The Biggest Green Scam in America

Denver’s Wayde McKelvy raised tens of millions of dollars for a new, clean-energy company that the SEC says was nothing more than an old-school Ponzi scheme.

July 2011

The mind-blower, investors learned on a teleconference, was that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was set to offer loan guarantees to Mantria, an FDIC-like endorsement backing investors’ money. A month later, in March 2009, Mantria announced a supposed letter of intent with the state of New York. But there were no deals with the Department of Agriculture and no letters of intent with any state governments.

That was right about the time McKelvy started living life as if he were the star of a Girls Gone Wild video. A source familiar with the McKelvy family says, “As soon as this guy smells money, he gets ready for alcohol and a bacchanalian orgy.” He also seemed to be the unhappiest man on the planet. McKelvy told Romero that he was being asked to raise more money than his original goal. McKelvy wanted investors to get their money back and to be done with this. But, he told Romero, “I’m at the point of no return.”

During this period, McKelvy’s bank account seemed as bipolar as his moods. Between January and September 2009, the account showed nearly $3 million in deposits. That account’s balance at the end of September 2009 was just $1,325.98. As he once said to his investors, “Bottom line is: I love cash flow. I like lifestyle.” There were stays at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, the Beverly Wilshire, and other high-end hotels. One bill alone, for the Wynn Las Vegas Resort, totaled $9,628.22. The VIP treatment at clubs. A BMW. A $7,000-a-month oceanside condo in Miami. It wasn’t just him: Donna McKelvy was routinely making $20,000 withdrawals. Though it was Wayde who doled out the biggest bucks. In one three-day spree in Las Vegas, he spent nearly $25,000 on three pieces of Cartier jewelry, which, Donna has said, wasn’t for her.

McKelvy and Donna met in the late 1980s at a party in Denver, just after graduating college. The two married not long after and had twin girls. Donna went into the insurance business, while he launched a string of business flops.

By the time of the jewelry purchases in summer 2009, his and Donna’s marriage had disintegrated. McKelvy had moved to Miami full-time. There’s a good chance the jewelry was for McKelvy’s new girlfriend, a woman named Angela. Obviously years younger than McKelvy, the woman had platinum-blond hair, fake breasts, and a backside so pronounced that people close to him speculated it was enhanced with implants. McKelvy’s friends whispered that there was something about Angela that was…no one could seem to quite put their finger on it.

Meanwhile, on investor calls, every offering was better than the last, each a galactic chance at wealth—and possibly the final one. In a summer teleconference, what McKelvy called his “heart-to-heart,” he talked about how a new deal netting 55 to 100 percent annualized return was the “biggest, most generous offer we’ve ever made.… You guys are sitting there with Mantria on the cusp of greatness, in my belief,” he said softly, sounding on the verge of tears. “In my heart of hearts, I believe that. We’re on the cusp of greatness here.”

A few months later, in mid-September 2009, McKelvy told investors that Mantria had secured somewhere between $250 million and “over $1 billion” in financing, and it was the happiest day of his last five years. One caller was—at last—skeptical, and asked, “Is [the biochar technology] generating any revenues at this point?” Wragg skirted the issue, and when McKelvy jumped in, he finally admitted, “Right now our biochar sales are not explosive…but we do have a lot of orders.”

McKelvy implied that he’d heard similar concerns before, and that he was sick of it. “It’s time people get off the fence,” he said. “You know, I preach and preach and preach. I teach people strategies, but it always comes down to action. People say there are the haves and the have-nots in the world. That’s not true. It’s the wills and the will-nots. The people that do. And the people that do nothing.” It would be one of the last investor calls. A few weeks later, an October 7 letter from the SEC notified McKelvy that he and Mantria were under investigation.