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Thow's life creates myriad questions
Three years after skipping to Seattle, he manages to live in relative luxury

Andrew A. Duffy
Times Colonist

Friday, June 27, 2008

It's been three years since Ian Thow slipped over the border to set up a home in Seattle.

Three years since the former senior vice-president of Berkshire Investment Group ducked out after allegedly bilking his former clients, friends and suppliers of millions of dollars, leaving in his wake the debris from broken lives that are only now starting to heal.

But even as the Crown announced it has charged Thow with 25 counts of fraud over $5,000 following a lengthy investigation by the RCMP's Integrated Market Enforcement Team, there remain myriad questions about how this could happen and perhaps bigger questions about just who Thow really is.

On the surface, Thow appeared to have it all -- and indeed, living just a block off the water in downtown Seattle these days, he looks like he still does.

When the Times Colonist last spoke with him in the winter he looked trim and tanned, was dressed impeccably and as always was jocular and outgoing while attending one of his many court appearances in Seattle.

He still drives a luxury SUV, flies to Las Vegas, and according to both the Canadian receiver watching over his bankruptcy and a hotelier in the region, he's spent plenty of time in Jamaica in the last year.

Sometimes it's hard to believe Thow filed for bankruptcy in both Canada and the U.S.

It's also puzzling that Thow appears so carefree, considering he left the country with former clients and creditors saying he owes them in excess of $37 million. They say he bilked them out of millions by convincing them to invest in schemes that ranged from shares in a Jamaican bank to loans for Vancouver developers and seed shares with his former employer.

To top it off, last fall the B.C. Securities Commission slapped him with a $6-million fine and a lifetime ban from the capital markets in the province.

The commission called it one of the most callous and audacious frauds in the province's history, having found Thow perpetrated a multimillion-dollar fraud when he took money his clients gave him to invest and instead spent it on a luxurious lifestyle.

A three-member commission panel found that Thow "preyed on his clients [between January 2003 and May 2005] by offering them non-existent securities and instead using the funds to support his lavish lifestyle."

Yet Thow appears to remain unfazed.

As his former clients will tell you, appearances with Thow are almost always deceiving.

On the surface, Thow appears to have carefully prepared a public persona of the gregarious and charitable man about town, a larger-than-life, community-minded businessman who could turn on the charm at the drop of a hat.

That image was crafted by surrounding himself with the trappings of wealth, including expensive cars, jets, boats and mansions, while appearing to want to be a major part of the community. He pledged big money to charitable organizations such as the Greater Victoria Hospitals Foundation -- where he promised $500,000, though it's unclear whether he ever paid -- and B.C. Children's Hospital, which lists him as a donor in the $1,000-to-$4,999 category.

He also gave his time to CrimeStoppers and the Victoria police.

That, juxtaposed with his display of wealth and a list of friendships that ran the gamut from the old-school Victoria establishment through to common folk, established Thow as a solid citizen who could be trusted.

"The whole environment is set up to entrance people, the helicopters, the jets, the whole setup including the charitable-giving aspect," said former client Tim Ball in an interview when Thow first left for the U.S. Ball was with Thow when he worked at Investors Group in the late 1990s. "I'm not a psychologist obviously, but I think there's something pathological in a desire to impress people and win them over and then when it kicks in, he's taking advantage."

Beneath the veneer of the warm, outgoing man-about-town, however, was the Ian Thow who could turn ice-cold at the drop of a dime.

Clients who believed Thow was looking out for their best interests recall having difficulty even getting him to return their calls when they wanted their money.

One former employee who asked not to be identified said Thow had the ability to create personas to ingratiate himself with people of all stripes and then "cut anyone off in a heartbeat" when it suited his purposes.

But there is still another Ian Thow, a man who was by a number of accounts devoted to his family -- he has four children with ex-wife Teresa Thow and is remarried to Alyssa Fritz with whom he has a child.

Sources close to the family have said they are devastated by what has happened.

It has been an Icarus-like fall from grace for Thow.

According to people who knew him well, Thow was born in 1961 just outside of Los Angeles and moved to Canada in 1969, growing up in West Vancouver and attending Sentinel High School.

He came to the Island in the mid-1980s and before joining Investors Group, Thow operated a travel agency.

According to the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy, Thow declared bankruptcy for the first time in 1986, citing liabilities of $362,658 against assets of $14,300.

He worked at IG until 1998, when he left to establish the Victoria office of Berkshire Investment Group. He stayed there until he resigned on May 31, 2005, amid client complaints over Thow's business dealings outside of Berkshire.


Ian Thow takes flight