Days before North American Coin and Currency collapsed in 1982, Robert Bartemus received a check for about $8,000 for the silver he had stored with the precious-metals company.
The check bounced.
"I was just devastated at the time," says Bartemus, an 85-year-old Florida resident.
Amazing it sounds, Bartemus might just see that $8,000 again -- some 28 years later.
It all depends on whether the Maricopa County Attorneys Office can squeeze the money -- plus another $7.5 million or so -- out of North American's former president, Sherman Unkefer.
Now a superstar salesman for a multi-level marketing scheme called XanGo Juice, Unkefer, who lives in Scottsdale, is fighting to keep his money from being doled out to Bartemus and others on a long list of North American's victims.
As we detailed in last month's story about the modern-day gold rush, Unkefer was convicted in 1988 of fraud related to mismanagement of the company and served eight years of a 10-year prison sentence.
Though he's been out of the hoosegow since 1996, a $7.5 million criminal restitution order was filed against him in court two years ago. We're not sure why the order was filed then, but we imagine someone figured out that Unkefer probably has the cash.
At the least, Unkefer claims he's gotten filthy rich with XanGo. According to Unkefer's web site:
Joining Sherman 's X-1 team and keying into his system has built many, many millionaires. The account X-1, LLC which Sherman operates earns a 6-figure income MONTHLY and millions per year!
As our July 8 article showed, Unkefer's dough is also behind a two-year-old precious metals firm in Phoenix, Republic Monetary Exchange. That company's owner, Jim Clark, worked with Unkefer and also served prison time in a separate case related to his own business. Clark claims it wasn't Unkefer who contributed start-up capital to the gold-selling firm -- he says the money came from Unkefer's deceased wife's trust. We're not sure if there's a difference.
Naturally, Unkefer and his lawyers challenged the 2008 restitution order. But last September, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Hannah rejected their arguments that the order is invalid because too much time has passed. The new order is simply an updating of the restitution he had agreed to pay after his conviction, the judge ruled.
Court records show that Unkefer complained to Hannah that the new order omits the part that says he can make monthly payments of $25.
"The Court is hard-pressed to believe that Mr. Unkefer really thought this accommodation would extend beyond the end of his sentence, indefinitely," Hannah wrote. "At a $25 monthly rate it would take 25,000 years to pay the full obligation of $7.5 million."
Unkefer appealed the ruling. On July 14, the state appellate court listened to arguments by Unkefer's lawyers and, on the other side, deputy county attorney Davina Bressler.
The Court of Appeals has listed the case as "under advisement" since then.
We'll publish an update as soon as we hear something. The court tells us that a decision might not come for weeks or even months.
The dozens of people on the victims' list have waited more than two decades, so a few more months shouldn't hurt.
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Most victims, no doubt, have long written off the debt.
Bartemus says he knew Unkefer was touting himself as a millionaire now, but figured too much time has passed to collect the $8,000 debt. He hired a lawyer in the 1980s to recover the money, and it didn't work out.
"It would be nice" to get the money back now, Bartemus says.