torch for a fallen journalist, doing a story in his honor,” Johnson said. “I tried to focus on the reporting to prevent myself from being totally paralyzed by the immensity of the task.”
After amassing documents from the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission, doing phone and text interviews with Matt Beasley, one of the Ponzi scheme’s creators in prison, and talking with more than three dozen victims, Johnson produced “An alleged $500 million Ponzi scheme preyed on Mormons. It ended with FBI gunfire,” published simultaneously by The Post and the Review-Journal on Feb. 1, 2023. The project was awarded the 2023 Press Catalyst Award from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
It’s a 4,900-word cinematic narrative that weaves vivid scenes featuring the Ponzi schemers, the impact on their victims and the investigations that dismantled the $500 million fraud. Johnson leads by reconstructing a bloody standoff between FBI agents and Beasley, who came up with the lucrative deception. She keeps the reader’s attention by returning to that scene as the story progresses.
With most victims who lost money ashamed to go on the record, Johnson was finally able to persuade one Las Vegas woman, Ann Mabeus, to let her hang out with her for several days — a standard practice for narrative writers. The story closes with Johnson’s affecting profile of Mabeus, a newly divorced mother, as she struggles to rebuild her life after financial ruin.
The collaboration paired Johnson with with Review-Journal photojournalist Rachel Aston. She and Johnson discussed “which locations and victims to photograph and how to tell the story visually,” Johnson said. They wanted a photo of the gated multimillion-dollar mansion occupied by one of the main suspects; Aston breezed past security and got the shot. Editors at both papers zeroed in on legal issues raised by the story.
German’s death and the pall of other attacks on journalists kept Johnson motivated as she faced the many challenges posed by the Ponzi scheme story.
“Journalism is a hard job,” she said, “and it feels like it’s only gotten harder in recent years, with online harassment, intimidation and violence toward reporters increasing. I’ve certainly felt that pressure and anxiety. That’s partly why German’s murder was so horrifying. But at the end of the day, I knew that finishing his work was important, making it clear that a story didn’t have to die with a journalist.”
Before joining The Post, Johnson was a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, where she specialized in wildfire coverage; that coverage led to the 2022 book “Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire.” She is a three-time finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, and the California News Publishers Association has recognized her for Best Writing, Best Profile, Best Enterprise and Best Feature. In 2021, she won first place for long-form feature writing in the Best of the West contest. Her body of work reflects the extraordinary sensitivity she brings to interviews with victims.
“I never want someone I’ve interviewed to walk away feeling like something was taken from them,” she said. “I want them to feel heard and acknowledged.”
In an email conversation with Storyboard and an annotation of the Las Vegas project, Johnson outlined the challenges of reporting and writing another journalist’s story, the narrative’s layered structure and her reliance on PACER, the service that provides electronic public access to federal court records. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How far along was Jeff German in the reporting of this story?
All he’d left behind were a few folders of court filings, which I’d actually already pulled on PACER. He hadn’t really gotten started. So I inherited the idea more than anything else.
I listened to a podcast he’d hosted, “Mobbed Up,” as I drove across Las Vegas to interviews and often found myself wondering what he’d think of the story as it developed.
What work did finishing German’s story entail?
I started with the court filings, combing through the many, many dockets on PACER to better understand how the Ponzi scheme had come to be and what harm had been done. There were thousands of pages of filings, so this took some time. As I did that, I made a timeline, wrote down the names of people I wanted to contact and took screenshots of text messages and emails included in discovery documents, which I knew would be important once I started writing. When I had a good grasp of what had happened, I started reaching out to the victims and the alleged perpetrators, along with sources within different government agencies and the whistleblower group, Hindenburg Research, letting them know I had embarked on this story and wanted to talk with them about it, that I couldn’t know the full truth of what had happened without their help. I knew that talking with attorney Matt Beasley — allegedly at the center of the Ponzi Scheme — would be incredibly important, too, so I made sure to write him a letter early on in the process. It felt like a huge reporting coup that he ended up agreeing to talk with me.
What were the particular challenges you faced?
Getting victims to talk with me. There was this fear that — if they agreed to let me use their name — other people in their life would view them as stupid or naive or greedy. Because Ponzi schemes are so siloed, they didn’t realize that there were so many others confronting similar issues. Early on in my reporting, I got hold of the contact lists used by a few of the scheme’s marketers, which included the names of a few hundred investors. I left voicemails and sent emails to all of them. That resulted in a few dozen interviews, which funneled down to only a handful of people willing to go on the record.
How long did the reporting, writing and revision take?
I started reporting this story just before Halloween. In November, I traveled to New York City and Las Vegas for interviews — all in the midst of falling ill with COVID and moving apartments, which slowed me down a bit. Most of December and early January was spent writing, editing, accuracy checking and working with Review-Journal photographer Rachel Aston to make sure we had the right visuals.
What role did your editors play?
I’m so lucky to have Lynda Robinson as an editor. She knows how hard this work is and the time and patience that it takes. She’s an incredible sounding board and has this uncanny ability to intuit what the structure of a story should be, particularly when I am feeling overwhelmed. Some days, we’d spend hours on the phone talking through my reporting and what the outline should look like. At the Post, Craig Timberg also coordinated the whole collaboration with the Review-Journal, and metro editor Mike Semel ensured I had the time to do this story the way it should be done. I also had German’s editor at the Review-Journal, Rhonda Prast, checking in with me and forwarding on emails with tips that might be useful. It’s rare to have this much support for a project, and the story was definitely better for it.
Which writers inspire your reporting and writing?
I’m always inspired by my colleagues on the Post’s local enterprise team, including William Wan, John Woodrow Cox, Peter Jamison, Ian Shapira, Sydney Trent,and Jessica Contrera, along with other powerhouse writers like Jason Fagone, Jennifer Senior, Stephanie McCrummen and Eli Saslow. They are all so good at distilling big themes and complicated ideas into sharp narratives. Their stories hold power to account. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention photographer Gabrielle Lurie, my former partner at the San Francisco Chronicle. She’s not a writer, but I’m always inspired by how she earns people’s trust and visually builds narratives with texture and detail. We made a great team, and I learned a lot about storytelling from her during the years we worked together.
Annotation: Storyboard’s question are in red; Johnson’s answers in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATIONS button in the right menu of your monitor or at the top of your mobile device.
An alleged $500 million Ponzi scheme preyed on Mormons. It ended with FBI gunfire.
In Las Vegas, a lawyer with huge gambling debts is accused of a financial fraud that left hundreds of victims in its wake
The three agents approached the camera-equipped doorbell at the home’s perimeter, pressing it once. Then they pushed past an unlocked gate, cut through the courtyard and rapped against the glass French doors of Matthew Beasley’s home.
The Las Vegas attorney, then 49, had been anticipating this visit for months, he would tell an FBI hostage negotiator. He’d already drafted letters to his wife and four children, explaining what he could and describing how much he loved them.
On this Thursday in March, Beasley knew his time was up. He placed the letters — along with a note addressed to the FBI and a zip drive of computer files — upstairs on the desk in his office. Then, alone in the house, he went to the front door. He paused, the left side of his body obscured by the door frame.
One of the agents — identified only as “J.M.” in a detailed criminal complaint filed March 4 in the U.S. District Court of Nevada — opened his suit jacket and flashed his badge.
Beasley stepped fully into the doorway. He held a loaded pistol against his head.
“Easy, easy,” yelled J.M.
“Drop the gun,” shouted a second agent.You launch the story with a nail-biting 234- word scene. Why did you choose this opening? This scene seemed like the natural place to start. It was very cinematic, the Review-Journal had photos from that day, and it was the moment when so many victims realized that their money was gone. From here, I could go forward in time, examining the ongoing harm that was done because of the alleged Ponzi scheme, and also go back in time to help readers understand what had brought on this moment. What sources did you rely on to reconstruct the dramatic scene of Beasley’s arrest? How did you verify it? I relied on a detailed criminal complaint filed by the FBI in the U.S. District Court of Nevada, text message exchanges included in discovery documents from the Securities & Exchange Commission, a transcript of the nearly four-hour-long conversation between the FBI hostage negotiator and Beasley, and conversations with Beasley himself. There were enough primary source documents available that verification was pretty easy.
Authorities had long suspected Beasley of running a massive Ponzi scheme with his business partner, Jeffrey Judd, that mainly targeted Mormons, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are often called. Why did you identify them this way? This is how The Post’s stylebook dictated they should be identified. The investment was pitched as a nearly risk-free opportunity to earn annual returns of 50 percent by lending money to slip-and-fall victims awaiting checks after the settlement of their lawsuits.What made it possible for you to sum up the scene with such concision? I’d talked with enough victims about the pitch they were given — and read about it in so many court documents — that summing it up became second nature.
There was just one problem, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged in a civil complaint. None of it was real.
For five years, the SEC said, Beasley and Judd paid existing investors with money from new clients — a classic Ponzi scheme. The most notorious fraud of this kind, run by Wall Street financial guru Bernie Madoff, cost investors billions of dollars. By comparison, one expert said, the alleged Vegas scam was distinguished less by its size and more by its victims: It came to be known as the “Mormon Ponzi scheme.”
More than 900 people invested their savings — an estimated $500 million — between 2017 and 2022. They included surgeons, real estate developers, Mormon bishops, retirees and stay-at-home mothers. Money poured in from as far away as Singapore, Taiwan and Australia, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in July against Wells Fargo, where Beasley had an attorney trust account to hold and disburse client money. (The bank has moved to dismiss the lawsuit, denying any wrongdoing.) How did you get hold of the filing? I found it on PACER.
Some people emptied their retirement accounts, according to more than two dozen interviews with investors by The Washington Post, while others took out a second mortgage on their house.
“They’ve destroyed a lot of people’s entire lives,” said Greg Hart, 81, a retired entrepreneur who lives in Buckeye, Ariz., and fears he may be forced to sell his home. “About $2.2 million — 95 percent of our money — was tied up in it. … This has been completely and totally devastating.” How did you interview Hart and the other victims? Some were by phone, others were in person. How do you approach interviews with various sources? I don’t think my approach is all that dissimilar, whether it’s in person, over the phone, or over video call… I always explain who I am and what I’m trying to do with a story. I ask if they have any questions for me before we get started. I try to be as transparent as possible about how journalism works and how I approach reporting.
Meanwhile, Beasley, who repeatedly acknowledged that he was running a Ponzi scheme during his confrontation with the FBI, and Judd, who has denied knowingly defrauding anyone, amassed a fortune. They bought luxury vehicles, a private jet, cryptocurrency and multimillion-dollar properties in California, Nevada and Utah, according to reports by the court-appointed receiver, who has recovered about $90 million in investor funds by selling those assets. Did you need any help deciphering the receiver’s reports? Absolutely. So I called the receiver up and asked for help understanding the big takeaways. If you explain that you’re new to something — as I was to financial reporting in this case — most people are happy to help you understand. What do you look for as you’re reviewing these and other official records? I’m always looking for details that illustrate a larger theme. For this story, the receiver’s report helped me understand what the marketers were buying with what was allegedly ill-gotten money.
Before the FBI arrived at Beasley’s door that day, they’d raided Judd’s $6.6 million mountainside mansion, which overlooked the Las Vegas Strip. There, according to a new court filing, agents confiscated Judd’s cellphones and computers, more than a half-dozen high-end watches, thousands of silver and gold coins, and nearly $400,000 in cash, just a day before the nuptials of his 21-year-old daughter. Why did you specify it was “new?” I had gotten these details from a source on background, and just before publication, they were made public in a court filing. I wanted to be clear that this was new information.
“The sad thing is he has all of his family in town for that big wedding,” a colleague texted Beasley at 12:07 p.m.
“Really surprised they have [not] come to me,” Beasley replied three minutes later.
As the FBI agents shouted at him, Beasley said later in an interview with The Post, he pointed the pistol toward the ground. How, when and where did you land an interview with Beasley? In October, I wrote him a letter, not expecting to get a response back. Still, I knew you couldn’t just assume what someone’s answer would be — you always have to give them the chance to respond. Not long after, Beasley called me from the detention center where he was being held, asking if I’d like to set up a time to talk on the phone. We started regularly chatting after that, which felt like a huge reporting feat.
He was doing what the three agents had asked of him, Beasley said, adding that “I never pointed my gun anywhere except for my head.” The FBI maintains in its criminal complaint, though, that he aimed the weapon at the agents. At least one opened fire, striking Beasley in the chest and shoulder.
He retreated into his home, refusing to come out as the FBI assembled a SWAT team and began recording its calls with him. The hostage negotiator tried to persuade him to seek medical care, but Beasley repeatedly threatened to kill himself, saying that he didn’t want to go to prison.
“I f—ed this all up …” Beasley told the FBI, which entered transcripts of the conversations into the court record. Had Jeff German already obtained all the court records before he was killed? Or did you have to get them? If so, what did that entail? German had gotten a few court filings, but he hadn’t tracked down all of them. That was probably next on his list. They were quite voluminous and updated often. I got in the habit of checking the different dockets on PACER every morning; once you learn how to use itA, the system isn’t too difficult to navigate.
“And I’m not even talking about today. This was not even close to my worst decision today. My worst decisions happened many years ago.”
Soon after, the line went quiet. Crouched on the floor with the pistol resting on his chest, Beasley had dropped his cellphone, slick with his own blood. How were you able to draw this vivid image? The FBI transcript with Beasley was incredibly detailed. Over the course of their conversation, the hostage negotiator continually asked Beasley where the gun was, where he was, what he was doing. At one point, Beasley apologized for going quiet, saying that he’d dropped his cell phone because it was slippery and that there was blood everywhere. To end this section, you return to the opening scene. How did you think about the structure? The opening needed to draw readers in. The FBI’s arrival at Beasley’s house seemed like a natural way to start, and it’s also where The Review-Journal’s reporting had left off. From there, I could take a step back to explain how the scheme had come to be. Then, I returned to the victims. I wanted to give them the final words in this story, since the ripple effects of the scheme had changed their lives forever — and continues to.
‘Really lucky to be involved’
Ann Mabeus was at a Starbucks on March 3 when her cellphone began blinking with notifications. Then a call rang through. From the more than two dozen of the scheme’s victims, how and why did you give such a central role in the story to Ann Mabeus? Mabeus was willing to give me access to her life in a way that few other victims were willing to. After flying to Las Vegas, I spent a few days with her, watching as she prepared her first house for listing and picked up groceries from her church’s food pantry. She was reeling after losing her savings in the alleged Ponzi Scheme. Some victims had lost money, but it was money they could afford to lose. This wasn’t the case with Mabeus. The fraud had had a profound effect on her life, and she exemplified the harm that had been done. Did you “audition” sources for a major role before you selected one, as some narrative writers do? I look for people who are willing to let me tag along, who won’t get annoyed by my presence or my many, many, many questions, and who will be open with me about what they’re experiencing. Ultimately, I don’t want to report on someone who doesn’t want me there. I’ll talk with quite a few potential sources before deciding on the best person to center a story on.
“Ann,” her friend told the single mother, then 42. “Do you realize that the Humphries’ house is getting raided right now?” What’s the source of this quote? This was a conversation that Mabeus recalled for me. Her friend wasn’t willing to talk with me about the conversation, so I asked Mabeus about it a few times, just to ensure her recollection was consistent. She recalled it the same way every time.
The FBI was also executing a search warrant at the home of Chris Humphries.
Mabeus blanched. Humphries — who has maintained his innocence and sought dismissal of the SEC complaint against him — had been a marketer of the same investment that she’d put most of her money into.
Though they socialized and were members of the same Mormon church, Mabeus and her husband wound up investing through another marketer, Shane Jager, the 47-year-old owner of a pest control company.
Jager had four children about the same age as the Mabeus kids. Like more than a dozen other marketers of the investment, he earned commissions by bringing people in, though he denies in an SEC filing that he knowingly defrauded anyone and accuses Beasley of deceiving him. How did you obtain this filing? PACER! It’s a glorious thing. I swear I spent half of my time on PACER while reporting this story.
Everyone called the operation J&J, referencing two LLCs created by Jeff Judd: J&J Consulting Services and J&J Purchasing.
Jager had told Mabeus about the opportunity to make money in August 2019, during a couples trip to Mexico, she said. She felt flattered to be included.
“We were a little nervous, but we trusted him,” Mabeus said. “Because we were friends and belonged to the same church, the red flags were heart-shaped. I was like, ‘Wow. We are really lucky to be involved in this investment.’”
The next month, she and her husband wired over $140,000. Ninety days later, the first interest payment of $18,000 arrived, right on time. Did you see the bank statement or rely on Mabeus for this information? I had her send me copies of her bank statements and her investment paperwork to confirm that what she was telling me was true and accurate.
The couple continued adding money, until they reached a total of $680,000, she said.
“There was never a hiccup,” Mabeus said. “My bishop was involved and invested, and so were my closest friends. A lot of people were told to keep it quiet.”
When she and her husband, a former Major League Baseball pitcher who worked for a medical device company, divorced in June 2021, Mabeus agreed to take the investment as alimony. Why didn’t you identify the husband by name? It seemed irrelevant — like a distraction from the story. She planned to rely on the dividends, along with child support payments, to remain at home with her daughter and three sons. A former elementary school teacher, she hadn’t worked for 13 years.
Now, Mabeus hung up the phone, horrified.
She tried to call Jager. No answer.
“Word is spreading like wildfire,” Mabeus remembered. Why did you use “remembered” for the attributive verb, rather than the more usual “said?” I wanted to make it clear that this moment was from a recollection and not sourced from a document, like a text message exchange or a court filing. Transparency is important when you’re doing accountability reporting. I wanted to make sure the sourcing for each piece of information was clear. “People are texting left and right. No one is getting responses.”
Maybe it was all a big misunderstanding, she thought. She told herself that she’d know for sure the next day, when the quarterly interest payment was scheduled to hit her bank account.
But when Friday arrived, the money didn’t. All her savings, Mabeus realized, were gone. Why did you drop the attribution in the middle of this short sentence instead of at the end? I wanted that gut-punch of the final word — gone. It wouldn’t have been as powerful if the attribution was at the end of the sentence. Was it easy to break the narrative here and switch back to Beasley? How much revision did it take to structure the piece like this? This break happened naturally. I wrote it into my first draft, and my editor didn’t change it. I’m always looking for places to ratchet up the tension and keep a reader going. Cliffhangers will do that.
‘Gentleman’s investment club’
Matt Beasley’s gambling debts were mounting.
He was big into sports betting, he told the FBI, and by late 2016, he’d paid his bookie the last $40,000 he had. He was being pressured to come up with more, he said, so he decided to get lunch with Judd, a friend and former law client. Why did you resume the narrative with consecutive profiles of Beasley and Judd? I wanted to take a step back and help readers understand the men at the center of this alleged Ponzi scheme – how they came to be and how they had amassed such wealth and power.
Beasley’s path to becoming a Las Vegas lawyer had been a halting one.
He grew up in the Kansas City area, the younger of two children. After his parents’ divorce, he rarely saw his father, a union electrician who went on to remarry four times, according to a psychological evaluation requested by his attorney and entered into the court record. Unmoored, it took Beasley a decade to finish his undergraduate degree, eventually obtaining a finance and management degree from Park University in Missouri. How did you learn all these details about Beasley? They were part of a psychological evaluation requested by his attorney, which was included in a filed motion to get Beasley released on bail. (The judge denied it.)
He moved to Las Vegas in 2004 after graduating from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. He chose it, he told The Post during three short phone conversations and a series of written messages because he hadn’t really visited anywhere else. Why were you limited to these kinds of communication? You can’t just call up someone who is incarcerated. I was limited by the communication systems already in place. I had to wait for Beasley to call me, and there was a time limit to how long he could talk on the phone for. We were also able to chat via written message through a system called — oddly enough — GettingOut, though it was clunky and sometimes messages got flagged and weren’t delivered.
Unlike Judd, Beasley was not Mormon. The two men met through their sons, who played soccer together.
“We became friends,” Beasley told The Post, “and then I represented him on a couple pharmacy cases.”
Judd was a native of Las Vegas who’d dabbled in real estate and pharmaceutical sales while his wife, Jennifer, stayed home with their two sons and two daughters.
At lunch, Beasley told Judd that he had an investment opportunity to share: bridge loans for slip-and-fall victims awaiting their settlements.
“I just explained it as this type of deal related to lawsuits,” Beasley told the FBI.
In an Oct. 6, 2016, email obtained by The Post, Beasley wrote to Judd that he had a client who “wants a $50k loan which will pay back $60k within 45 days.” How did you get this? A source, who I agreed not to identify for legal reasons, sent it to me.
Judd “thought it was a legitimate investment,” said someone familiar with Judd’s involvement, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for legal reasons.
“Man, this is a great idea,” Beasley recalled Judd saying. “Do you know any other attorneys [so] we could continue to grow this?”
As cash flowed into Beasley’s attorney trust account, he told the FBI, he used it to pay his gambling debts. In all, SEC forensic accounting would show that Beasley sent more than $6.7 million to his bookie. How do you know this? These figures were part of a forensic accounting done by the SEC.
After a while, Beasley told the FBI, “I realized there’s no going back. … Jeff had more people that were interested in getting in, so I made up more attorney’s deals and I just kept growing it.” Beasley said he never actually talked to other attorneys.
He maintained to the FBI that Judd didn’t know it was a Ponzi scheme.
In an April SEC complaint against Judd — who received at least $315 million from the alleged scam — the regulatory agency said that he either “knew or was reckless in not knowing … the business was a fraud.”
When asked to submit evidence clarifying his status as a “victim,” SEC lawyers said in a July court filing, Judd refused, “asserting his ‘Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.’”
In an email, Judd’s criminal defense attorney, Nick Oberheiden, blamed Beasley for the alleged fraud and took issue with the SEC’s characterization of Judd, saying that “legal terms like ‘knowledge’ and ‘intent’ are complex, technical, and sausage-like: few know what’s really inside.”
As the operation got bigger, so did the men’s lifestyles. Beasley bought a $3.8 million house in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. He bought a $750,000 RV, a $250,000 boat, a $240,000 Bentley Continental and two $25,000 Jet Skis, according to a list of relinquished and seized assets filed in court.
Judd, now 50, purchased a 6,330-square-foot home in the gated community of Ascaya, which claimed Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis and Kiss rocker Gene Simmons as residents. He drove a $650,000 Rolls-Royce Black Badge Cullinan and a $400,000 Rolls-Royce Dawn convertible.
“I have the illness,” Judd texted a friend in April 2021, referencing the new Porsche he planned to add to his fleet of cars.
The SEC noted that in one text message from October 2020, Judd referenced the investment as “an illegal business.” How did the SEC get Judd’s texts and then how did you get them? When the FBI served a search warrant at Judd’s home, they seized his cell phone and computers. The SEC was given access to communications on those devices, some of which were made publicly available in court filings.
He also assured potential investors that he’d had discussions with the lawyers Beasley was working with — even though Beasley said he’d never contacted any — and had seen the personal injury settlements and bank statements, the SEC said.
The source familiar with Judd’s involvement called that assertion “an overstatement” unsupported by any real evidence. He also denied Judd was the initiator of nondisclosure agreements intended, the SEC said, to deter clients from contacting the personal injury lawyers listed on their investment contracts, as well as a clause prohibiting them from contacting any parties “without the written consent of Jeffrey Judd.”
“Beasley created excuses for the need to have these,” and Judd had no reason to question it, the person familiar with Judd’s involvement said.
Despite the red flags, hundreds of investors were receiving their dividends on time and word was spreading.
Marshall Gibbs, a 37-year-old dentist in Cheney, Wash., said it was described to him by marketer Jason Jongeward as a “gentleman’s investment club.” Jongeward has maintained he did not intentionally defraud anyone in SEC filings“We started chatting, and he said, ‘We have this investment. My wife and I are going to be able to retire early because of it. We just feel so blessed,’” Gibbs said. “I did have my suspicions, but he said his family was in it. That just kept fueling me to add more.” How did you selectvictims’ statements to two or three from the more than two dozen you spoke with? It came down to who was willing to go on the record. From the get-go, many victims weren’t. Others got cold feet right before publication.
Gibbs wound up investing $940,000, he said.
The SEC had been investigating J&J since at least December 2020, according to court documents, after a Salt Lake City attorney became alarmed by a friend’s investment paperwork and reported it. How long did it take to amass all the various records or had Jeff German already done so? Gathering all the records took me months. German had gotten a few court filings, but they were just the tip of the iceberg. I continued gathering documents up until a few days before publication.
Then those same contracts started hitting the desk of an accountant in Washington state.
“I started panicking because I realized there were five clients already involved in this stuff, probably blowing their money,” said the accountant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the investigation. How did you track down the accountant? One of my sources knew the accountant’s identity, so I asked if they’d be willing to put us in touch. From there, the accountant agreed to talk on background, as long as their identifying information wasn’t used.
He decided to send an email to a New York City-based investment firm that specializes in exposing fraud.
“So many of the details seem incredibly off,” he wrote in the Jan. 11, 2022, email to Hindenburg Research that he shared with The Post. “I don’t mean to waste your time but I am very concerned there are all kinds of people, small businesses, individuals, etc. that stand to lose tens of millions.”
If anyone could help, the accountant thought, it would be this group. In some circles, the people at Hindenburg had come to be known as Ponzi hunters.
They were going to need a private plane. This single line is such a great opening to the section. Was it ever considered as the lead of the story? Thank you! This was one of those rare lines that didn’t get changed at all during editing. I never considered using it as the lead, because in earlier conversations with my editor, we had already decided to open with the scene of the FBI arriving at Beasley’s home.
In the month since Hindenburg Research founder Nate Anderson had first heard of J&J, his firm had secretly recorded phone conversations with Jongeward, who would later tell the SEC that he was “only trying to help my family and friends.”
“We really, really struggled to see the risk,” Jongeward had said during one call with Hindenburg Research. “I think that’s probably why the performance has been — I’ll call it immaculate.”
Anderson, 38, who’d once worked with the whistleblower who tried to warn the SEC about Bernie Madoff, said he had immediately spotted the telltale signs of a Ponzi scheme. An online search showed neither Judd nor Beasley had liens listed under their names, which, in a legitimate endeavor, would have ensured legal recourse if the slip-and-fall victims didn’t pay back their loans, Anderson said.
The investment also had no website. Spread via word of mouth, it was reliant on the trust that came from a shared religious affiliation, known as an affinity scam.
“The explanation was that it was such a brilliant strategy that they needed to keep it as secretive as possible,” Anderson said. “Litigation finance is a competitive and specialized field. Yet they were claiming to be able to generate five times the returns of everyone else in the industry, with virtually no risk and no defaults. It took very little time to realize this was highly likely to be a complete Ponzi scheme. The challenge was in proving it.”
Any evidence that Hindenburg gathered would be turned over to authorities, ensuring it would be in line for a government-funded whistleblower award. Under the SEC’s program, the group could stand to receive up to 30 percent of any fines collected, potentially amounting to millions of dollars.
The firm wanted to record Judd giving the same pitch as lower-level marketers. To lure him in, it would need something flashy.
One of Anderson’s colleagues knew of just the right bait: Mark Holt, a Salt Lake City entrepreneur who owned a private aviation business — and had an unlikely connection to Judd.
Holt, a Mormon, had attended Bonanza High School in Las Vegas with Judd. On Facebook, the two men shared more than 40 friends. Holt’s ex-fiancee was a woman Judd had once dated, too.
Holt agreed to help out by posing as a “whale” — a wealthy businessman looking for places to invest large sums of money — in his case, $50 million. Why wasn’t this considered entrapment? The whistleblower group, Hindenburg, told me that they worked closely with authorities as they orchestrated their sting operation. Their lawyers ran everything past the FBI to make sure that it was above board.
Holt had been defrauded himself a decade earlier, giving money to a man who promised a 25 percent interest payment if the price of Canadian oil stayed above $30 a barrel. When his returns arrived, Holt decided to bring his mother in. Not long after she’d invested a good chunk of her savings, he said, the man disappeared.
Now one of Holt’s private planes would serve as the site of a pitch meeting designed to expose J&J as a Ponzi scheme.
On Feb. 17, Holt arrived with a Hindenburg Research whistleblower — identified only as “Mike” in recordings given to the FBI and SEC — at Henderson Executive Airport in Nevada, where a parked jet had been rigged with surveillance equipment. Cameras were tucked in a water bottle, a tissue box and a bowl of mints. Audio equipment was inserted into the plane’s overhead lights.
They invited marketers Jongeward and Jager on board. Judd didn’t usually do introductory pitches like this, though Holt hoped that their shared history, combined with the plane, would be enough to guarantee a later phone call.
Over chicken salads and sandwiches, the men chatted with Holt about being Mormon and tried to sell him on the investment. A former improv comedian, Holt played the part — “mostly excited,” he said, “a little bit cautious, credulous enough.”
“I’ve heard some pretty outrageous claims as far as returns go,” Holt, then 48, told the marketers. “So it seems … too good to be true. So maybe you guys can help me understand, wrap my head around it.”
“When I first heard about it,” Jager replied, “I thought it was too good to be true, and it took me … about six months to get off the fence and put some money into it. Fast-forward today, almost five years later, it’s never missed a beat. … It’s more or less a friends and family deal.”
Holt said he still wasn’t sure. He wanted to talk with Judd first.
A week later, on Feb. 24, they got on the phone.
“Jeff lives high up on the mountain,” Jager explained, his voice tinny as he merged the conference call. “And sometimes cell service isn’t great.”
“All right,” Holt said. “Awesome. Okay. This is the Jeff Judd, huh?”
“Jeff Judd from a long time ago,” Judd replied, laughing.
They spent a few minutes catching up on all that had transpired since their graduation from Bonanza High — how Judd had gone to Chile for his mission trip, while Holt had been sent to Portugal. How Judd’s 23-year-old son was a professional soccer player for the LA Galaxy, while Holt had a 1-year-old at home, with a second child on the way. Then they turned to business.
Judd explained that he had “$475 million under management.”
“It’s changed a lot of people’s lives,” Judd said, because the returns are so good. “I wasn’t greedy when I did that. I mean, we pay a high percentage. So my thought process was, ‘It’s not my money. I’m going to make my money on each deal. Then why wouldn’t I pay out a high percentage?’ So that’s the way we set it up.”
Judd hit the same points as Jongeward and Jager — little risk, high reward. Holt pretended to mull it over. He said he was considering investing $2 million, to start.
That’d be no problem, Judd agreed.
Within a week, the FBI was at Judd’s door. And then they were at Beasley’s. How did you obtain the video and audio recordings of Holt’s exchanges with the two marketers? Hindenburg agreed to give me this footage to see for myself, as long as I agreed not to publish it in entirety.
The FBI negotiator couldn’t persuade Beasley to surrender. Why did you return to the standoff here? I hadn’t yet wrapped up the scene. I wanted readers to have closure about what happened to Beasley after the stand-off and how he was finally removed from his home.
Beasley’s 22-year-old son joined the effort to end the standoff, now in its fourth hour. He’d recorded a message for his father, but Beasley refused to listen to it.
Slouched in the entryway, the floor scattered with broken glass from the front door, he fingered the loaded gun. How were you able to write with such granular detail? Publicly available documents, like the FBI transcript and court filings, and also a conversation with Beasley about that afternoon. For example, he recalled that the shattered French doors had left glass fragments across the foyer. He’d bought the pistol just before his son’s birth, he told the FBI, so he could protect him, no matter what.
Now, Beasley wasn’t sure he could stand up. He’d lost a lot of blood and was in shock. He told the negotiator that he couldn’t face his family.
“Your son is still here,” the negotiator said. “He refuses to leave. … Do you want to hear his message?”
Finally, Beasley agreed. Over the phone, he heard a recording of his son’s voice: Hey, Dad, it’s me. … [We] are waiting for you outside. I love you and need you to come out. … Everything is going to be okay. Why did you use italics here? It was a powerful recording, and I wanted to emphasize it.
Outside, darkness had fallen. Floodlights were aimed at the house, and the SWAT team was finally ordered to enter and bring Beasley out in handcuffs.
He was taken to a hospital before being charged with assault on a federal officer.
Since then, he’s been held at Nevada Southern Detention Center in Pahrump, a windblown swath of high desert about 60 miles west of Las Vegas. Did you go there? I didn’t visit Pahrump on this trip, but I drove through it a few years ago on a road trip from San Francisco, where I was living at the time, back to my hometown in the Midwest.
No criminal charges have been filed against anyone else, including Judd, Humphries, Jager and Jongeward.
“We do not comment on potential charges,” said Trisha Young, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Las Vegas.
In an interview with The Post, Beasley said he figures more charges were probably coming.
“Almost everything about the shooting has been misrepresented,” Beasley said. “Considering the only charges I have are related to the shooting, I guess I don’t have a problem with being the only one incarcerated. I assume that once charges on the alleged financial crimes come down that I won’t be alone. It is simply illogical to think otherwise.”
At Beasley’s initial court appearance, on March 8, his attorney argued that his standoff with the FBI had been a result of a “one-time extreme emotional crisis” and asked that he be released. Were you present? I wasn’t. This appearance happened seven months before I started reporting this story and six months before German was killed. These details came from a court filing.
But Tony Lopez, chief of the white-collar crime section at the U.S. attorney’s office in Las Vegas, objected.
“This nine-figure Ponzi scheme is what made the defendant hole up in his house for four hours until the FBI had to literally drag him out,” Lopez told the judge. “He was willing to take his own life rather than answer for his actions.”
The consequences of those actions were wreaking havoc on the lives of hundreds of people across the country, including Beasley’s own loved ones.
Less than three weeks after the FBI raid, Beasley’s wife divorced him. She moved out of the house on Ruffian Road, which was seized along with millions of dollars in other assets to help repay investors.
To support their two younger sons, Beasley’s attorney said in court, his wife had gotten a job working 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. And his oldest son — who had once described his father as his greatest hero on his biography for his university soccer team — had left college to help out at home. Why did you use this detail? I thought it was an incredibly human detail, and it illustrated the consequences the alleged Ponzi scheme had had on so many lives, including on the lives of Beasley’s family.
The mansion had a towering entryway with a chandelier that cast rainbows against the walls on sunny days. It had a soccer field and a basketball court and more garages than most families would ever need.
Ann Mabeus hoped this house would save her. Great lead for this section, but why keep it obscure, leaving out information that would let the reader know the context delivered below? This house was so symbolic to Mabeus of the future she was trying to build for herself. I wanted readers to have an image of it in their minds before I tackled the details of her finances.
It was mid-November, and she was still reeling from the collapse of J&J.
She’d been renting a house across town for herself and her kids, but she’d fallen behind on the $3,890 monthly payments. The $3,600 she received in child support each month wasn’t enough to pay her bills.
Her church had helped, paying two months of rent and providing donated groceries, which she picked up at the Bishops’ Storehouse, a 24-mile drive away. But Mabeus didn’t have health insurance. She couldn’t afford birthday parties for the kids. She needed to start earning an income again. How did you learn all this information about the family’s private life? I spent a few days in Las Vegas with Mabeus, and I also saw copies of her bank statements, email exchanges and other personal records.
“I don’t have time to be angry,” Mabeus said. “I’m in survival mode. Everything in my life has to change. I have to learn how to make money.” Clearly, Mabeus decided to open up to you. How do you make that happen in your interviews? I try to be present, curious, and non-judgmental. I don’t come to an interview with preconceptions about what someone’s life is like. I give them the space to share what they want to share, and I try to be gentle as I prod deeper or ask difficult questions.
She’d decided to become a real estate agent. If she sold this mansion — owned by someone whose children she’d home-schooled during the pandemic and who had since moved to Florida — she’d make enough on commission to pay her debts and float her family for a few more months, until she could list more houses.
On a dark-skied afternoon just before Thanksgiving, she drove toward a real estate firm, where she’d enrolled in a home-selling course. Outside, the palm trees whipped in the wind, winter rain splashing against the arid ground. Were you with her? I sure was. I get carsick easily, so driving around with story subjects in their vehicles is always a little harrowing.
Mabeus felt like she was foundering. She often woke up in the middle of the night, panicked and anxious.
In class, a presenter promised the aspiring real estate agents that prospecting karma — making connections to sell houses — was a thing.
Mabeus rested her chin in her hand, her mind wandering. She had a lot left to do to get the mansion listed and sold. She needed to get landscapers in and a dumpster out. She needed to get an exterior light fixed and the dust and debris swept out of the hallways.
After the class ended, she drove back to the huge house. In the driveway, she checked her cellphone. A friend had texted, asking how she was doing. She set her phone down without replying.
In mid-January, Mabeus arrived home to a pink notice on the garage door of her rental.
She’d fallen behind on all her bills, she said. Her bank account was overdrawn. She’d racked up nearly $10,000 in credit card debt. The internet had been shut off, and the electricity was next. She was considering filing for bankruptcy. Her 17-year-old son — with $201.12 in his checking account — had more to his name than she did.
Now, this notice was threatening eviction.
Mabeus had a week to pay the two months of rent she’d missed or risk being booted from her home. She couldn’t afford to pay the $7,780, but she also couldn’t afford to move. A new place meant another deposit and first month’s rent.
The mansion with the chandelier was still a week or so away from being listed. It appears that the house is still listed. Why did you decide to link to the listing? And how is Mabeus doing? I included the link because I thought readers might be curious to see the house for themselves. Mabeus’ housing situation is still uncertain, and she doesn’t know how she’ll provide for her family. The lives of the people I write about continue on, even after publication, and there’s often no closure. So goes in this case, too.
She counted the cash in her wallet: $54. Why did you decide to conclude the story with this detailed portrait about just one of the victims? There’s something universal about the specific, and I thought Mabeus was representative of what other victims were facing.
Online, she applied for teaching jobs, food stamps, housing assistance. She had a master’s degree, but couldn’t get a call back about work.
Mabeus’s bishop held an emergency meeting. The church would pay her back rent and take care of the utilities, he told her, but he wanted the family in something cheaper, like a two-bedroom apartment, before her lease ran out on March 1. She had six weeks to figure it out, and she was determined to do so.
On New Year’s Eve, Mabeus had jotted down a list of goals for 2023 in a note on her cellphone. She scrolled through the list again. The final one was the most important. It read: “Stand on my own two feet.” A striking ending! Why did you choose to close the narrative this way? Mabeus had lost so much agency and power after her savings vanished. I wanted to give the last word to her — and allow her an identity other than victim. How much drafting and revision did the story take overall? My editor and I have many conversations before I ever start writing, so when we get to the editing stage, it doesn’t feel like a heavy lift. We’ll oftentimes edit a story section by section, too, so that I know I’m on the right track.
About this story
Las Vegas investigative reporter Jeff German was slain outside his home on Sept. 2; a Clark County official he had investigated is charged in his death. To continue German’s work, The Washington Post teamed up with his newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, to complete one of the stories he’d planned to pursue before his killing. A folder on German’s desk contained court documents he’d started to gather about an alleged Ponzi scheme that left hundreds of victims – many of them Mormon – in its wake. Post reporter Lizzie Johnson began investigating, working with Review-Journal photographer Rachel Aston. Why wasn’t this context included in the story itself? This account of the origins of the story actually appeared twice in the digital version of the story, in a context box in the first section of the story and again at the bottom. We did it that way to avoid interrupting the story while also being transparent with readers.
Editing by Lynda Robinson, photo editing by Benjamin Hager and Mark Miller, copy editing by Frances Moody and Christopher Rickett, design by Tara McCarty, design editing by Christian Font. Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.
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Chip Scanlan is an award-winning newspaper reporter who taught writing at The Poynter Institute for 15 years. He publishes Chip’s Writing Lessons and has two books, ”Writers on Writing” and “33 Ways Not To Screw Up Your Journalism.