Investigating the Ponzi Scheme Film Producer Who Disappeared Without a Trace

felix

This article originally appeared in Vice UK

On the morning of the 3rd of March, 2015, 41-year-old German Felix Vossen walked out of his flat on Jermyn Street in central London and disappeared.

He was in a hurry, leaving his belongings behind, as if he were hoping his disappearance would go unnoticed by the friends and family who had invested millions of pounds into his financial schemes. He boarded a plane from London City Airport to Zurich, where he carried out the same ritual, exiting his second flat as though he wasn’t abandoning it forever, leaving most of his possessions behind.

Felix sent a few final messages in the weeks after his disappearance. One was to his on-again, off-again girlfriend of 20 years, Austrian model and TV presenter Sophia Raafat. “I’m so very sorry,” it read. “I never meant to hurt you and always thought I could make it right in the end but it just kept getting worse and worse.”

The other messages were sent to colleagues at his film production company Embargo Films, where he had a burgeoning career alongside his job as a supposed trader of US tech stocks.

People began giving Felix Vossen money 14 years ago, and his investors were always family or friends (according to those I speak to, he only took money from people he knew). Felix told his clients and friends that his business was working on the “New York Stock Exchange on a short-term trading basis with a low risk strategic approach”, according to a press document released by his victims, reporting extremely healthy returns of 18 to 20 percent for investors on a short-term basis – techniques he could convincingly demonstrate to even those with financial backgrounds.

“He would never do less for you than about 15 percent return on capital, which isn’t vast, but it’s very attractive when you’re living in Britain when the banks are offering you half or a quarter percent,” says Tom Trotter – a retired security consultant who lost almost all of his savings to Felix – speaking to VICE over the phone.

Felix is now nowhere to be found. Twenty-six of his investors have come together to launch a manhunt for him, setting up a campaign website, posting a video to YouTube appealing for help and obtaining a High Court order that requires him to pay them £45 million after they successfully sued him for breach of trust. The High Court has frozen his bank accounts in London, Switzerland and New York; the FBI and Scotland Yard’s fraud squad are investigating his disappearance; and a warrant for his arrest has been issued in Switzerland. However, with Vossen’s colleagues telling the Mail Online that he had recently become enamoured by the idea of fugitives evading capture with the use of plastic surgery or prosthetics, there’s every chance the face that flew out of London eight months ago is no longer so familiar.

Before his disappearance, Felix Vossen was a stocky guy with thick brown hair, sometimes worn short and sometimes long. He was slightly chubby around the waist and hips, and wore expensive clothes, shirts and cashmere jumpers with high end denim. He’s an occasional smoker (Marlboro Lights) and has a wide nose, constantly sniffing due to a deviated septum. The acquaintances of his I speak to about his disappearance tell me about the gap in the middle of his teeth, his booming voice and his strong German accent. They also mention how “charming” he is – a charm that led to those 26 friends and family members handing him their savings in the belief he would give them a decent return on their investment.

One victim was Katherine Crawley, whose story is pretty typical. A former documentary filmmaker, the two met in London when they were in their twenties and part of the same social circle.

“I liked him immediately. He was, you know, a very charming guy – very intelligent. I really enjoyed his conversations,” she says, speaking to VICE from her mother’s home in Mexico. “He seemed a very genuine guy… and I just felt that I trusted him, you know?”

The subject of Katherine giving Felix some cash for investments came up pretty quickly after they became close, she says, and he was already helping his girlfriend and her friends grow their incomes on the side with get-rich-quick financial wizardry.

The two met at a very difficult time in Katherine’s life. Her father had left when she was 17, and the divorce was messy. Felix was there for her, a “very loving and very reassuring” friend during an unhappy couple of years. This closeness led Katherine to introduce him to her mother, Barbara, and Felix eventually became “part of the family”.

Not all of his investors were financial rookies. Madhu Grover, who lost a huge sum, holds an MBA in Finance and worked in trading and banking for years. She says that Felix’s strategy “made sense” and that, in theory, he was making smart decisions.

However, Madhu believes Felix wasn’t actually even trading, but simply “recycling” money across accounts to cover his tracks – a hallmark of so-called “Ponzi” fraud schemes. She blames herself for not paying closer attention to his tardiness with repayments, or taking much notice of his general unreliability. But like all of Felix’s victims, she was vulnerable: her daughter’s ill health had forced her to quit trading.

Felix Vossen was a successful guy with a privileged life. He rented expensive flats, lived comfortably but not excessively, and often went on hunting trips and holidays abroad with friends who believed his endless excuses about where their money was. They wrote much of it off as part of his charm; he was disorganised, but not a crook, surely?

In 2010, Felix and a couple of business partners started a film production company, Embargo Films, which would go on to fund The Sweeney and Miss You Already, a buddy movie starring Drew Barrymore. This gave him even further credibility and even more contacts (there is no suggestion that his partners at Embargo Films knew what he was up to) – though there had recently been tensions on set about his inability to deliver funds promised.

“Even professionals who came across him in the film business, such as accountants and lawyers, have said that he was the last person they would ever think would be fraudulent,” says one of his victims, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Everyone seemed to fall under his spell.”

But over the years he raked in millions. Felix had always been able to cover his tracks, and he built a smokescreen of deception to make sure that no one was left out of pocket for too long – a trick that by the end, it seems, he could no longer sustain.

A sign that something was wrong came in January, according to Katherine Crawley. Felix persuaded her mother to give him what’s been described as her “house money” to make a lucrative short-term investment the year before, promising he would return half of it as soon as he could. When January came around, the money was nowhere to be seen. For two months, Felix and Barbara spoke on the phone nearly every day.

“My mother was becoming extremely frantic at this time – you know, screaming at him, crying down the phone at him,” says Katherine.

Barbara’s bank then offered to investigate why this massive payment wasn’t coming through.

“She told that to Felix, and he became very alarmed by that,” says Katherine. “I’d say that was the first time we became very uncomfortable that he would act in a way that was very unexpected.”

Not much has gone smoothly since Felix disappeared. Many of his victims don’t want to be named for fear of public humiliation and further ruin, and there have been significant disagreements about the best way to get their money back – and the extent to which they should go public.

Tom Trotter thinks they would have had better luck with a more aggressive campaign, going public as soon as possible rather than waiting until this past October, as they did. There’s also been uncertainty about whether or not to offer a reward for information that might lead to Felix’s arrest. The idea of hiring private specialists to track him down has been rejected as too expensive.

Felix Vossen could be anywhere, and he made sure he didn’t leave any clues as to where he’d gone or how much money he had left. According to credit card statements which appeared at Embargo Films in the weeks after he’d disappeared, Felix had a storage facility that he’d paid a removal company to empty, as well as having them “shred masses of paperwork just around the time he left”.

Whether or not Felix will be able to run forever is a question that can’t yet be answered, but so far he’s done a pretty good job of it. There’s only been one sighting of him so far, which police are still investigating and can’t discuss.

Opinion among his victims is mixed about the chance of Felix getting caught, and if they’ll ever get their money back. Some think that, yes, of course he’ll eventually be found: in the 21st century there’s always some way to track you, whether that’s through the money you spend, the phone you use or the websites you visit. Surely Felix will slip up eventually?

Some are less optimistic.

For others, it’s about beginning the long process of rebuilding their lives, constantly haunted by the memory of Felix Vossen, the man who they loved and shared their lives with, but who manipulated and betrayed them. “I dream about him quite a lot,” says Katherine Crawley. “I see his face in my dreams, smiling. He had such a smiley face.”

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