Federal authorities have charged an alleged con man from Salisbury with running an elaborate Ponzi scheme and fraudulently obtaining more than $2.3 million from individuals and charitable groups.
John Knox Bridges falsely told several people he would invest their money in a Texas oil company, but instead put the funds in his account, using it for "international travel and personal living expenses," according to a federal indictment unsealed Thursday.
In 2009, the Observer reported on allegations that Bridges made off with money from fresco artist Ben Long, the Minnesota-based Lindbergh Foundation and the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer.
Bridges, 50, was charged with securities fraud and money laundering. He pleaded not guilty and is currently out on $25,000 bond.
Efforts to reach Bridges by phone and email Friday weren't successful. The lawyer appointed to represent him declined to comment.
On Aug. 4, police say, Bridges shot himself in the torso after Salisbury police responded to a report that he was suicidal. He has since been discharged from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in Winston Salem, where he had been treated for his injuries.
Two weeks after the shooting, a grand jury indicted Bridges.
The indictment alleges:
Bridges began soliciting investments to a fictitious company called "Logan Investments" in 2004. He told people their money would be invested in a company that was building a pipeline to transport liquid petroleum - and that they would receive quarterly dividends while the pipeline was constructed.
Bridges paid some investors dividends from his personal account, telling them it was from Logan Investments. In fact, the indictment alleges, Bridges was paying those investors with money he'd received from other victims.
The indictment states that Bridges also persuaded victims to lend him about $710,000 in 2009 after telling them another lie: That his computer had been hacked into, and that $600,000 had been emptied from his bank account.
Sherry Austin, a writer who now lives near Asheville, said she loaned Bridges $100,000. She said that a friend and two relatives loaned and invested well over $1 million more. They have no hope of recovering their money, she said.
"He deceived some very sharp people," said Austin, 56, who grew up near Bridges in Charlotte's University City area and attended the historic Back Creek ARP church, where Bridges' father was a minister. "I have relatives that he all but wiped out. Honest people who worked all their lives. He took their nest eggs."
Others also contend Bridges betrayed their trust. He befriended Ben Long, an artist well-known for his massive frescos, over a decade ago and volunteered to manage his business affairs. Long and his son later sued Bridges, alleging he took more than $800,000 of the artists' money through a series of false claims.
In 2009, the board of the Lindbergh Foundation removed him as president after concluding he had misused $600,000. Bridges has since repaid the money.
But the first time Bridges tried to return that money, he got it from another nonprofit he helped direct - the foundation that supports the N.C. Transportation Museum. The Rowan County museum got its money back, and Bridges resigned from the foundation's board.
The federal indictment appears to refer to the alleged schemes involving the two nonprofits. It says Bridges persuaded a charitable group known as "L.F." to invest $600,000 in two companies, one of them fictitious.
The indictment alleges that when "L.F." became suspicious of Bridges' actions, he committed another fraud, causing $600,000 to be wired to the group from another charitable organization known as "T.M."
In the years before complaints surfaced, Bridges told friends and associates that he came from a family worth billions. He said he owned a corporate jet, hobnobbed with world leaders, and served on the boards of prestigious groups, including New York's Guggenheim Museum.
But much of what Bridges said about himself does not appear to be true, the Observer's 2009 investigation found.
In court papers, he denied that he misappropriated Long's money, but he later agreed to settle the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.