He was an affable Santa Ana insurance salesman, she an Irvine securities lawyer with an impressive resume.
Together they took in more than $40 million from scores of small investors, who say they were promised returns of up to 40% through a sophisticated investment strategy usually reserved for hedge funds and other Wall Street big boys.
But of all the money that James R. Halstead and Jeanne M. Rowzee solicited for Private Investment in Public Equities, or PIPEs, they placed exactly zero in the esoteric transactions, investors allege.
"There were no PIPEs," said John M. Powers Sr., an Arizona commercial real estate agent who claims losses of more than $1 million in a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana.
"I'm 59 years old and ready to retire in two or three years, and I worked pretty much my whole life for that money," he said. "Basically, it's gone."
Powers' lament echoes through more than half a dozen civil lawsuits filed in state and federal courts accusing Halstead, 61, and Rowzee, 49, of defrauding more than 80 people before the alleged scheme collapsed last year.
Rowzee has denied wrongdoing but declined to comment.
Halstead, who has a 1998 felony conviction in Orange County Superior Court for selling securities unlawfully, said he, too, was defrauded. He blamed Rowzee, his longtime lawyer and friend, and said he has lost $20 million he had in investment accounts with her.
"A lot of people got hurt in this deal," he said. "You want to know who's the biggest victim? You're talking to him, buddy. . . . I lost everything."
Range of investors
That may be a tough sell to investors, who ran the gamut from wealthy developers to retirees on fixed incomes, some of whom drained their home equity to invest. Many were seasoned business people who said they brought friends or relatives into the deal.
Several investors told The Times that they have detailed their allegations to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI. Halstead said he's been in talks with the U.S. attorney's office but would not elaborate.
All three agencies declined to comment.
"I don't see how you can steal millions and millions of dollars and not be held accountable by the authorities," said Steve Perebzak, 36, who, along with his elderly mother, allegedly lost $450,000 they borrowed against their homes.
Where all the money went remains a mystery.
Rowzee, a single mother of two, is accused of stashing much of it in offshore banks, including $2 million she wired to a former client, "a fugitive hiding in Brazil," one suit alleges.
Halstead allegedly blew millions more on a fast-lane lifestyle that included sports cars, diamond-crusted wristwatches, frequent strip-club visits and two houses with panoramic views of Las Vegas.
"These are people who have no consciences," said Norbert Foigelman, a retired Newport Beach psychologist and entrepreneur who allegedly lost $1.5 million.
Life in the fast lane
As tens of millions of dollars flowed into the PIPEs scheme from 2004 to 2006, the lawsuits charge, Halstead was living it up in Vegas.
Property records show he bought two 8,000-square-foot homes near Henderson, Nev., with sweeping views. One cost $5.9 million, records show, the other $3.5 million.
"His house was like a mansion and looked out over the top of Vegas, the whole Strip. It was a faraway, but beautiful view," said Foigelman, who met Halstead as an insurance client in 1997. "He had big parties there to entice people to invest more money."
Halstead's other Vegas house was for his girlfriend, according to Foigelman and others, who said she was an exotic dancer.
"She was a beautiful girl," Foigelman said. "They spent money like crazy, on jewelry and clothes."
Sales records show the couple spent $201,000 on a Ferrari 360 Spider convertible from a Las Vegas dealership on Christmas Eve 2005. The following July, Halstead paid $368,000 for a 605-horsepower Porsche Carrera GT, records show.
Others recall him getting around Vegas in a chauffeur-driven limo, with an entourage that included a man named Sergio, whose job was to shop for the couple's clothes.
At the Bellagio hotel, acquaintances say, Halstead cheerily flashed his American Express Black Card to pick up the tab for himself and his friends, sometimes in the dozens. But American Express apparently has its limits, even if its vaunted Black Card doesn't: It sued Halstead in December for an unpaid balance of $358,869.
'I'm not a fool'
Halstead's response to stories of his wild spending can be summed up in two words: So what? He said he earned $750,000 a year in the insurance business and had money to burn.
"If I want to buy five cars or 10 cars, or two houses, or go to Vegas, why shouldn't I?" he said. "I didn't need this PIPEs deal to live my lifestyle. . . . I didn't need anybody else's money and I didn't steal anybody's money. I'm not a fool."