By KATE BRUMBACK, Associated Press
ATLANTA — After penning a rambling letter to financial regulators and writing notes to his family, a south Georgia bank director boarded a ferry in Key West, Fla., and disappeared.
Now local and federal investigators are trying to determine whether Aubrey Lee Price killed himself, as the lengthy letter — which they've described as a confession — would have them believe, or whether he slipped away with $17 million of investors' money. His family has told authorities they believe he's dead, but federal investigators aren't so sure and have offered $20,000 for information leading to his arrest.
"My depression and discouragement have driven me to deep anxiety, fear and shame. I am emotionally overwhelmed and incapable of continuing in this life," says the confession letter investigators believe was written by Price.
"I created false statements, covered up my losses and deceived and hurt the very people I was trying to help," the letter says.
Price apologizes at the beginning of the confession for its "lack of structure, grammar and harmony of thought." Indeed, it wanders from one subject to the next and back again and is sprinkled with grammatical errors and Bible verses. It includes claims that Price is solely responsible for the banking losses; apologies to his clients, associates and partners; claims that banking was never his area of expertise and that he got bad advice; some blame for regulators and other outside forces; repeated mentions of the stress and anxiety he says he has felt for months; and many allusions to his apparent intent to kill himself. The confession also denies that any money was stolen, saying it was all lost through bad investments.
Members of Price's family and several of his associates mentioned in court documents did not return calls seeking comment. A manager at the bank he directed, which has been purchased by another bank and reopened this week under a different name, said he couldn't comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
Price left his home in south Georgia on June 16, telling his family he was headed to Guatemala for business, said Sgt. Aaron Pritchett of the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office, which is investigating his disappearance. Two days later, Price's family received letters saying he was going to Key West to board a ferry headed to Fort Meyers and planned to jump off somewhere along the way to end his life.
Credit card records show he purchased dive weights and a ferry ticket. The ferry ticket was scanned at the boarding point, but that's where the trail runs cold, Pritchett said.
The Coast Guard searched for him, and investigators talked to the ferry crew and rental car agencies in the Fort Meyers area, to no avail.
Price has said he owns real estate in Venezuela and frequently went there and to Guatemala. Airline records show he had returned to the U.S. from a trip to Venezuela on June 2, according to a statement from an FBI investigator. Price may also own a boat that's big enough to travel from Florida to Venezuela, the investigator said.
Price became director of Montgomery Bank & Trust in Ailey, Ga., in December 2010, when a company he controlled bought a controlling portion of the bank's stock, according to a complaint filed late last month in federal court in New York. Price then opened brokerage accounts through a securities clearing and custodial firm in New York and told bank managers he would invest in U.S. Treasury securities.
Instead of investing the bank's money, authorities say Price wired the funds into accounts he controlled at other financial institutions and provided bank managers with fraudulent documents.
The FBI and federal prosecutors say Price embezzled $17 million in bank funds. The Securities and Exchange Commission has filed a complaint in federal court in Atlanta saying he defrauded investors. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. on Friday said it seized Montgomery Bank & Trust.
An associate told an SEC lawyer that since 2009, Price had raised roughly $40 million from about 115 investors, mostly in Georgia and Florida, through the sale of membership interests in his investment firm. He routinely sent investors messages saying the firm, for which he made the investment decisions, consistently had positive returns, the SEC lawsuit says. Price provided monthly account statements to investors that were falsified to hide the fact that millions of dollars were missing, his associate told the SEC.
Wendy Cross moved about $300,000 to Price's firm after a trusted financial adviser told her it would be a good investment. She met Price in person once. She described a very religious, soft-spoken man with a gentle demeanor and an air of kindness.
"He should have won an Oscar for his
performance that day," she said. "He has left a path of financial carnage."
The 46-year-old from Atlanta said she discovered something was wrong late last month when she wanted to withdraw some money from the firm to invest in another business. She tried multiple times to contact the firm to withdraw money. When she texted her financial adviser, he responded that he had had no idea what was going on at the company and said he thought Price was still alive despite rumors of his suicide.
Cross said she is shocked and devastated by the loss of her savings. She owns a food truck that sells arepas, stuffed cornmeal patties popular in some Latin American countries, but said she will have to sell the truck because she needs the money to live. She can't afford to hire a lawyer and said she doesn't know what she's going to do next.
Price lived with his wife and children in Bradenton, Fla., but bought a home in Valdosta earlier this year, according to authorities. Price had moved his family to the south Georgia city, where his wife's parents live, just a few weeks before he disappeared. There were financial reasons behind the move, but it also appears Price may have been trying to make things easier on his family once he disappeared, Pritchett said.
Pritchett calls the case interesting and peculiar but wouldn't speculate on whether Price is still alive.
"Until we have a body, it's kind of hard to say," Pritchett said. "It's almost like a novel."