(QCR) A left hook by the great Sugar Ray Leonard in 1998 in Las Vegas knocked down Donny “Golden Boy” Lalonde. Although Lalonde lost that night, he also won big, paid US$5.5 million dollars and bragging rights.
That was a long time ago. Lalonde and his wife, Christi, a former Beach Boys backup dancer married for 25 years, lived the high life. But after a couple of failed comeback attempts, Lalonde decided to return Canada in 1990, ready to make his fortune in real estate.
But by 2004, Lalonde had declared bankruptcy in British Colombia, owing $1.5 million to creditors, mostly linked to failed real estate ventures. He moved to the Pacific beach community of Tamarindo, a town teeming with American tourists, world-class surfers, SUVs and beer.
A year later, Costa Rica was booming. Lalonde controlled 38 companies, according to public records. Everybody wanted to invest in Costa Rica, a country of lush rainforests and sandy beaches. Not missing out on the opportunity, Lalonde got back into the speculative land development game. A decade later, some 30 investors filed a class-action lawsuit, hoping to recoup $3.5 million.
In an article in the Hamilton Spectator, by the Toronto Star, we learn how the recently leaked documents, the Panama Papers, reveal that a complicated array of companies registered by Mossack Fonseca comprise Lalonde’s Costa Rican real estate business, according to documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the Toronto Star and CBC/Radio-Canada.
Lalonde, now 56, denied that he owns that many companies, but added that Costa Rican law requires you to create a company for any property you buy. In emails and interviews with the Star and CBC, Lalonde said he became a client of Mossack Fonseca’s in 2006, because he heard they were a reputable firm and he understood they had “been around forever.”
Two real-estate deals, El Escape and Howler Ridge, threaten to ensnare him in what would be one of Costa Rica’s largest class-action lawsuits, involving 29 Canadian and American investors.
“Some of the funds entered Costa Rican bank accounts and others went through Panamanian bank accounts,” said Jeannette Salazar, lawyer for the plaintiffs. “The main problem is that Lalonde never fulfilled the development of what he called ‘our community.’ ”
Lalonde, whose email address is ‘The Fighter’ in correspondence with Mossack Fonseca, denies all of the allegations. The Lalondes haven’t lived in Costa Rica since 2015. They have moved to Malta, where Lalonde is coaching the promising Libyan boxer Malik Zinad.
“I help boxers. I’m really hoping to introduce the world to the best, most dynamic individual fighter I have ever met in the boxing game … And my passion is to introduce him to the world. He is like the golden boy of Libya.”
Lalonde said he has done nothing to harm the investors, many of them former friends who have now turned on him. To the contrary, he said he has sacrificed years of his life to push the projects along.
“All they have to do is go look at the records and tell me, what did I do? Look at the work I did from Day 1 until I resigned. Tell me what fraudulent person sits there and works nine years on a project that they’re fraudulently doing something with. It makes no sense,” Lalonde said in an interview.
“I’ve been threatened many times by the same crew. But if I did something to you so terrible, would you wait eight years to do something about it? There’s nothing. These guys are threatening me, using social media, slandering my name in grocery stores.”
THE REAL ESTATE GAME
How did a boxer become a land developer?
Lalonde bought his first properties in the early 1980s in Winnipeg, where he was launching his boxing career, on the advice of a co-worker in the city’s water department. Lalonde soon learned it was easy to buy homes with minimum down payments, then use the equity and any rental income to buy other properties. He owned five houses by the time he was 22.
“You need sellers that are willing to co-operate, to give you the right to buy it,” Lalonde said. ” … The houses were $16,000 to $24,000 … That was a different world. Today, for a $2-million house, I wouldn’t know how to do it.”
This informed him in what would become his formula for speculative real estate. But in Costa Rica, Lalonde would buy land with no money down, raising the money from investors to pay the mortgage and the servicing bills and earn a commission as the “the guy on the ground in the jungle fighting off everybody who wants to steal it from us. You go back home to Tennessee and I’ll be your partner.”
In B.C., Lalonde raised money from friends and family to build “wonderful, dynamic” communities, but when the logging and fisheries industries faltered in the mid-1990s, Lalonde said he ran into financial problems. “All of a sudden, you had no market. I started struggling with paying the bills … Revenue Canada came in and froze my accounts (because) they said I wrote off some loans that I was not qualified to write off. I fought that, I won in court. But they don’t pay you back the money you spent and all the assets you lost while they fought you, seizing your properties,” he said.
The Star and the CBC could not find court records for this case. When asked again to clarify, Lalonde said, “I disputed a declaration they used to justify seizing my assets and won that appeal.”
In 2000, federal courts ordered the B.C. sheriff to seize and sell property associated with one of Lalonde’s company’s, Alias Developments Ltd., in order to collect $78,000 in unpaid taxes.
Federal bankruptcy records show that Lalonde filed for bankruptcy in 2004 with liabilities of $1,456,846 and $9,044 in assets, including a 1981 (Toyota) Land Cruiserand $3,000 in personal belongings. Lalonde’s primary address was listed as a condominium in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
Bankruptcy trustee Hayes McNeill & Partners Ltd. wrote in their bankruptcy report that “DonnieLalonde was involved with several companies as a developer. Christie was also self-employed as a design consultant. Lack of business experience and education. Poor financial management. Business failures.”
Lalonde’s creditors — most tied to his real estate deals — lost big time: Cadenza Corporation, a granite and marble company, lost $243,715.13; Dodd’s Lumber & Building Supplies Ltd., a company in Duncan, B.C., lost $6,744.04 and the Royal Bank Group in Vancouver lost $101,719.05.
“I should never have taken money and tried to become a land developer in Canada. I should have left my money with my qualified, educated money manager who had me making $30,000 a month, you know, hanging out with Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bryan Adams, hockey players, actors, having the life of Riley,” he said. “And I should never have gone back to Canada.”
He should have kept with what he knew: “Boxing.”
THE EL ESCAPE DREAM
El Escape was supposed to be a Wild West-themed village of about 162 hectares nestled in Costa Rica’s ranch country.
The horse-friendly gated community would have room to ride, horses could be tied to posts along the main streets and the lots would be serviced by roads, water and electricity.
“We just wanted to do a cowboy community,” Lalonde said. “We thought people from Alberta, people from Texas, people like that, would like a western-themed community.”
By July 2007, Lalonde was riding the boom and Dirk Brauer, of Mossfon Asset Management (an arm of Mossack Fonseca), wrote an email to MF lawyer Jennifer Mossack, valuing Lalonde’s net worth at $3 million (U.S.), mostly tied to his real estate developments.
“So far, he invested some USD 500k in Costa Rica. Some USD 600k, he is holding in a local account in Panama on a savings account. Since he is starting to get worried that he may spend the funds in Costa Rica he chose to give Mossfon Asset management a discretionary mandate on those funds obliging him to start producing income in Costa Rica and saving funds for the future,” Brauer wrote, also noting that the couple’s two children were in boarding school in Canada.
Sue Lindstrom, a former flight attendant, bought into the El Escape dream in 2007.
Lindstrom, 69, said in an interview from her home in Florida that she visited Lalonde’s office in Tamarindo, where she said he wanted $80,000 U.S. for two 4,000-square-metre lots in a development that would include serviced lots, a hotel and a spa. If she waited a day, the price would increase to $145,000.
“I have a list of all the things he told me that day of his project. I feel those are all lies. He said the land was completely paid for and he had $3 million in financing for infrastructure, that he had permits for all three wells and all the permits were in place,” she said.
“In my contract, it said if after two years the infrastructure and title weren’t done, I could get my money back,” she said.
But $80,000 was too steep for Lindstrom — “I just sold my condo and had $30,000 to invest” — so she turned to friends in Denver, Colo., to invest from $5,000 to $20,000 each.
Three years later, Lindstrom started to receive emails from Lalonde explaining problems at El Escape. Permits were taking longer than expected and the $3 million earmarked for infrastructure seemed to have disappeared.
“Suddenly everyone had to do their own water and electricity. The lot I had picked out suddenly disappeared,” said Lindstrom.
Lindstrom asked for her money back in 2011. Lalonde told her that her name was on a list to be refunded and that she would receive 10-per-cent interest on her investment.
Instead, Lindstrom said she hired a lawyer who put a lien on the development. That worked. In April 2014 she received $41,500. She gave 20 per cent to her lawyer. Her friends were given one-third of their investments and Lindstrom received $10,600.
The rest was to be paid in instalments, with interest, but it never came, she said. “He destroyed my dream of paradise.”
Lalonde said Lindstrom was told of the risks of investing versus buying retail. “She, like the rest of us, took that risk. She is fortunate to have her investment returned to her. I’m happy for her.”
The Star visited the El Escape property in April and found it resembles a sprawling dust bowl with no signs of construction or development. Thin, dried-out trees snap like tinder. Construction on roads appears to have been abandoned and what remains is pocked with giant ridges and potholes. A huge tree rises from the middle of what was to be the main road and the brush is as tall as a full-grown man.
Daphne Buhlert, 59, of Vernon, B.C., has never received a penny of the $55,000 she invested for a hectare of land in El Escape in 2007, just three days after she heard about the “country town.”
“We were all completely enamoured with him,” said Buhlert, who met the Lalondes in 2004 and considered them close friends. “He was the champ. Everyone got involved in this development because of his past celebrity.”
But by 2010, an anxious Buhlert asked for her money back and in 2011 was told she was second on the list of investors who would be refunded.
“I feel so naive and I hate admitting it. He no longer is a champ. He is a has-been. It makes me angry they are gallivanting around Europe,” she said.
Lalonde remembers Buhlert well. “Daphne’s a sweetheart,” said Lalonde. “She just doesn’t get it. Her money went there, she gets a piece of land.”
In all, Lalonde said, 40 per cent of El Escape investors who asked got their money back. “That’s all the money that was able to be paid back so far. So when more people want their money back and there’s more money available, they’ll get it.”
THE RISKS OF HOWLER RIDGE
The Howler Ridge development sits on nearly 1,000 acres of lush, green jungle where troops of black Howler monkeys cling to treetops.
According to a January 2015, investors’ overview report, Howler Ridge promised to build two fully serviced residential communities, a restaurant and microbrewery.
“With consistent funding, and a continually employed roster of contractors, including earth movers, architects and legal support, Howler Mountain is undergoing daily improvement,” the brochure reads.
Today, on Howler Ridge, there are a few houses, including one partially built home, high on a vista, owned by Lalonde. There was an old fridge inside but no walls. Bats occupy some roughed-out closets or bathrooms. The fridge is being used by the Costa Rican family paid to take care of the property, previously by Lalonde and now by one of the investors. Their tiny house has no electricity, so they parked their fridge in Lalonde’s abandoned lot.
“It’s a mountain ridge. It’s like a beautiful … what the heck do you call it … a bowl facing the ocean,” Lalonde said.
By 2006, Lalonde and his partners had to raise $4 million to buy the land and more investors were lining up. Lagartillo Developments Limitada, the Costa Rican holding company for Howler Ridge, took out a line of credit for $8.5 million to pay for design and infrastructure, said William Belanger, Lalonde’s childhood friend and one of the partners of Howler Ridge and El Escape. (Belanger said he has absorbed the outstanding balance on the line of credit.)
Lalonde’s lots were a deal — similar developments in the area were selling lots for $275,000 to $325,000.
“We were pre-selling starting at $40,000 — up as high as $80,000. So people had the choice — they can go buy a registered titled lot for $325,000 or they can make an investment in a company that’s offering investment packages to possibly end up with one at a way cheaper price. They chose what we did,” Lalonde said.
When the global financial crisis hit Costa Rica in 2008, Lalonde, who owns 46 hectares of Howler Ridge, said the world changed and the boom times slowed right down. Lalonde said a neighbour, a “very smart New York businessman,” told him he was going to lay low and “not move a rock” until the crisis passed.
But Lalonde chose to “keep moving forward” because that’s what his investors wanted.
Lalonde denies allegations from investors that he was conducting a Ponzi scheme — bringing in investor money to repay the investors who wanted out.
“There’s no Ponzi scheme about it. You have to raise money, you borrow money. And then if you finish the project with the money, great. If not, you borrow more money,” he said. “It is real-estate development. You win some, you lose some.”
Suki and Joel Hahn feel like they lost some.
The couple first heard about Howler Ridge in 2006 and invested nearly $150,000 (U.S.) , along with a group of 20 Long Beach, Calif., firefighters and friends. In total, the group invested $1.7 million.
Lalonde said some of the money was used to buy land and the rest went to Lagartillo Investment Limited Company, one of his companies, to pay bills.
“I was very skeptical from the beginning,” Suki says. “For many years, we received no documentation. I started getting nervous. I said we wanted our money back.”
In 2008, Lalonde sent an email: “Things are moving along in the project, it is actually going GREAT.”
That August, Lalonde went to Long Beach to meet with the group.
“He talked about all these grandiose things. He said, ‘I’m going to bring in more investors and build this and that,’ ” Suki recalls.
In January 2011, about a year after the World Bank said Costa Rica had rebounded from the crisis, the Hahns travelled to Howler Ridge with several others to see their investment.
“Donny guided us down these jungle roads you could barely get through,” says Suki. “We get to this spot where we have to hike up a mountain for hours and look at this completely undeveloped land that we’d given $1.7 million to. Nothing had been done.”
They wanted out. But there were no refunds.
The Hahns received their land a long while ago, Lalonde said. “She wanted to sell it, so she must have owned it … After that crash happened, nobody bought land for five years. I’ve sold two pieces of land personally since 2008.
As of May 13, Lalonde said “16 lots were delivered since you were here. Water infrastructure is ongoing on site now. The projects are still moving forward — 90 per cent or so of investors in Howler Ridge have been delivered titled and, most of them, serviced land.”
Belanger said in an interview that all 16 lots are individually titled — they went to the Californian firefighters — and that after extensive negotiations water from one of the biggest sources in Costa Rica is on its way to the ridge.
Lalonde is no longer involved with either project and has given control to Belanger. “I’ve resigned from it three years ago, due to these threats and extortion attempts. And so I have stepped away,” he said.
Belanger said both the El Escape and Howler Ridge developments are progressing.
Rick Philps, a Canadian lawyer not connected to this affair but who has practised in Costa Rica for 14 years, said lawsuits over failed land deals are common. But claims can take eight years and have a “zero-to-one-per-cent chance of being successful.”
Philps said Costa Rica is the “Wild West” because the real estate industry is unregulated and developers aren’t bonded, so they aren’t required to show they have the means to complete a project.
“You pay your money and you take your chances.”
Lalonde left Costa Rica on April 15, 2015, and hasn’t returned, but swears he’ll defend himself in court.
“In a heartbeat. I’ll be going back there anyway. I’ve got stuff there, I’ve got my land, my dog is still there. My son is still there and I’ve got my Toyota Land Cruiser there,” he said.
But, for now, Malta is home and life is simple.
“My wife and I have been humbled. We were — she was a dancer for the Beach Boys, you know — flying around the world … five-star hotels, private jets. I was a very wealthy person. I hung out with very wonderful, interesting people. And then I did all these things, went bankrupt, went through the struggle with the developments. Now, our priorities are very clear. Very simple.”
Tanya Talaga and Robert Cribb Foreign Affairs Reporters and Alejandra Fernandez DataBaseAR (Costa Rica)