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Ventura County grows business

Robert Caron, investor and attorney, dies at 52

By   /   Friday, June 25th, 2010  /   Comments Off

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Robert Troy “Bobby” Caron, a Camarillo lawyer and investor who was awaiting trial on fraud charges, died June 17 after fighting brain cancer for seven years. He was 52.

At various times in his career, Caron was a personal injury lawyer, a sports agent, a lawyer and adviser to boxer Fernando Vargas, a strawberry investor and broker and a real estate developer. He made millions and he lost millions, and he died with millions in civil judgments against him still uncollected.

Caron lived in a hillside neighborhood in Camarillo with his wife and four young children. He was a constant presence in the youth sports community, at times coaching three different football teams and three different soccer teams, according to an obituary posted online by Conejo Mountain Funeral Home.

By the time he turned 30, Caron owned one of the top personal injury law firms in Ventura County. But in the 1990s, he turned away from that business, and what followed was a stream of lawsuits and regulatory actions.

First came Pro Manage, a sports agency that was caught giving cash and gifts to University of Southern California football players. Three USC players were suspended in 1995 and Caron paid the university $50,000 to settle a lawsuit.

Caron later invested with a series of con artists and questionable characters, ultimately entangling himself in four separate Ponzi schemes in which investors lost a total of more than $100 million.

Each time, Caron said he was one of the scheme’s victims. In 2006, he was arrested and charged with running his own fraudulent investment operation. He pleaded not guilty. After four years of delays and pre-trial motions, the judge had scheduled the case to go to trial in July.

Caron was born in Oxnard and raised in Oak View, one of four children. The family stayed close; his siblings and parents all joined him in some of his business ventures.

In the late 1970s, Caron was a star defensive back for the Ventura College football team. In a 2005 interview with the Business Times, Caron’s coach at Ventura College, Steve Tobias, described him as “an unbelievably big hitter,” an undersized player with “a huge, huge heart.”

Caron played football at San Diego State University, and after college he came back home and attended Ventura College of Law. He built Robert Caron and Associates from the ground up — it eventually took the 16th floor in what is now the Topa Financial Plaza tower in Oxnard.

Just as Caron’s Pro Manage misadventure was taking shape, he met another tenant in the building, investment adviser Donald Lukens. Caron wound up investing more than $2 million with Lukens and advising some of his friends and clients to invest, according to court records.

Lukens filed for bankruptcy in 2001 with his business in tatters. He eventually paid $4.75 million to settle a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit accusing him of running a Ponzi scheme, a type of investment fraud in which new investors’ money is used to pay off previous investors.

Lukens left the region in 2002 and moved to Illinois, where is now facing criminal charges that he defrauded a woman he was dating.

In the late 1990s, Caron also started investing with a fund in Orange County called DFJ Italia. It was, as a lawyer for its investors said in 2001, “not even remotely legitimate.”

Federal prosecutors believe DFJ Italia executives took at least $45 million from investors and diverted most of it for their personal use. They told their clients they were related to European royalty and had access to investments that weren’t open to common folks.

Caron helped DFJ Italia’s principals sell their investments, according to testimony he gave in a federal trial in 1999. He denied knowing about any fraud and said he lost large sums of his own money.

The defendant in that federal trial was Brian Russell Stearns of Austin, Texas, now serving a 30-year federal prison sentence. Stearns essentially posed as a high-stakes bond trader, fooling investors with fake trades and financial reports. His clients lost about $35 million, prosecutors said.

In a civil suit brought by Stearns’ victims, Caron was found responsible for $7.2 million of their losses. Caron admitted to wiring $5.5 million to Stearns, money that he said came from DFJ Italia investors.

That $7.2 million debt grew with interest and hung over Caron’s head for the rest of his life. In 2005, he declared bankruptcy in Hawaii, with the Stearns judgment as his biggest liability. He said he planned to move to the islands to “start over,” but he soon dropped the bankruptcy and returned to California.

Back in Ventura County, Caron was one of the biggest investors in a Ponzi scheme run by Ventura strawberry farmers and brokers Dennis and Brenda Willingham. Both are now in state prison.

After the Willinghams went belly-up in 2001, Caron got into the strawberry business for himself. He brought in his own investors, including Vargas and former NFL lineman Lomas Brown, and started a Santa Maria berry company.

It was the strawberry operation that led to Caron’s 2006 arrest. Thirteen of his investors in that business said they lost a total of $1.2 million.

Even while he was on free on bail, Caron had irons in the fire. In 2008, he appeared before the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and won approval for an 88-home development in Big Bear.

The project was never built, and some of his investors were unhappy when they didn’t get their money back. Seven of them went to the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office with fraud complaints, and prosecutors said in December that they were prepared to add more felony charges.

By then, Caron’s health was getting worse. His brain cancer appeared in 2003, in the midst of his strawberry dealings. He had tumors surgically removed in 2004 and the cancer went into remission, but it came back last year.

He spent his last years shuttling between hospitals in Los Angeles and Ventura County, and fighting the fraud charges against him. People who called him during that time heard a motivational speech of sorts on his voice mail: “Live your life with passion, put family and God first in everything you do, and I’ll see you at the top.”

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