"Yes, there's a lot of money to be made peddling gold," Smith says.

The problem for consumers is that the retail gold industry is "a vast, unregulated field," says Smith. "There are no special qualifications to get into the business. There are fewer certifications than for cutting poodles' hair. It really becomes a confidence game."

Though Smith, in his late 40s, peppers the conversation with phrases common to the industry — "some people think the dollar is going to toilet paper" — he also pooh-poohs the "end of the world" sales pitch. He's critical of outlets that pitch numismatic coins to would-be investors, noting that the only reason someone should buy them is an interest in history and coins and for their own sake. He's "absolutely" politically neutral, he stresses, because he knows customers come in both red and blue.

Gold prices reached a record high of $1,266 per troy ounce last month.
Gold prices reached a record high of $1,266 per troy ounce last month.
Jim Clark
Jim Clark

"I don't think we're at the mania stage yet," Smith says. "We're not seeing the broad-based selling we saw in the 1970s."

Like Thompson from Coins N Things, Smith wants to believe that day is coming.

Once you've got your hands on gold, you have to figure out where to put it. If you don't store it in your home (where it can be ripped off), you have to trust someone else to hold it for you. A bank safety-deposit box is one choice, but that might not be the safest place if banks lock their doors after any financial holocaust.

Some companies, like Monex, don't always provide customers with their gold right away — they'll store it somewhere for the buyers' convenience. Others promise to sock it away for you in an offshore account.

Don Stott, owner of Colorado Gold in Montrose, Colorado, advises strongly against having others hold your gold. As a former employee of North American Coin and Currency, he knows all too well what can happen.

Stott, 76, started with the Phoenix firm in 1977 during the last big heyday of gold. As he tells it, sales were so good that in February 1980 he took home a $16,000 commission check for one month's work. Yet that was the same month he left the company because of worries it was being mismanaged.

"It was taking longer and longer for people to get their gold," he tells New Times. "I said, 'This doesn't look good to me,' so I just walked out."

He's not sure what happened to about $16 million in gold and silver that customers did not receive when North American collapsed in 1982, a debacle he calls "the biggest scam in the history of Phoenix, just about." Stott has nothing good to say about North American's former principals.

"Sherman Unkefer — he could sell a used toothbrush," Stott sneers. "These guys have a terrible record."

No wonder, then, that Unkefer's name doesn't show up in Arizona Corporation Commission records about Republic Monetary Exchange LLC.

Records show the principal members of Republic include Jim Clark, another Clark company called Clark and Sons Vending, and a California limited partnership, Occidental Resources. The latter doesn't show up in a records search for California businesses.

John Jakubcyzk, Clark's attorney, says the Occidental company is probably the Unkefer link — but adds he's not the one to talk about that. He directs New Times to a man he says is Occidental's lawyer, San Diego attorney Grant Teeple.

New Times already had spoken to Teeple — he's Unkefer's lawyer, and he returned a phone call made to Unkefer's number. Like Clark, Teeple wondered what the upside would be for his client to talk to a reporter. But he stayed on the line long enough to say that Unkefer had no direct ownership of Republic Monetary, even though Unkefer's deceased wife's trust was part-owner.

The name Occidental Resources "doesn't ring a bell," Teeple says, adding that his firm handles lots of corporations as clients.

A former employee of Republic Monetary, Gene Miller, states in court records that Unkefer is Clark's "business partner" and describes how Unkefer took part in a 2009 business meeting to help negotiate a deal to retain Miller.

Clark and Jakubcyzk deny that Sherman Unkefer has any role in the business, other than coming in now and then to give pep talks to the sales crew. (Unkefer's granddaughter, Alexa Unkefer, also works at Republic Monetary as the company's office assistant.)

Jakubcyzk admits that Unkefer's deceased wife's trust played a big role in the company's start-up.

It's unknown whether the late Sharon Unkefer's trust was funded by Sherman Unkefer, or how her trust came to be used by Clark's new company. But Unkefer appears to be doing quite well for himself these days.

After his release from prison in 1998, Unkefer reportedly made a fortune selling prepaid legal services. Now "the Shermanator," as he's known, is into a multi-level marketing business called Xango Juice. He brags on his Web site, www.shermanunkefer.com, that he's earning a six-digit income — monthly.

Meanwhile, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office — representing a list of victims that's dozens of pages long — has been fighting as recently as this year to get the Shermanator to pay $7.1 million in restitution he's owed since 1988.

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