By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Mare now admits that the Toshiba merger "probably never existed."
One shareholder, 56-year-old Eve Murphy of Denver, heard about Safari through a friends-and-family investment circle. Her group bought $350,000 worth of Safari stock, $250,000 of which was from Murphy's retirement fund.
"Oh, it sounded like a smoking good deal, that this company was in the throes of having a major merger with [Toshiba], and if you got in under the wire you could make a lot of money," she said. "This thing was laid out so well; whoever dreamt this up should get an Academy Award."
When the proposed Toshiba merger date came and went, Murphy flew to Tucson with some fellow shareholders and demanded that Mare produce Safari's bookkeeping. Murphy says the documents she viewed were heartbreaking.
"The salaries that employees were being paid were absolutely outrageous. I was in tears," Murphy says. "And when I started asking questions, we were basically thrown out of the office."
Another investor, Sunny Sun-Sang Lee of Bellevue, Washington, says he and his family put more than $3 million into Safari, and they are now suing Safari in federal court. Lee, who is hearing impaired, found out about Safari through Thuc Nguyen's deaf investment group. Lee's lawsuit states that Safari is a Ponzi scheme (in which a few early investors are paid off using the contributions of recent investors to maintain the appearance of profitability) and accuses the company of targeting the deaf community.
Mare's response to all these charges is characteristically passionate and seemingly sincere: Yes, she spent quite a bit of money. But she did not know that what she was doing was illegal. She trusted the wrong people, and they took advantage of her generosity and naiveté.
Nguyen, she says, is responsible for the bulk of her company's hardships. Mare says Nguyen told her Safari was permitted to sell shares, tricked her into believing the Toshiba merger was real, stole money from shareholders and was the primary contact for many investors.
"We had people that we believed were licensed and accredited financial advisers and venture capitalists that were doing our fund raising for us," Mare says. "The AG's office is saying we directly solicited people, but that's something we are absolutely ironclad about -- we would never, ever, ever have accepted a cold call. We would never do boiler-room calls."
Of her claims about Nguyen, one is easily verifiable: Nguyen was the primary contact person for many investors. He is the only Safari employee aside from the Chisholms to be named as a co-defendant in the Corporation Commission's cease-and-desist order and in Lee's lawsuit, and both documents say Nguyen made false promises to potential investors.
Nguyen's attorney says his client has no comment.
"The one thing I will stand behind is that I never had criminal intent," Mare says. "I think ultimately I'm going to be on trial for my ignorance."
When asked about Nguyen, a representative of the Arizona Corporation Commission noted that the "possibility of additional action [against Nguyen] exists," while the Attorney General's Office says it is confident in its exclusive focus on the Chisholms. Both offices find Mare's claim that she was an innocent puppet to Nguyen's Machiavellian mastermind somewhat amusing.
The biggest problem with the Chisholms' defense is that the state of Washington served Safari Media with its first cease-and-desist order for illegally selling securities way back in 1997 -- and it named both Nguyen and Mare Chisholm ("Thuc seemed oblivious. I believed [somebody else] was behind the complaint, and took Thuc's word for it," Mare says). She also stresses such an extensive history of suffering from personal betrayal, with so many thieving former friends and associates out for revenge ("I have NO idea why some people seem so hell-bent on destroying us," she wrote to the Corporation Commission), that at some point, a sort of plausibility critical mass is reached.
Sitting in Chuck E. Cheese's, Mare Chisholm stares intently across the table. She wants so desperately for you to believe her. And you want to believe her right back. Just like so many investors, employees and friends once did.
"I'm not going to feel comfortable until I see those people paid back," she says. "I made a promise to them, and I'm going to keep it. We will prove in court that this was not our fault."
A few miles away, downtown at Club Congress, a party is just getting started.
The club has added a larger dance floor and air conditioning since the Chisholms met here eight years ago. In many ways, though, it is still the same bare-bones club. The cover is cheap, and the decorations are nearly nonexistent. There are no girls on stilts or elaborate laser shows.
But that intangible energy is still here.
Moby says "Move" and everybody moves; Moby says "Go" and everybody jumps. Young couples meet and flirt and dance, some wishing for an experience more grandiose, something more like caelum.
"Working at Safari was like that film The Matrix," says Randy Phillips. "You could either take the red pill or the blue pill. One pill takes you on this journey, and with the other you would wake up and nothing had ever happened.
"People at Safari took the red pill for an Alice in Wonderland experience. We entered a total fantasyland with all these vibrant colors.
"But it wasn't real. None of it was real."