Tomball man talks about committing $40 million investment fraud
HOUSTON - A Tomball man has been sentenced to five years in federal prison after admitting to what he says was a $40 million investment fraud through his firm, Bellatorum Resources, LLC.
Some investors, who lost fortunes, say they feel he should face more.
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"I’m extremely sorry for the investors' losses," Chris Bentley said as he sat down to talk with us.
The founder of Bellatorum Resources, LLC in Spring turned himself in to authorities in April 2021, admitting to defrauding his 152 investors.
He tells us some of his investors were friends and relatives.
"If they’re asking how could I do it, the goal was always to make everybody whole. It wasn’t to keep up a lie in perpetuity," he said.
Bentley started Bellatorum Resources in 2016, investing in oil and gas royalties. But he says when drilling slowed and profits fell off, the former Marine didn't want to lay off his all-veteran staff of 21. He said they were unaware of the fraud.
"I thought I could buy some time by basically lying and moving money around in a way that I wasn’t supposed to," he explained.
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The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission says Bentley bought inflated mineral rights from an entity he secretly controlled and from third parties, misappropriated proceeds for himself and Bellatorum, manipulated sales transactions to generate fake profits, and altered documents to deceive auditors.
The SEC states that Bentley allegedly kept his scheme afloat by secretly pledging most of the funds' mineral rights as collateral for an improper loan. When Bentley allegedly failed to repay the loan, the lender took most of the funds' investments, which triggered massive losses.
Bentley says he then confessed to investors and investigators. He later pled guilty to wire fraud.
"I’m a father of two sons. I’m talking to them about integrity and at the same time I’m talking to them, I’m thinking, man I’m such a hypocrite," said Bentley.
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We spoke with several investors. None wanted to appear on camera for our story, but Craig Anderson agreed to talk with us by phone.
"Chris sent an email out to everybody saying he had embezzled our money," said Anderson. "What he’s done goes against everything that the Marine Corps stands for. So in my opinion, he’s a narcissistic fraud."
Anderson said not only did he lose the bulk of his investment, but ended up having to pay some taxes on what was left, saying, "We had an actual tax liability for a worthless investment."
Bentley says he plans to work after prison to pay investors back and published a book called Burning Bellatorum, his cautionary tale for investors and entrepreneurs, saying proceeds will go to investors.
But investors we talked to say they fear they'll never see their money again.
"His way to try to pay back investors is pretty laughable," said Anderson.
Some tell us they fear Bentley could be hiding some assets, which Bentley firmly denies.
"I lost everything in this endeavor. I lost my house," he said.
"Why would I do this and turn myself in, just to have a small amount stashed away?" Bentley said, saying investigators have combed through his financial records.
Some investors tell us they wondered if this was a Ponzi scheme. We asked prosecutor John Braddock with the U.S. Attorney's office about that.
Braddock writes, "Mr. Bentley pleaded guilty to wire fraud. In a Ponzi scheme, earlier investors are typically paid with money from new investors. The investigation did not show that occurred in this case."
The SEC sent us the following statement regarding its agreement with Bentley:
"To resolve the SEC's charges, Bentley and Bellatorum agreed to the entry of a judgment that permanently enjoins them from future violations of these provisions of the federal securities laws, bars Bentley from serving as an officer or director of a public company, and orders them to pay disgorgement, prejudgment interest, and civil penalties in amounts that will be determined by the court upon future motion of the SEC. The partial settlements with Bentley and Bellatorum are subject to court approval."