The world of Broomall investment manager Joseph S. Forte unraveled last month after the Bernard L. Madoff scandal broke in New York.
The Madoff case prompted Devon resident Gibbs LaMotte - Ivy League lacrosse player, 1962 Yale graduate, and Forte investor - to ask for a confirmation of assets in the fund, valued at about $150 million on Sept. 30.
"There was no response" to the e-mail, La–Motte said yesterday. "I don't know, but I suspect there were numerous others" who did the same thing and may have even tried to get their money out of Forte's fund, LaMotte said.
"At that point, it must have dawned on him that the jig was up."
LaMotte and other investors received a letter dated Dec. 31 from John N. Irwin, an accountant and Villanova resident who was responsible for sending Forte's quarterly reports to investors. The brief letter said Forte had confessed.
What he confessed to, exactly, is unclear.
Investors are exasperated over their lack of knowledge about what Forte did with their millions, where he is, whether their assets, if any, are frozen. They said they cannot get any information from authorities.
"It's a combination of bewilderment, anger and sadness," LaMotte said.
Yesterday, a fractured image of Forte, who is in his mid-50s, started coming together. He was recalled as a dark-haired man of average height and with an athletic build.
Investors and acquaintances described a man who has no airs about him, a solid individual. He was not a slick salesman.
"He's a quiet guy," said Gamp Pellegrini, head football coach at Malvern Preparatory School, where Forte's son played before graduating last year and where Forte volunteered as strength coach.
"He never looked for any accolades or that kind of stuff. Always quiet," Pellegrini said, crediting Forte with building an excellent weightlifting program at the football powerhouse.
"All this other stuff that is coming out is a big surprise to me," Pellegrini said. "It's a disappointment."
Tuesday, Forte's name was listed on the Malvern school's Web site as a trustee. Yesterday, it was not there. The school's latest available tax form for the year ended June 30, 2007, included Forte on the roster of trustees. School officials did not return calls seeking more information.
Forte also has been an assistant football coach for the last 10 years at St. Anastasia's, and he is a member of the Catholic parish in Newtown Square, said Kevin Mulligan, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Having no license as an investment professional, Forte was not allowed to advertise or solicit business. Wealthy clients, some of whom invested a large percentage of their net worth with him, found Forte through personal recommendations. Investors included the Thornton D. & Elizabeth S. Hooper Foundation, Hill Top Preparatory School in Rosemont, and Wayne United Methodist Church.
"Unfortunately, you need a Madoff situation to create a sniff test," said Charles Cummiskey, a former Internal Revenue Service agent and now an accountant at Devon-based Smart Business Advisory & Consulting L.L.C.
It is not clear how long Forte has been in business. By late 2000, he was wealthy enough to buy himself a five-bedroom beachfront house in Sea Isle City for $896,900.
The seller, Sewell resident John G. Purnell, recalled yesterday that Forte and his wife, Bernadette, were friendly. "He bought the place just like that, no bickering, at the asking price," Purnell said.
Forte's business found a steady stream of customers because he told investors he was earning them consistent returns of between 8 percent and 14 percent, one investor said.
The strategy, Forte told investors, was to place bets on the direction of the stock market by investing in futures contracts on the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index. At the end of every trading day, he supposedly closed out all of his positions, so no money was at risk overnight.
Now, it seems, it was all at risk.
LaMotte, the Devon investor, was intrigued by Forte's ownership of an expensive Shore house. "I want to find every single dollar of assets that he has."