Exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, an ally of far-right activist and former Donald Trump aide Bannon, was taken into custody early on Wednesday morning when federal agents swooped on his Central Park penthouse in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Guo, who also goes by aliases including Ho Wan Kwok and Miles Guo, has been charged with orchestrating a vast online scam that defrauded thousands of his online followers out of around $1bn.
The stolen money was then allegedly used to fund his own lavish lifestyle including paying for a $37m yacht, a $3.5m Ferrari and a 50,000 square-foot mansion in New Jersey.
But, not long after Guo was taken into custody at his Manhattan penthouse – and while FBI agents were still inside searching the property as part of the investigation – the 15-room apartment suddenly went up in flames.
Multiple law enforcement sources told ABC News that the blaze began around six hours after his 6am arrest, sparking a sudden evacuation from the building.
Around two hours later, by 1.45pm, the fire was under control.
While no one was injured in the fire, there was significant damage to the billionaire’s apartment.
Now, the FBI has launched an investigation into the fire to determine whether it is linked to Guo’s arrest such as being an attempt to destroy evidence, multiple sources told ABC News.
The Independent has reached out to the FDNY and the FBI’s New York Field office for comment.
While firefighters worked to investigate the source of the mystery fire, Guo appeared in court for his arraignment where he pleaded not guilty to the slew of charges.
The federal government asked a judge to hold Guo, saying that he is a flight risk.
Kin Ming Je, or William Je, Guo’s financier, also is charged with obstruction of justice. He is currently at large.
Prosecutors allege that Guo “led a complex conspiracy to defraud thousands of his online followers” out of more than $1bn, according to US Attorney Damian Williams, and is “charged with lining his pockets with the money he stole, including buying himself, and his close relatives, a 50,000 square foot mansion, a $3.5m Ferrari and even two $36,000 mattresses, and financing a $37 luxury yacht.”
The money also was used for nearly $1m in rugs, a $4.4m Bugatti sports car, a Rolls-Royce Phantom, a $62,000 television and a $53,000 log cradle for a fireplace, among other items, according to prosecutors.
He allegedly used two nonprofit organisations founded in 2018 – the Rule of Law Foundation and the Rule of Law Society – to “amass followers who were aligned with his purported policy objectives in China and who were also inclined to believe [his] statements regarding investment and money-making opportunities,” prosecutors argued.
He is accused of lying to investors by promising them “outsized returns if they invested, or provided money to” his GTV Media Group, spearheaded by Mr Bannon, or Guo’s other projects, including te Himalaya Farm Alliance, G|CLUBS, and the Himalaya Exchange.
“Since in or about April 2020, Guo has conducted fraudulent securities offerings that have collectively raised at least hundreds of millions of dollars from investors in the United States and around the world,” according to the SEC complaint.
“Unbeknownst to those investors, Guo and his financial adviser, Je, misappropriated a large portion of the funds raised ... in order to enrich themselves and their family members,” according to the complaint.
From about 30 April, 2002 to 2 June, 2020, $452m in GTV stock was allegedly sold to more than 5,500 investors, prosecutors said.
Guo and Je then directed $100m from funds raised through GTV Private Placement into a high-risk hedge fund for the benefit of GTV’s parent company and its ultimate beneficial owner who was a close family relative of Guo, according to the complaint.
Guo and Je also allegedly fraudulently obtained more than $150m through the Himalaya Farm Alliance, $250m from an online membership club called G|CLUBS, and $262m through a cryptocurrency exchange for “H-Coin” that the men falsely claimed was backed by gold reserves, according to the complaint.
Guo – who helped found a media group under investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission – has long-running connections to Bannon and owned the 152-foot-long yacht on which Bannon was arrested in August 2020.
Bannon is not charged in connection with the complaint. He is facing prosecution in a separate fraud case from Manhattan’s district attorney accusing the far-right media personality of defrauding donors to the We Build the Wall campaign.