Transylvanian cheat plots return

Missing Persons No 38: Ion Stoica

Ion Stoica is a man who believes you can fool some of the people all of the time. Three years ago he persuaded 4 million Romanians to invest about $1bn (pounds 600m) in a pyramid scheme that at first paid out handsome dividends but then went bankrupt.

The collapse of the Caritas pyramid was a tragedy for hundreds of thousands who had entrusted their life's savings to it. For Stoica, who went from being the most loved to the most despised man in Romania, it ended in a six-year jail term.

Quite enough humiliation, one would have thought, to put most people off get-rich-quick schemes. But not Stoica. In prison in the Transylvanian city of Cluj, where he has been confined for more than a year, the former bookkeeper is plotting a comeback.

Things are running his way. Earlier this month, the Cluj Court of Appeal cut four years off Stoica's sentence, on the grounds that there was no proof that he intended to embezzle funds. Mr Stoica hopes another appeal will result in him not having to serve the remaining 11 months of his sentence.

When he doe get out, he plans to take on the government, pressing for the reimbursement of the millions paid in tax while money was pouring in to the Caritas coffers. If he gets it, he promises to dish it out to those owed money from the scheme. Then he hopes to start the whole cycle over again.

"This system worked and should have functioned longer," he said, shortly before his arrest. "But the press brought us down ... the press was the force that hit Caritas like a beast."

Although sceptical about pyramid schemes, Romania's media shared in an initial sense of wonder at the extraordinary events that followed the launch of Caritas in Cluj in June 1992.

After receiving the blessing of the ultra-nationalist mayor of Cluj, Gheorghe Funar, the scheme took off. Within weeks, almost everybody in Cluj had bought a stake, lured by the promise of eight-fold returns within three months.

The pyramid's fame spread throughout the country, which was suffering three-digit inflation. In 1993 thousands of Romanians flocked to Cluj to invest anything they could.

When the going was good, it was very good. Those that got in at the beginning reaped riches. Cluj boomed, and property prices rocketed. Caritas money financed memorials commemorating the Romanian struggle against Hungarian rule.

When it collapsed, in late 1993, speculation mounted that Caritas had been a front for a massive money-laundering operation, involving drugs and gun-running. Millions of Romanians were angry and felt duped by its founder. Some spoke of lynching Stoica. In fact, protest quickly fizzled out. When the Cluj Court of Appeal announced Stoica would be free in less than a year, there was barely a murmur of dissent.

Many in the city have made small fortunes, and they want to let matters lie. Unlike Stoica, however, most would be wary about jumping on to another Caritas bandwagon.

ADRIAN BRIDGE

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