Victims lost businesses, houses, marriages, and trust in others following scheme

Swindler sentenced to 10 years in prison, pay $575,000 in restitution for fraud

Posted:  Friday, March 2, 2018 - 9:30pm
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BELFAST — A Kennebunk man convicted of stealing more than $548,000 from approximately 17 Waldo County victims has been sentenced to spend 10 years in prison, with all but six years suspended, three years of probation and $575,000 restitution.

Robert J. Howarth, 64, was charged with theft by deception and a Maine Uniform Securities Act violation in relation to an investment scheme that saw victims in two Maine counties lose almost $600,000 in total.

A British investor also lost roughly $350,000 to Howarth’s schemes after the man’s daughters met Howarth in a Maine store.

Howarth’s Waldo County crimes occurred from January 2009 to February 2010, before he moved to Kennebunk and defrauded another couple. Howarth gave victims the impression that their money would be invested in a clothing business venture and that they would see a quick, significant return on their investment.

In addition to serving six years for theft by deception, Howarth will serve five years for the Securities Act violation, which is to be served concurrently.

The attorney representing the State of Maine, Assistant Attorney General Paul Rucha, moved to join the case with another case from York County, featuring identical charges. In a motion for joinder, Howarth is said to have used a similar modus operandi with his victims in both York and Waldo County. The cases were ordered consolidated in February 2017.

Howarth pled guilty to all four counts Dec. 4, 2017, with defense attorneys and the State agreeing to a 10-year sentence, three years of probation, and $575,000 restitution. Probation conditions will include restitution as ordered by the court, an order for no contact with his victims and that Howarth be prohibited from soliciting or accepting money from any person for the purpose of investment in any venture.

He was indicted in York County on March 2, 2015, in connection with an investment scam that targeted a local husband and wife involving the resale of designer clothing.

Howarth was indicted in Waldo County May 13, 2015.

During his thefts in Waldo County, Howarth was in the company of a woman who identified herself as his wife.

Since Howarth had no bank account of his own, any checks written to him were deposited into the woman’s account in addition to cash deposits.

A large portion of the money deposited was used to pay off substantial credit card bills in the woman’s name, with monthly purchases on the cards running between $15,000 - $20,000, according to court documents.

Charges came from a variety of places, including clothing stores, spas, high-end hotels and jewelry stores, among others.

When interviewed by authorities, the woman claimed she was physically and emotionally abused by Howarth, who she said essentially forced her to use her bank account. She has not been charged with any crime.

After leaving Waldo County in 2010, Howarth moved to Kennebunk, where he married another woman, and began using her surname as his own. Howarth repeated his previous patterns in Kennebunk, with he and his wife knocking on the door of their neighbors to befriend them over time, and ultimately scam them of more than $25,000.

Though warrants for Howarth’s arrest were issued after his indictments were handed down, Howarth had already left the state.

Howarth was arrested in Fort Lee, New Jersey, after being found living in a synagogue using the name Bob Lee. He was reportedly engaged in an ongoing effort to exploit the financially troubled synagogue at the time of his arrest.

In July 2016, the State of Maine extradited Howarth back from New Jersey, and bail was set at $100,000 with no third party bail. There were also a number of conditions attached to bail, including that Howarth remain in the state.

In mid-December, 2016, Howarth signed an affidavit that he had no source of income and no assets.

While incarcerated in York County Jail, Howarth was reportedly making phone calls to individuals, offering financial rewards to those who were willing to put money in his jail account, though those efforts were unsuccessful.

Howarth tried the scheme again while held at Two Bridges Regional Jail in April 2017, making phone calls to discuss an individual coming to post his $100,000 bail.

The State reportedly learned that if a person shows up at the jail with the bail amount in cash, Howarth would be released without an inquiry into the source of the cash, regardless of the Court’s order banning third party bail.

Due to concern that he might be able to convince another party to post cash bail, Attorney General Janet Mills requested that if someone were to show up with the money, Howarth would be held until a hearing could be held to determine if the money is from a third party.   

According to court documents, Howarth has an extensive history of defrauding people he befriends through scam investments in clothing inventory resale. He has a multitude of convictions in Massachusetts, including 30 larceny convictions. Howarth spent four years in prison for those offenses.

Ongoing health issues led Howarth to continue his case to allow for him to be treated at area hospitals periodically throughout his initial incarceration, with diabetes being blamed for many of the problems affecting him.

More than 300 pages of medical records for Howarth from February 2017 to December 2017, were reviewed by the State. Both Howarth’s age and physical condition were factors considered in his sentencing.

Howarth is known to go by several aliases, including Robert Chiofolo, Robert Kim Lee, and Robert Sachs, according to court documents.

Though a sentence of 10 years was recommended by both parties, Howarth’s attorneys asked the Court to suspend all but 42 months of the sentence. They wrote that though prison time is difficult for everyone, it is exceptionally hard on the elderly, chronically ill, and on those lacking mobility.

Ruffner wrote that any sentence will have a disproportionately greater effect on Howarth than on a healthy individual.

A number of Howarth’s victims wrote victim impact statements to the court, many including details of how Howarth ensnared them in his deception.

Meeting victims in a wide variety of ways, Howarth had a track record of ingratiating himself into people’s lives via the smallest contact, be it a haircut, or having someone help him carry a carpet, documents said. Howarth would then spin a tale about a New York City company he was in the process of selling and other business ventures in order to solicit funds, which he assured investors would yield quick and high returns.

He met one couple after the woman identifying herself as his wife secured housing for the duo at a second home owned by his eventual victims. The woman told the couple that her husband would soon be joining her after he finished selling his clothing business in New York City. In reality, Howarth was finishing a Massachusetts prison sentence for larceny by false pretenses.

After his arrival, Howarth, who introduced himself as Bob James, became friends with his future victims, eventually telling them that they could make great returns by buying “leftover” clothing from the prior season for pennies on the dollar, then reselling items in a different market.

The victims were offered the opportunity to invest in the scheme in February 2009; Howarth would purchase cashmere sweaters he could acquire for $25 each due to a connection, which would then be shipped to California to be sold for double or triple the cost.

The couple invested a total of $76,250 over the course of several months and multiple “investment opportunities” from different clothing brands.

Once the couple began to question where the returns were, they said returns “slowly started to dribble in,” totaling just $25,300 out of their total investment, leaving over $50,000 still owed.

With time they began to suspect these payments might be coming at the expense of other investors.

Eventually, Howarth simply disappeared, vacating the home he had rented without a word. It was at this point others began to come forward and the couple learned there were more victims of Howarth’s schemes.

Howarth met another victim during his stay in Searsport when the owner of a local hair salon cut his hair. He told the woman and her husband that he stood to receive a few million dollars when he settled the sale of his New York City clothing company and that while he was awaiting the sale he was looking for investors.

During this time the woman who identified herself as Howarth’s wife took the salon owner shopping, while her husband was gifted a watch. He told the couple that he could help them move to a larger location to expand their salon and that if they gave him money he would invest it in containers of clothing that would be bought for pennies on the dollar and sold for double or triple.

The woman eventually grew suspicious and confronted Howarth, who reportedly told her, “if you open your mouth you won’t get anything,” before paying her back $500.

Another, formerly wealthy British victim told Justice Robert Murray that he had difficulty explaining the full extent of this man’s actions upon him and his families lives. He wrote that no words can explain the devastation and pain which resulted from Howarth’s lies, deceit, and theft of monies that has destroyed his life.

The man invested close to $350,000 after Howarth got to know the man’s daughters after meeting them in an unnamed Maine store, and introduced them. He wrote it was obvious to him now that Howarth’s intention all along was to get to him.

Howarth told the man he had just sold his company for many millions and was looking to reinvest. The victim owned a company at the time that was in need of an investor and thought Howarth to be the perfect fit. After presenting Howarth’s offer to his board, shares of the company were issued ready for his contribution.

Instead, while Howarth said he was waiting for his funds to clear from the sale of his company, he presented the victim with quick sales opportunities involving containers of clothing that stood to net several hundred thousand dollars in the meantime. The man said the story was more believable because Howarth produced large checks made out to his holding company. So convinced was the victim that they actually borrowed additional funds to invest from others.

The victim said that within a very short time, his world collapsed virtually overnight. No money came back, leaving his company to collapse and him not being able to fund a sporting club he had intended on opening. He also lost his car, which he had used for funding.

The man wrote that he has lost everything, including his health, wealth, and the respect of his family, noting he will never recover from what Robert Howarth has done to him.

Yet another victim called Howarth a disgusting human being who takes more from people than just money.

“He took away our confidence, dignity, and self-worth making us question every decision we make and feel like we failed our family. The impact of what he did is forever. What he does is ruin people’s lives forever.”

Howarth’s victims ranged from multi-million dollar business owners to small business owners, such as a local flooring company, a landscaping company, and jewelry store. Non-business owners were also targeted. The vast majority of his victims were older citizens.

All of Howarth’s victims talked about the far-reaching effects of his deceptions, with some losing businesses, marriages, their homes, friends, reputations, and trust in others in the fallout of Howarth’s lies.

Court documents note that in all Howarth’s dealings with his victims, he used “charm, financial generosity and friendship as a way to induce confidence and trust while simultaneously probing his victims for weaknesses, hopes, and vulnerabilities.”

State prosecutors described Howarth’s theft as “particularly heinous because he feigned friendship and generosity by using the money of the previous victims to support his projected image as a multimillionaire. Once he learned of the victim’s vulnerabilities, Howarth would exploit them.”

They went on to say that “the ‘long con’ that Howarth perpetrated on his victims required planning, skilled execution and determined effort over an extended period of time. Howarth’s crimes were not crimes of desperation or lapses in judgment. Howarth’s crimes were not a typical Class B theft relying on a ruse to separate a victim from their money. They were premeditated, persistent criminal enterprises based on probing his victims’ emotional lives, hopes and weakness and viciously exploiting them over an extended period of time for his personal gain. Howarth entered the most sensitive and vulnerable places in his victims’ emotional lives and leveraged emotions like the love for their children, desperation regarding financial security and the intimate bonds of friendship to enrich himself without regard for the lasting damage he caused.”


Erica Thoms can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com