UPDATE Aug. 1, 2019:
Maryland investment adviser Dawn Bennett was sentenced July 31, 2019, to 20 years in prison for defrauding investors out of millions of dollars, some of which she spent on astrological gems, cosmetic medical procedures and religious rituals in India, the Baltimore Sun reports.
April 2, 2018
A popular and polished radio host. Millions and millions of dollars in cash. And a little bit of black magic.
Dawn Bennett certainly had the credentials to manage money for the 1 percent.
She was number five on Barron's list of Top 100 Women Financial Advisors. She had a weekly radio show where she dished out money advice with a helping of politics. And she even branched out into fashion. Vogue TV featured Dawn's designer jeans with Chinese dragons painted onto the denim. She leased a $500,000 luxury skybox at the AT&T Stadium to watch the Dallas Cowboys. Her closet was filled with designer shoes.
Good fortune appeared to rain down on Dawn Bennett.
But did she really earn all the money, or was she bilking her unknowing clients? Maybe there were clues in the kitchen of her swanky penthouse condo.
"I didn't know she had cow tongues in her refrigerator," said Steve Santagati.
Dozens of cow tongues jammed into jars. Why would this elegant and seemingly successful woman fill her fridge with cow tongues? Authorities say those tongues hold the key to her alleged fraud.
TV host Steve Santagati was one of Dawn Bennett's clients.
"She was very buttoned-up. She seemed very conservative and she bragged about her successes with finances," said Santagati.
Santagati says he became a millionaire from television-hosting gigs, modelling and writing books.
"I had over a million; there was at one point I had $1.5 million. I didn't even know what 1.5 million of anything even looked like," said Santagati.
He says after an appearance on a morning show to promote his new dating advice book The Manual, he had a chance meeting backstage with Bennett and hired her on the spot to manage his money.
"So I figured 'Well, maybe I'll have someone manage this for me,'" said Santagati.
Steve Santagati claims Dawn Bennett managed him right into poverty.
"I went from living on 'The View' to living in a van down by the river," said Santagati.
Santagati says he parked the van behind a fried chicken shack in Cocoa Beach, Florida.
"My friends couldn't believe it, they're like 'You're living in a van. Mr. Hollywood, Mr. I'm On The View, Mr. I'm On Oprah, Mr. New York Times,'" said Santagati.
So what did Bennett allegedly do to shrink Santagati's fortune from seven figures to nothing?
"She had me in very risky, high, high-risk, very volatile and very huge downside investments," said Santagati. "I open up a statement that was two months old and I'd see like a $200,000 drop, and then Dawn would get on the phone and say 'You're up in the market compared to the S&P 500,' and all this other stuff, and I'm like, How am I up? And I'd see the stock market's going through the roof, and I'm like, Wait a minute, how is everybody making money and I'm losing hundreds of thousands of dollars? Because they weren't small, incremental drops."
Attorney Tucker Veach claims Dawn Bennett was using Santagati's and other clients' money to fuel her high-end life.
"It ended up being a classic Ponzi scheme. Basically it's like Bernie Madoff," said Veach.
According to a civil lawsuit filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Bennett allegedly hoodwinked at least 46 investors in what the feds call a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
"Money comes in, I use the money for other things, and/or over-expend, and then I start paying people back with the money that is coming in from other investors. And so there were some people who got money back, but it was coming from other people, and nobody knew that," said Tucker Veach.
When the feds get a warrant to search Bennett's penthouse in Chevy Chase, Maryland, they came across some of the strangest -- and smelliest -- evidence they've ever seen.
Right there in Dawn Bennett's refrigerator, inside jars were cow tongues. And on the lid of the jars, initials were written.
"Those were somehow representative of the SEC attorneys that were bringing the cases against her," said Tucker Veach.
According to the search warrant, those were the initials of the SEC's lawyers so she could put them under what she called a "hoodoo spell," sort of like voodoo.
The warrant says she invoked the hex "in hopes of paranormally silencing the SEC attorneys investigating." The warrant says a handwritten note was found with the incantation: "I cross and cover you. Come under my command. I command you to hold your tongue."
"And the tongue is to cut their tongue out so that they couldn't talk against her, or couldn't speak against her," said Steve Santagati.
It certainly didn't prevent them from finding evidence. Court documents claim Bennett promised sky-high returns, as outlined in numerous emails they seized.
The feds claim Bennett tried to persuade an elderly man with an ailing wife to invest his "entire life's savings and promised him a guaranteed rate of return of 15 percent without risk."
The man declined, telling Bennett: "It would be a killer if for any reason an investment in your fine company would lead to any more losses."
The feds arrested Dawn Bennett and charged her with wire fraud, bank fraud and making false statements on a loan application. She pleaded not guilty, and denies defrauding investors.
Crime Watch Daily reached out to Bennett's attorney for comment, but all he would say is that "this is a pending matter."
"Even though Steve is not the 'little old lady,' his portfolio was probably the most egregious that I'd ever seen," said Veach.
Santagati claims while he lost money, he is not one of those people caught up in the alleged Ponzi scheme.
"You want to know what's the difference between what she lost through genuine investing, bad decisions, and what she purposely defrauded me out of for high commissions? Follow the money. Who made money under those circumstances? It wasn't me," said Santagati.
So Santagati and his attorney took Bennett to arbitration, and he won the case.
"We got $1,040,000 -- over a million-dollar settlement, almost everything we were asking," said Santagati.
Steve Santagati says he's learned his lesson the hard way. And he has this parting advice for anyone with some extra cash.
"I don't know how long I'll be on the planet, so enjoy your money, spend it, go do things," said Santagati.