In the mid-2000’s, a mysterious Russian couple moved to an area north of Miami, Florida. There, Victor and Natalia Wolf created a real estate empire. Unfortunately, the entire thing was a scam, and they bilked their clients out of more than $20 million before disappearing forever…
Citrus Springs - a small town off of the Central Florida Coast - became a battle-ground for real estate bidding wars in the mid-2000's.
Throughout the first half of the last decade, following the rupture of the dot-com bubble, real estate was the most lucrative investment one could make. Prices were soaring, loans were easier-than-ever to obtain, and it was all building up towards yet another bubble... but very few cared about that. For several years, investors continued to buy into a dysfunctional system, which put short-term profits ahead of any long-lasting effects.
Amid this chaos, a pair of savvy investors emerged from the sunny beaches of southern Florida.
Like many living in Sunny Isles Beach - a town just north of Miami, nicknamed "Little Moscow" - Victor and Natalia Wolf were Russian. Many in the region were Russian nationals, and the area itself has several connections to organized crime... though, whether or not that was the reason or merely an incentive for the Wolfs to move there is anyone's guess.
At the dawn of the new millennium, this married couple began assimilating into American culture, presenting themselves as wealthy, successful real estate moguls that were trying to achieve their version of the "American Dream." Between 2004 and 2006, this Russian couple would launch a real estate empire that stretched throughout Florida, and even began venturing into other states.
Unfortunately, like so many involved in the housing crisis, they would end up leaving their mark on the region... and, to this day, remain on the FBI's Most Wanted List.
This is the story of Victor and Natalia Wolf.
Victor and Natalia Wolf were Russians, who claimed to have lived in Germany prior to their move to the United States in 2000.
In 2001 - after being in the US for just a year or so - the two bought a lavish mansion in Sunny Isles Beach, a coastal resort town just north of Miami. This home was purchased with a loan of 2/3 of a million dollars - $667,000. The loan was remarkably easy for the couple to obtain, which was perhaps more indicative of the times than of the Wolf's actual financial situation.
This region, Sunny Isles Beach, has been nicknamed "Little Moscow" for a reason. Many Russian nationals chose to immigrate here, and - as such - the area is rife with Russian businesses. Even the street signs, which are usually English and Spanish, include a Russian translation.
It is unknown why the Wolfs decided to move to Sunny Isles Beach. It was estimated, at the time, that they moved to the area because it was a easy place to slowly transition to America itself... but others thought that it might have just been good for business.
You see, after living in America for a few years, Victor and Natalia Wolf set up a business named Sky Group Realty LLC. They bought office space in a nearby Miami shopping mall, and officially launched this venture in June of 2004.
Before they could really get started, however, they needed to look for investors.
The two presented themselves as savvy and successful real estate moguls. They lived in a mansion, complete with marble statues and ornate decorations. They drove around a Bentley and a Maybach, a European luxury car worth upwards of $300,000. They wore expensive garments and jewelry, with Natalia constantly being spotted in pricey designer clothing, and Victor owning a decadent watch collection. They began chartering private flights for potential clients, flying them in from out-of-state to hear their well-rehearsed sales pitches.
Victor and Natalia began creating a number of subsidiaries for their parent company, Sky Group Realty. One of these subsidiaries, named Sky Development Group, operated under the motto: "Living up to our name." This subsidiary would handle the planning of residential and commercial construction, and was prepared to handle tens of millions of dollars in investments.
The main project being developed by Victor and Natalia Wolf was an expansion along the central Florida coast: an rural area that was mostly undeveloped.
Their primary focus was an area named Citrus Springs - a small town in Citrus County. This was roughly fifteen miles away from the Gulf Coast, and provided plenty of incentives for potential investors.
Land here was cheap; incredibly cheap. And, because of the layout of Citrus Springs, it was easy-to-obtain. Forty years beforehand, when Citrus Springs was being developed, it had been cordoned off into individual plots for an expansive growth... an expanse that never came. However, the plots remained, ripe for the picking.
In came Victor and Natalia Wolf: two successful, wealthy-looking investors from Miami who - unlike so many of their peers - didn't appear to be slimy investors looking for a quick buck. They were a married couple, which appealed to the regions' small town values, and they seemed eager to cultivate growth in this sparsely-populated region. They were able to strike the right chord among Citrus County residents, and were able to bridge the gap between them and wealthy investors from southern Florida.
The Wolfs bought office space in Citrus Springs, and hosted events like local barbecues. They sponsored booths at local fairs. They joined the chamber of commerce.
Soon enough, they began facilitating the buying-and-selling of properties throughout Citrus Springs.
In the Fall of 2004, Victor Wolf hosted an event down in Miami.
Beforehand, he and Natalia had invited Russian nationals from around the nation to attend, presenting it as a real estate seminar. However, it soon became clear what it actually was: a sales pitch.
During this so-called "seminar," Victor described his background: he claimed to have gotten an economics degree from Switzerland. He claimed to have made his first million dollar profit in his early 20's, and claimed to specialize in many financial dealings: primarily, though, in real estate.
He announced his intentions to begin developing on land in Citrus Springs, Florida. They were starting small: roughly 50 houses to be built within a matter of months, but many more far-reaching projects were planned out over the next 7 to 10 years. Victor didn't try to hide the fact that he had large goals for Citrus Springs, and his well-developed plans seemed hopeful that he could reinvent the region into a thriving economy.
As such, investors were needed. And those in-attendance at this seminar - primarily Russian nationals - were asked to climb aboard... as either investors or sales people. The Wolfs company, Sky Realty, was looking to create a national sales force to search for investors, and were going to continue expanding in the coming years.
A couple of months later - in December of 2004 - Sky Group Realty offered up their first plot of land for sale in Citrus Springs. It sold for $25,000 - a dramatic increase from just months earlier. Before the Wolfs announced their intention to begin developing land in the town, similar plots of land had been selling for around $4,000.
It seems that the interest being raised by Victor and Natalia Wolf had artificially increased the price of land in Citrus County, due to the real estate bubble, which would continue this ballooning effect over the next several months.
As Citrus Springs lots continued to sell, the price of neighboring lots would continue to rise. This led to a constant back-and-forth between investors, who were looking to double or triple their investments in days... sometimes, within hours.
By April of 2005, lots in Citrus Springs were selling for as high as $35,000 - which highlighted exponential growth over the last calendar year. At this point, Victor and Natalia Wolf were running commercials on Russian-language TV stations, appealing to Russian investors across the nation.
This even led to them creating another subsidiary, called Sky Construction, which - you guessed it - would handle the construction of their planned developments.
At this point - less than a year after officially launching Sky Group Realty - Victor and Natalia Wolf were handling millions of dollars in real estate transactions. They had received millions from investors to develop homes in Citrus Springs, but had continued taking out multi-million dollar loans to increase their business ventures, using the properties they owned - and had just recently sold - as collateral.
A practice more commonly known by its proper terminology: fraud.
Throughout 2005, trouble began to brew for the Wolf family.
The lots they had been dealing on over the last year or so, primarily in Citrus Springs, Florida, were used as collateral on several loans they were obtaining - not only loans for their business interests, but personal loans needed to maintain their wealthy image.
Eventually, the banks and organizations provided these loans began to look deeper into the Wolfs' financial dealings... and discovered how truly messy things had become. There seemed to be no barrier between their business accounts and their personal accounts, and it appeared that the acres of land they were using as collateral weren't actually owned by the Russian couple.
This wasn't limited to lots that Victor and Natalia had sold in the preceding months, either. It appeared that the couple was using land they had never owned as collateral, and - when called on it - the Wolfs failed to provide a deed of any sort.
For some time, whenever the Wolfs had been called out on this type of shady business tactic, they would just pay the loan back in its entirety, along with a penalty. But now, after taking out so many loans to cover other loans, their options were beginning to run out.
An investigation was launched by the Floridian Department of Business and Professional Regulation during that year, 2005, and found that their companies had failed to register with the state board. Because of this, they were given an option: repay all of their investors and buyers, or face the legal consequences - potentially even state or federal charges.
Of course, Victor and Natalia Wolf accepted this deal. However, they would fail to follow up on it, and the state wouldn't even attempt to enforce their demands.
Not only would the Wolfs continue business as-usual over the next several months, but they actually began to double-down on their shady practices.
In the spring of 2006, Victor and Natalia Wolf announced to the world some good news: they were expecting a baby girl. To celebrate the occasion, they invited their friends to a baby shower, which would take place on a yacht.
The yacht - a decadent, multi-level luxury craft named the Floridian Princess - hosted more than 100 guests in a party that was described as lavish, extravagant, and even vain by some.
The party, which hosted guests along the Intracoastal Highway, featured a number of amenities: steak, lobster, caviar, champagne, bottles of vodka, and what looked like models all over.
Several party-goers - friends and acquaintances of the Wolfs, who were millionaires in their own right - described it as one of the craziest parties they had ever attended.
What this baby shower was, in reality, was another attempt by the Wolfs to flex their success, and continue trapping investors in with an image: that these were two incredibly successful, happy individuals, who were achieving all of their financial and personal dreams. It gave their business associates the idea that, if they continued to invest in the Wolf's business ventures, that they, too, could live a life like this.
However, like everything else in the Wolf's life, this party was a sham... paid for by credit and money that they didn't have, in an attempt to lure investors into a false sense of security.
Cecilia Richard and Camilo Guzman were realtors fro Miramar, Florida, who decided to go into business with the Wolfs.
After speaking to Victor Wolf, Richard and Guzman decided to buy a lot in Citrus Springs. They were told that this lot would be a centerpiece of the planned community the Wolfs were building, and it would be located just down the street from an elementary school and a church. It would also be located next to other prominent businesses who were arranging land deals in the region, such as Lenscrafters and Publix.
To Cecilia Richard and Camilo Guzman, this plot of land could be their retirement package. An attempt to get out of the real estate business before the bottom fell out.
They took out a $140,000 loan for the land, and began making their payment checks out to an escrow company called All Title and Trust, which handled the Wolf's real estate holdings. They were told that the title for the land would be arriving in the mail following the signing of official documents, and the beginning of payments.
Natalia Wolf, who signed all of the couple's business papers, didn't sign with a full name. Not even a company name. Just the couple's last name: Wolf.
Unbeknownst to Cecilia Richard and Camilo Guzman, All Title and Trust was a company set up by Natalia Wolf; in essence, a shell corporation that her husband and she owned. They would end up waiting for months for the deed to show up so that they could begin planning their retirement package, but eventually, would discover that the deed was never showing up. Because they, like so many others, had been conned.
This scheme orchestrated by Victor and Natalia Wolf started off with what seems to be humble beginnings.
Early on, the Wolfs had legally purchased lots in Citrus Springs. It seems like they had legitimate plans to develop the land, which was documented in several blueprints and plans put forth by their companies.
These first lots were sold to developers, but... this is where things began to get murky.
After selling the plots - a quarter-acre and half-acre here and there - the Wolfs would transfer the ownership of the land to their parent company, Sky Realty Group LLC. Then, they would simply continue to sell the land over and over again. Not only to investors, but to other real estate agents and realtors.
They would tell the buyers that they owned the land, and would sometimes even send out deeds, but... all official documentation pointed to the Wolfs continuing their ownership. Most of the deeds they mailed out were just fraudulent.
Because of the multitude of companies set up by the Wolfs - dozens of subsidiaries and shell companies - when the land changed hands multiple times, nothing appeared really out-of-the-ordinary to government regulators. It just appeared to be a messy series of real estate dealings, which wasn't too uncommon in the mid-2000's, when land was being flipped continuously.
Their scheme, which wasn't overly-complicated, just relied on a lot of confidence. Confidence placed in the belief that the system was too dysfunctional for anyone to keep up with them... confidence that they would not be caught, at least not before they were able to cash out.
And when their lying and charm failed to win over disgruntled clients, the Wolfs resorted to a more blunt-force style of fraud: outright forgery. They forged documents such as deeds in an effort to bilk clients - and others - of land that rightfully belonged to them. And it worked, for a period of more than two years, before the truth began to catch up to Victor and Natalia Wolf.
With the runway running out beneath them, the Wolfs continued their business expansion, hoping to make haste while the sun shined.
They began increasing their scope outside of Citrus Springs, into different areas of Florida. They seemed to stick to more rural areas, where they were able to convince investors that opportunity was on the horizon.
They even began expanding into Texas, planning a new development outside of Austin, which would be named after their realty group: Sky Station, aka "Skyline." According to plans drawn up by Victor Wolf, this development would cost upwards of $150 million, but would bring about a change to the Austin area: a new style of living, if you will.
Brian Vodicka, a retired adjunct business professor from the University of Texas, was lured into the scheme by the charming Wolfs. He would end up investing close to a million dollars - approximately $915,000 - in this new development, which he supported wholeheartedly.
"It was supposed to be the poster child of developments for the 21st century."
Because of this expansion into a new state, the Wolfs created yet another subsidiary - the Sky Group of Texas LLC - and began drawing up intricate plans for the sprawling development. They even began claiming to have drawn interest from top-of-the-line retail businesses, such as Nieman Marcus, Gucci, and Saks Fifth Avenue.
These plans, which sounded incredibly promising, were like bait to investors, who continued to line up to do business with the Wolfs from the ground-floor. This included several Russian nationals, who had done business with the Wolfs in the past... some of whom had personal ties to organized crime, such as ex-members of the Russian mafia.
Throughout 2006, trouble for the Wolfs continue to mount.
By summer, it was noticed that the couple had not paid rent for their office buildings, and several of their properties were beginning to head towards foreclosure.
By all indications, it seemed like the couple was running out of the money... if they weren't insolvent already. It seems likely that they had blown through millions of dollars in revenue and loans on their lavish lifestyle.
When speaking to the property manager that they leased office space from, Natalia Wolf tried to chalk up their troubles to her having just given birth. She had given birth to a baby girl not long beforehand, and had been having issues keeping up with the business, she said. Sharon Hummerhielm, the property owner, stated:
"She apologized profusely, saying that things had just gotten past her because she was pregnant. She was so sorry."
At around this time, an employee of the Wolfs named Robert Linton decided to resign from the company. He had led the sales team in Citrus Springs, but discovered what looked like money laundering in the company's bank records. It appeared like the company was making large deposits into their accounts, and then immediately withdrawing identically similar amounts - a practice often used by money launderers. Sometimes, this total exceeded $40 million, which isn't exactly chump-change.
To make matters worse, in their personal lives, the Wolfs seemed to be struggling. They were selling off multiple lots at once; oftentimes, in numbers exceeding a dozen - a practice often seen in a fire-sale, which prices are approaching a cliff. They also began trying to raise money through every possible avenue: through investors, loans, and even begging their own employees to pitch in to keep the company afloat.
They even borrowed three-quarters of a million dollars from their lawyer, who gave $750,000 to Natalia that summer.
Things truly began to fall apart when a deal to sell some land in St. Augustine, Florida was finalized. Natalia, who handled all of the couple's paperwork, signed off on the deal, giving up the land to the buyer, before handing over the paperwork to a government clerk for authorization. This clerk, apparently not as naive as their peers, noticed a mistake in the paperwork, and send the deed back to Natalia Wolf for correction.
It appeared that the land the Wolfs were selling wasn't theirs. In fact, it had never been theirs.
It was now known that Victor and Natalia Wolf had been engaging in out-right fraud for the better part of two years, which included - but was not limited to - forging the names of other real estate agents on legal documents, and illegally signing over ownership of sold land to their subsidiaries.
Their charade was falling apart.
Entering the Fall of 2006, Victor and Natalia Wolf found the rug being pulled out from under them.
Since 2004, the two had been running a real-estate empire: handling tens of millions of dollars in real estate transactions, and had begun raising funding for two major projects: one in Citrus Springs, Florida, and the other - to be located just outside of Austin, Texas.
And, to make matters more complicated, the two had just given birth to a baby girl.
However, the married couple was now being consumed by debt. Despite living in the lap of luxury, and portraying themselves as self-made millionaires, they were drowning in sunken loans, and were running out of options... fast.
Law enforcement agencies began receiving calls from troubled clients and investors, who claimed that - recently - liens had been placed on properties they just purchased from the Wolfs. Or, in some cases, construction that was supposed to have started months ago had not begun, because the building materials were still unpaid for.
Some of these clients and business associates resorted to calling the cops, when they were unable to get calls back from Victor or Natalia. However, others seemed much more desperate; they had loaned money to the Wolfs, and expected it back... with interest. Some of these associates, who had links to the criminal underworld, were threatening violence against the Wolfs.
On October 13th, 2006 - a Friday the 13th - Victor called up Peter Madison, a longtime business associate and acquaintance of his.
Madison had been involved with the Wolfs projects for over two years now, serving as a primary investor in their Citrus Springs development and now their project outside of Austin, Texas. He also considered Victor Wolf a trusted friend, who had always done right by him.
Victor, speaking to Peter, said that he needed help making payroll this month, due to some issues with cash-flow. However, he promised that it was a temporary issue, and would be resolved by the following week - when he would pay Peter back with interest.
Since Peter had already loaned the Wolfs several million dollars, he viewed this as a no-brainer. He was protecting his investment as much as anything, and wanted to help out a friend, if he could.
Peter Madison wired him $100,000 that afternoon, and received a heartfelt "thank you" call from Victor Wolf later that evening. Victor seemed to be thanking Peter for all of his help over the last two years, and their conversation seemed to carry a tone that bordered on finality.
They said goodbye, and Peter Madison - who had loaned the Russian couple several million dollars - never heard from Victor or his wife ever again.
On October 16th, 2006 - the following Monday - it was discovered that multiple checks that Wolfs had written were bouncing.
These were checks that the couple had written to former-clients and business associates, whom they were now attempting to pay back. However, the checks they had written were bouncing... making it appear like they were flat-broke and writing worthless checks.
A police officer decided to visit the Wolf's Sky Realty office building, in Miami, in an attempt to find out what was going on. What they found was an empty office, where nobody was working. The front doors were unlocked, but the office building itself looked trashed - like someone had just rummaged through, in an attempt to clean house. Papers were everywhere - real estate documents from hundreds, if not thousands of transactions - and the hard drives from the office's computers had been ripped out and were missing.
The same police officer, a detective that usually handled homicides, decided to make a house-call to the home of Victor and Natalia Wolf - their lavish mansion in Sunny Isles Beach.
Nobody answered their calls at the front door, so the officer called his superiors to gain permission to enter the home. In the kitchen, the officer found what looked like the remnants of a small party, with several unwashed dishes and glasses, and a dozen or so empty bottles of champagne on the counter-tops.
It seemed, to police, that the Wolfs had been celebrating... something.
Meanwhile, the bedrooms of the home were a different story altogether. With items scattered all over the bedrooms, it appeared that the Wolfs had left in a hurry, packing only their clothing and most important items. The rest was left behind.
Police left the home, reporting what they found: the disappearance of the Wolfs, and the mess left behind in their wake. When they returned to the home later in the day, to collect some more information, they were surprised to see four Russian men leaving the home of Victor and Natalia.
These men, business associates of the Wolfs, appeared to be looking for the married couple. They claimed that they had lost roughly $7 million, but didn't want to file a police report. Instead, they ominously told the officers that they desperately needed to catch the Wolfs before they did.
When the police conducted their search of the home, they found that a portrait of Victor and Natalia had been torn from the walls and urinated upon. It was clear that these men were not just looking to get their money back... at this point, they were looking to make a point.
Based on the evidence that law enforcement had gathered, it appeared that Victor and Natalia Wolf had disappeared, along with their infant daughter. They had likely run away, trying to escape the financial fallout that had been circling them for months.
Following their disappearance, investigators began trying to track down Victor and Natalia Wolf - not only in an attempt to help salvage the savings of those that had invested in the couple, but to also figure out who these two Russians were.
Police were able to quickly discover that Victor and Natalia Wolf were likely fake names - aliases assumed by the couple prior to their move to the U.S.
Law enforcement knew more about Natalia than Victor. She held a German passport with the name "Natalia Wolf," and had claimed to be of Russian descent. She had immigrated to the U.S. in 2000, and took the Florida state mortgage broker's exam in 2002 - which she actually failed. However, that didn't deter her and her husband from starting their real estate businesses, and they decided to just move past this failure without retaking the test.
Meanwhile, Natalia's husband - Victor - was a much more enigmatic figure.
For starters, police weren't even sure of his real name. "Victor Wolf" did not appear on any official documents - he didn't have a license in that name, any permits, hell... not even his bank accounts. Those were all under the assumed name, Victor Wolf.
Victor appeared to have a passport, but never let any investors or business associates see it. After all, it was his wife - Natalia - who handled all of the contracts and signings. Victor was always much more of a big-picture type of salesman, who had only ever told acquaintances vague details about his life: that he had gone to school in Switzerland, that he had earned his first million dollars by the age of twenty, stuff like that.
Other than these known details, Victor and Natalia Wolf were enigmas. They had seemingly appeared out of thin-air in the early 2000's, already somewhat-wealthy and established in southern Florida, before proceeding to start a lucrative real estate firm. However, the paper trail documenting their rise was virtually nonexistent. They were ghosts, who were able to obtain millions of dollars in loans and investments with little more than a glossy exterior.
In the wake of their disappearance, it was discovered that the Wolfs had left behind dozens - if not hundreds - of victims. And not only had they been forging documents for more than two years - forging the signatures of other real estate agents and property owners, as well as using fake notary seals - but millions of dollars in investments were now at-risk.
The scheme orchestrated by the Wolfs had started by luring in investors with the promise of excellent returns. Clients and associates, who saw the luxury that the Wolfs were living in, easily bought into their lies.
Victor and Natalia then began double and triple-dipping on properties, selling each multiple times. Each time, they did their best to make each investor believe that they were the sole owner of the property, but the holdings would be caught up in paperwork for weeks or even months, so they could not start developing immediately.
When their lies weren't enough, they simple created fake documents... some of which they sent out to their clients on official-looking paper, but most of which they mailed to government clerks for approval. Not suspecting any foul-play, the government clerks would simply okay the real estate agreements, which - more often than not - transferred ownership of the property back to the Wolfs' shell companies and subsidiaries.
Thus, the cycle continued. Over and over again, allowing the Wolfs to gain anywhere between $50 and $75 million in revenue. Some of which was spent on business costs - overhead; and some of which was then blown on personal luxuries, allowing Victor and Natalia to put on a pretty face as wealthy real estate moguls. However... the rest was still missing. It had been moved around so many times in numerous shell companies, sometimes transferred to overseas banks and institutions, that there was no longer a solid paper trail for this small fortune.
Insurance was able to recoup some of the losses for the victims, but around $20 million would be lost forever.
Some of these victims weren't wealthy investors, able to quickly recover from these type of losses. Some were aspiring entrepreneurs, who had invested their life's savings into the small business of their dreams, or had taken out bank loans to buy a retirement home of their dreams.
Alex Hamilton, a real estate agent from Miami that had sold more than $500,000 in Wolf properties to her clients and even bought a large parcel of land for themselves, stated:
"Everybody believed them. Everybody bought into their scheme. We're all trying to figure out how they did this. We're still reeling."
Gail Tierney, the spokeswoman for the Citrus County Sheriff's Office, knew that this was the type of case that would end up getting stuck in legal and civil gridlock for years to come. In my opinion, she described it the best:
"This is just a nightmare. It truly is."
The legal battle of the properties sold by Victor and Natalia Wolf was just beginning, following their disappearing act in 2006.
Some of the land sold by Victor and Natalia Wolf had not even been owned by the couple. This was land that they had outright forged documents from other companies ceding the land to them, which had then been sold. Those companies, who had rightfully owned the land, now had to go to court against people that had purchased the land from Victor and Natalia Wolf... who had sold the land illegally.
Needless to say, that was a legal quagmire that would take years to unravel.
To make matters worse, the land that Victor and Natalia Wolf had actually owned was even more complicated. You see, they had often sold this land two, three, or even four times over, with multiple clients making payments for months - or years - before discovering that others had also bought the same plot. In most of these cases, the first person to buy the land was given the property, but the others were finding themselves unable to recoup their losses.
In a best case scenario, the clients of Victor and Natalia Wolf were able to gain control of the property they had paid for. However, because it was found that the entire thing was a scam, the land now cost a fraction of what they had paid for, meaning they lost a significant amount of money on their investment.
In a worst case scenario, buyers lost out on not only the land, but the money they had sunk into the purchase. This meant a down payment and monthly payments paid to the Wolfs' sham escrow companies, but could also mean the full amount of a bank loan, which was meant to finance a construction.
To sum everything up with a bit of profanity: Victor and Natalia Wolf had essentially fucked over everybody. Some people were hurt worse than others, but everybody that did business with them was significantly screwed over, to the tune of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars - if not millions, like some poor investors.
Investors could file a lawsuit against the Wolfs and their companies, but... with the couple now on-the-lam, they would unable to collect anything.
By the start of 2007 - just months after the Wolfs had gone missing - the prices in Citrus Springs had returned to their averages from a couple of years prior. Numbers that had jumped up to $25,000 and $35,000 with the emergence of the Wolfs, now returned to the neighborhood of $4,000 to $5,000... and the people that had paid the full price for this land were stuck with the losses.
Most of that land remains unfinished to this day, with some legal battles over rightful ownership extending into the 2010's.
Following their disappearance in October of 2006, the trail of Victor and Natalia Wolf's whereabouts grew cold very quickly.
Natalia was recorded flying from Florida to New York City, following the unraveling of their scheme. Police were able to find documented proof that she made this trip, along with their infant daughter, and then flew from New York City to Europe. They landed in Germany, before continuing on to Moscow, Russia.
Victor, on the other hand, continued to remain an enigma. Because he was living under a false identity, with there being no documented proof of a man named Victor Wolf leaving the country, he seemingly disappeared right into thin air.
However, in November of 2006 - just a month or so after the family disappeared - a man matching Victor Wolf's description was spotted by a witness in Moscow. This witness described Victor constantly looking over his shoulder, acting somewhat fidgety, and appearing disheveled and sweaty.
Natalia and Victor Wolf have not been seen since. After seeming to slip into Russia, the two disappeared behind the iron curtain... seemingly, forever.
Before leaving the U.S., it was discovered that the two had used what was remaining on their credit cards to purchase pieces of jewelry, which they likely tried to sell and live on for some time. But that was more than a decade ago.
Business associates and acquaintances of the Wolfs were questioned by law enforcement, but all stated that they did not know the couple's whereabouts. In fact, upon learning that they had been living under false identities and pretenses for roughly half-a-decade, these associates and friends were shocked. They didn't even know who Victor and Natalia Wolf were.
This included Ben Schulman, from Hollywood, Florida, who acted as the lawyer for the Wolfs' real estate dealings throughout the state. His practice was suspended for his active role in the Florida deals; in particular, because he was intertwined with the Citrus Springs development. He, however, was not charged with any crimes. His own attorney, Richard Sharpstein, stated about Schulman:
"He had no idea they were disgusting, despicable thieves."
"He met with the federal authorities and told them everything. Ben turned over every single piece of paper he had to the federal government."
Despite a full-scale federal investigation, and their addition to the FBI's Most Wanted List in January of 2011, Victor and Natalia Wolf have not been seen or heard from in more than a decade.
One of the major theories surrounding Victor and Natalia Wolf - not only their disappearance but their emergence in the Floridian real estate market - is tied to their alleged involvement in a Russian network of sorts.
Upon arriving in the United States, it appeared that the Wolfs had been gifted a condo - a condo owned by a shell corporation registered in the Bahamas. This is the first piece of real estate they began squeezing loans out of, and they ended up flipping the condo multiple times through shell companies of their own - essentially upping its value each time, in a scheme very reminiscent of money laundering.
They still owned this condo up until 2006, but two weeks before they disappeared, they flipped the condo one final time, gifting it to a shell company named NYC Investment Group LLC - which dissolved shortly thereafter.
It's this type of activity that made the Wolfs so hard to track - often times, they dealt with subsidiaries and shell companies of their own, but also seemed to be a part of a much larger network of like-minded schemers. Many of whom were also Russian nationals.
The FBI themselves believe that the Wolfs might have been a part of a network of Russian nationals that preyed on investors during the housing boom... not exactly spies, but people hoping to take advantage of a shaky economic system before it went belly-up.
Roman Groysman, a Fort Lauderdale attorney that was battling in court for an investor that lost thousands in the Wolf's fraudulent scheme, described the Russian couple as "professional front people," who headed a much-larger network. He also believes that their scheme was "premeditated and calculated," describing their scheme as "highly organized." However, he also admits that the two lacked the necessary qualifications to pull of a scheme so complicated, at least without help. For this, he cites the condo they received upon moving to the US.
"They flipped it so many times you couldn't keep up with it, and then they ended up giving it to someone else in a flip - against as a gift - in a quit claim deed."
Groysman also says that, upon arriving to the US, the Wolfs didn't have the necessary capital to live their lavish lifestyle, nor create a small real estate empire:
"She had nothing. He had nothing. Someone literally picked them up out of the gutter."
"She didn't have an education to pull off what she did. They didn't know jack about financial markets."
Roman Groysman believes that Victor and Natalia Wolf would have continued their scheme indefinitely, if they hadn't been stopped when they were:
"It's not because they were running out of deals in Florida. If they could have, they would have gone to all 50 states. But I think what they found in Texas was that America really was the land of opportunity. Where else can you find a mayor to work with? Where else can you work with developers who had been doing this all their lives? They broke into the top levels of society. It's not that [the Wolfs] ran out of money. They ran out of time."
In their wake, Victor and Natalia Wolf left behind dozens of shattered dreams and broken families, who had to struggle through the economic recession with one arm tied behind their back, financially.
Peter Madison, an Orlando investor that lost several million dollars when the Wolfs absconded, felt personally betrayed by Victor - a man he had considered a friend.
"I am a pretty good judge of character. But I can tell you these people surprised me. They were super nice."
Alexandra Krot, an oncologist, lost more than $4 million dollars in the Wolf's scheming. She said about the couple:
"They stole, robbed. They reduced people to bankruptcy. They were major scammers."
Roberty Alley paid close to half-a-million dollars for multiple lots in Citrus Springs. Vsevolod Duonaevslo paid $145,000 to the Wolfs for them to begin building him his dream home with a pool.
Like the rest, they were left out in the cold, unable to get back their entire investment.
Chet Tutor, a Vietnam veteran that lost more than $600,000 and was looking forward to a quiet retirement, stated:
"It's like one lie on top of the other. I'm one of the guys who really got ripped."
Brian Vodicka, the retired University of Texas professor I quoted earlier, had invested approximately $1 million in the Wolfs' Texas expansion... a development that Vodicka later described as:
"It was a disaster."
"This was supposed to be Austin's new stamp on the map for creating a living community. They were going to build a city. There should have been roads. There should have been homes. What do you see? A broken-down barn and a head of cattle."
"It's just staggering that millions of dollars got spent, and there's nothing there."
"Just like the money, they vanished."
Then there are cases like Peter Mazzarino - a man who lost little compared to the rest, but remained a vocal critic of the Wolfs following their disappearance. He had paid $28,500 for the down payment on a home, which he hoped would become his retirement home. Compared to the rest, he lost little, but spoke to other victims that had been duped by Victor and Natalia Wolf.
One of which, Peter describes, was the wife of an active-duty service-member, whose husband was deployed overseas.
"They had invested all their savings. She's crying and the babies are crying in the background. Her husband was in a war zone and he didn't need to hear that... these people destroyed lives."
Between 2004 and 2006, Victor and Natalia Wolf perpetuated a hoax: creating more than two dozen companies to act as real estate trading portals, and bilking investors out of more than $20 million.
They targeted primarily American and Russian investors, but didn't discriminate when it came to wealth: they targeted the lower, middle, and upper classes indiscriminately.
They sold land that did not belong to them, and forged documents for clients, other real estate agents, and property owners. They issue fraudulent deeds to potential buyers, and even forged notary seals.
It is believed, in total, that as many as 400 people were victims of this scheme, which wasn't complicated. It was simple fraud, which was successful because of the charm that the Wolfs were able to attach to their image: pretending to be likable, successful, wealthy moguls that appealed to essentially everyone.
Victor and Natalia wolf were able to successfully navigate the incredibly complicated terrain of the real estate business, at the absolute height of its market value, without any necessary permits or licenses. And not only were they successful at this endeavor, but they profited to the tune of $20 million... all without using their real names or identities.
As far as real estate fraud goes, this was a worst case scenario.
The Wolfs are believed to have fled to Russia in October and November of 2006, with their last known whereabouts putting them in Moscow. However, it remains unknown whether they are alive or dead.
Federal arrest warrants were issued for both on January 18th, 2011, by a US District Court in the Southern District of Florida. They were charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, and have been on the FBI's Most Wanted List ever since, topping the list of the Bureau's most wanted white collar fugitives.
The man that called himself Victor Wolf stands around six-foot-one, weighing around 200 pounds, with brown hair and eyes that are either dark gray or blue. His supposed date-of-birth is January 24th, 1971, and in addition to his native Russian, he also speaks German and English.
Natalia Wolf also speaks three languages; the same as her husband - Russian, German, and English. She was supposedly born on July 7th, 1974, and - as of her last sighting - stood somewhere between 5'4" and 5'6", weighed around 130 pounds, and had blue eyes with hair that was either naturally brown or red.
As of this episode's recording, the two remain wanted by federal authorities, and their stories - in addition to those of their countless victims - remain unresolved.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Published on November 4th, 2018
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Other original music created and composed by Ailsa Traves