The 10-tops were draped with dark blue tablecloths. White candles were aglow as centerpieces. Wine glasses clinked and applause filled the air in the ballroom at the Hotel Boulderado as Aaron Clark strode across the stage.

Wearing a pink sweater and dark-rimmed glasses and sporting a neatly trimmed beard that faded into an Afro, Clark listened as Boulder’s business elite took a break from their steak dinners to applaud as he accepted the Boulder Chamber’s Startup of the Year award. Equity Solutions, Clark’s nine-month-old company, which offered diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings, had just won one of Colorado’s most prestigious business awards.

But Clark didn’t smile. Instead, the honoree began reading from a sober speech he’d prepared. “The year 2020 will be marked by history as one of the most pivotal times in this generation,” Clark said. “[From] the murders of Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, and too many others…I truly believe our world will never be the same.”

The room was rapt. Clark took his eyes off his prepared remarks. “I stand here today not for myself,” he said, his voice rising. “I’m merely a figurehead for this time.”

Clark was now speaking extemporaneously, giving the audience a taste of what Brad Feld, the man who’d introduced the award, referred to as Clark’s passion. Feld, one of Colorado’s most powerful and influential businessmen, is a nationally renowned venture capitalist and a co-founder of Techstars, the startup accelerator that birthed such billion-dollar companies as SendGrid, Zipline, and Digital Ocean. “I met Aaron last summer [in 2020],” Feld had said in a video address before Clark took the stage. “Simply put: Aaron is awesome, and his contributions will have a long-lasting, positive impact on our community.”

As Clark neared the end of his speech, he expressed gratitude for fellow Black business owners in Boulder who he said deserved more visibility. “To my wonderful team at Equity Solutions,” Clark said, “I say thank you.”

Applause filled the ballroom once again as Clark exited the stage. But his grace and conviction belied the fact that not all was well at the startup Feld and so many others had lauded. In fact, Equity Solutions would cease to exist within a year. And the team members Clark thanked? Many of them scoffed at the idea that Clark deserved any positive recognition at all.

Colorado • May 2020

Brenda Herrera Moreno had tried to find a way into Colorado’s mostly white tech scene for years, but no matter what she said, she could not get tech companies interested in diversity trainings or equity efforts. After a while, the Denver-based DEI consultant became used to being rebuffed or ignored. Then the Black Lives Matter protests began.

Over 16 consecutive days, thousands of protesters filled downtown Denver and Civic Center Park as part of a nationwide reckoning over racial justice. One group of demonstrators shut down I-25. Others staged a “die-in” beneath the golden dome of the state Capitol. Everyone, it seemed, believed it was time, as a society, to acknowledge systemic racism, and that included addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

Almost overnight, companies ranging from small startups to major corporations were posting open letters about their commitments to fighting racism. The messaging came with an unprecedented investment by corporate America in diversity efforts. For individuals such as Herrera Moreno, it was well past time. The then 27-year-old realized the zeitgeist would present a chance to reapproach the tech companies, including those in Boulder, who’d previously waved her off. She wasn’t the only person who recognized 2020 as a generational moment.

That summer, Herrera Moreno began hearing about a Colorado newcomer named Aaron Clark who was popping up all over the local tech ecosystem, including leading equity initiatives for Boulder Startup Week and for entrepreneurship organizations such as Energize Colorado and the Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute. Herrera Moreno was surprised that someone outside of Colorado’s small, established circle of DEI consultants was making inroads where others had failed. But when she met Clark, she was impressed. It wasn’t just that Clark paired his apparent convictions with enviable confidence; he also demonstrated considerable skill in facilitating difficult conversations, something Herrera Moreno witnessed firsthand. She watched as Clark discussed race with white business leaders in a way that not only directly challenged them but also got them to open up, all while not damaging the professional relationship. Clark may have been new to the Centennial State, but Herrera Moreno’s excitement about and trust in him grew quickly. “He was extremely talented in garnering commitments from people,” she recalls. “And he was a really great salesman.”

By July 2020, Herrera Moreno was sold. She accepted Clark’s invitation to work as a contractor for a subsidiary of Equity Solutions called Equity Consultants of Colorado (ECC), where she helped him hire what she describes as the “cream of the crop” of Front Range DEI consultants for trainings and presentations at client companies around Denver and Boulder. In some ways, it was the dream scenario for Herrera Moreno, given the people she got to work with and the companies she gained access to.

The dream, however, quickly turned nightmarish. Within a few months, Herrera Moreno faced a dilemma: While the trainings she and others were conducting for clients were going well, payroll was not. She and other ECC contractors weren’t getting paid on time. At first, Clark’s promises about forthcoming paychecks seemed believable. But as her fellow contractors began quitting without having been paid, Herrera Moreno spoke with her boss. “I had a couple of heart-to-hearts with him, thinking that they were going to be meaningful for him, and they were not,” she says. “This was a situation I never expected to see in a business that was supposed to be doing good.”

More than three years later, Herrera Moreno, who ultimately hired a lawyer to collect what she was owed, still gets emotional when describing her time at ECC. And she continues to be devastated that she unwittingly recruited friends to join such a toxic and dysfunctional workplace. Herrera Moreno says there are numerous ECC alumni who are still grieving the hit their professional reputations took and the “loss of an opportunity of a lifetime” to advance DEI efforts.

By the time Clark accepted the Boulder Chamber award in March 2021, he’d already moved on to bigger things. “He was ascending so quickly into different levels of power and influence across the city that I knew that we were never his priority,” Herrera Moreno says. ECC officially shuttered in mid-2021. After that, she could only watch as Clark networked and glad-handed his way into another position from which he wreaked further financial and emotional havoc.

Colorado • December 2022

The trial had disappeared from the courthouse docket. I’d seen the proceedings scheduled on Denver County’s court calendar for weeks, ever since a friend asked me, a reporter who covers criminal justice issues, to keep tabs on the case. When he called me to ask why the case had been removed, I wasn’t even aware that it was gone. As it turned out, he was following the court’s schedule more fastidiously than I had been. That made sense. For him, the case was personal.

One year before, in 2021, my friend had narrowly avoided becoming a victim of wage theft. He’d done some contract work for a nonprofit Clark founded in December 2020 called Justice Reskill, which offered job training, including computer programming, to Coloradans who had been convicted of criminal offenses. Clark didn’t pay my friend until lawyers got involved. The plaintiffs in the now-disappeared civil case, a Denver-based staffing agency called Diverse Talent, were alleging Clark did something similar to them—except this time, Clark never paid the $42,000 he owed. “Let me call around,” I told my friend. “But I imagine the case was settled.”

I was wrong. The trial had been taken off the calendar because neither the court nor the plaintiff’s lawyers could reach Clark. He’d vanished.

Maybe this shouldn’t have been a surprise. In March 2022, the Denver Post ran an exposé about Clark, ECC, and Justice Reskill that contained shades of Billion Dollar Whale and The Wolf of Wall Street: Dozens of employees and con­tractors were alleging wage theft, claims of nonpayments stretched into the low six figures, and at the center of it all was a mysterious man whose meteoric rise into circles of financial and political power was so spectacular that it could only be eclipsed by a dramatic fall.

Within weeks of the Post’s story, Justice Reskill collapsed. Students who’d already started its free vocational courses found themselves without teachers or final exams. Vast sums of startup cash Clark had raised went unaccounted for. And two civil lawsuits had begun wending their ways through court, including the one brought by Diverse Talent.

I wondered how many of Clark’s alleged victims were aware of his disappearing act. I pondered where all that money could’ve gone, but a larger question also nagged at me: Who was Aaron Clark, anyway? The Denver Post had only traced his history as far back as 2018. I did some research, but my initial efforts yielded nothing more. The details of Clark’s life before 2018 remained a blur.

Then, one afternoon in early January 2023, I was poking around online for traces of Clark’s old usernames and social media accounts, when I happened upon an email address that caught my attention: I popped over to Google and entered “Perrin Clark” into the search bar. The results made me sit up straight in my chair.

Sonoma, California • 2007

At the northeast corner of Sonoma Plaza, a small, manicured park ringed by boutiques, the Sonoma Sausage Company beckoned passersby with its famous links. The artisanal meat purveyor, which encased everything from brats to bangers, was beloved by locals and celebrities alike; Julia Child once conducted an interview with Good Morning America in the small sausage store. Its newest owner, Vance Sharp, hoped to build on that celebrated history.

In 2002, Sharp purchased the Sonoma Sausage Company to complement Sharp Cellars, a winery he had founded that specialized in Zinfandel. By 2007, the then 57-year-old was looking to grow his sausage empire’s reach by hiring both a sales representative and a new office manager to work at the business’ Napa Valley production facility.

Sharp remembers interviewing a young man named Perrin Clark and his wife, Rachel, for the respective positions. “He seemed like a sharp kid,” says Sharp, who gave the 27-year-old father of three full reign over the sales department. “And his wife was really good, too.”

For a while, Sharp’s new hires performed well. Then, sometime around October 2007, Sharp noticed an unusual charge on his business’ American Express card. “And I thought, Wait a minute. I don’t have a Toyota,” Sharp says. “Why is a Toyota repair bill being paid by me?”

Sharp remembered that his newest employees drove a Toyota. According to Sharp, when he asked Rachel about the charge, she admitted the repair had been for the couple’s car. Somehow, they must have mixed up their personal and business credit cards, she said. But after a month went by and the Clarks failed to reimburse him, Sharp says he grew concerned about other issues, including Perrin’s resistance to hiring an associate sales representative. Sharp resolved to confront the Clarks after they returned from a planned holiday vacation. He never got the opportunity. First, Perrin submitted a letter of resignation. Then, after the holidays, Rachel didn’t return to work as planned.

Sharp began sifting through his company’s financial records, where he discovered evidence of checks written out to the Clarks that he’d never signed but that had his signature on them. New credit cards had been opened in the company’s name. When the businessman contacted police, investigators made additional discoveries. “They buried stuff deep,” Sharp says. “Like, there were invoices that were paid, but they’d been paid multiple times.”

On top of all that, an expensive sausage-making machine had disappeared from the production facility, as well as a heat lamp and a deep fryer Sharp used to sell hot dogs at auto races. In June 2008, Napa County’s district attorney issued an indictment. A judge signed a warrant for the couple’s arrest, and after Rachel and Perrin were detained, police discovered they had been holding onto the sausage-making machine since leaving the company.

Prosecutors charged the couple with 31 criminal counts, including embezzlement, theft, and check forging. Before a jury trial was set to begin in early 2009, both Perrin and Rachel pleaded no contest to all of them. Sharp remembers feeling sympathy for the young parents, who would live the rest of their lives with felonies on their records. Still, he says today, “We’ve got to be as hard on white-collar crime as we are on other crimes.” And besides, he says, he felt personally wronged by Perrin.

“The thing that hurt me so bad was I—as an African American business owner—was giving this young, seemingly bright African American man an opportunity.”

The Clarks spent about six months out of a 364-day sentence in county jail, after which Sharp received restitution payments for about five years. “I want to say they paid back around $30,000 [of what the court ultimately decided was around $250,000 owed],” Sharp says. But the payments didn’t last. Sharp says the last check he received came from Perrin in August 2014, a couple of months before his probation was set to end. “That check was for one cent—one penny,” Sharp says. “He was trying to tell me, ‘F*** you.’”

Elk Grove, California • 2012

About 15 miles southeast of Sacramento, California, the stucco strip malls and suburban cul-de-sacs give way to fertile farmland. Here, near the town of Elk Grove, Jubilee Farm raised pigs, chickens, goats, and turkeys, and it grew an assortment of vegetables, all of which owner Paul Clark sold to the public under the motto “Growing clean food.”

It’s unclear whether Paul—the name Perrin Clark was using at the time—had ever spent much time on a farm, but he and Rachel were enthusiastic about the venture. In an April 2012 blog post, Clark wrote about being invited to a heritage pig competition in Los Angeles. “Well, it’s official folks! A couple of weeks ago, we received a call from the Rev. of Pork himself, [butcher] Michael Sullivan. In short, he asked if Jubilee Farm could bring one of our Berkshire pigs to compete in the Cochon 555 in LA…. We are on our way to LA for a night of great pork!”

It appears that the Clarks did show off their hogs at some farmers’ markets, but by late 2012, negative reviews had flooded and Yelp. “Watch out! Scam!” one person wrote in December 2012. “I paid for ¾ of a guinea hog and only got 30 lbs of meat and two boxes of back fat and a head.”

At least a dozen other reviewers—some who’d paid hundreds of dollars—said they received no product at all. “Be warned you are not paying for pork but for Mr. Clark and his family to enjoy living off the hog and your money,” one client wrote. Once reviewers started posting links to articles about the Sonoma Sausage case and encouraging each other to report Jubilee Farm to the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, the business’ website was yanked offline and Clark stopped answering his phone.

Clark seemed to leave traces of failed businesses almost everywhere he went. After Jubilee Farm, he founded Free Juice in 2014 in Berkeley, California, to sell fruit and vegetable juices that were “free of additives.” Clark sold subscriptions for juice cleanses at farmers’ markets, but once again, Yelp reviews chronicled a rapid demise. This time, it wasn’t just customers who claimed they’d been bilked by Clark; it was also business partners. “Unfortunately, the owner is a fraud,” one reviewer wrote, “and never paid his vendors (us included) or his employees.”

Although the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office says it has no records indicating it looked into Clark for allegations of consumer fraud with Jubilee Farm, Alameda County, which encompasses Berkeley, the home base of Free Juice, is a different story. The DA’s office there does have criminal files related to Clark, but they have nothing to do with additive-free juice.

Berkeley, California • 2013

Jack Hoynacki was stoked. The University of California, Berkeley, undergrad had spotted a listing for a private room for rent on Craigslist, and the unit looked perfect. It was only eight blocks from campus, plus the price was right. The 20-year-old arranged to see the room and meet the landlord, who lived in another space on the property and seemed affable enough. After seeing the unit, Hoynacki sent in the security deposit as well as first and last month’s rent for a total of $2,400.

What Hoynacki couldn’t have known was that the “landlord,” who introduced himself as Perrin Clark, was a renter himself. Over a seven-month period, Clark would rent the same room to at least eight people—none of whom ever got the chance to get their keys.

As Hoynacki’s move-in day approached, he began receiving texts from Clark about the room not being ready. At first, the Cal student went along with the explanations, but after an entire month of them, Hoynacki knew he’d been scammed. After finding articles about the Sonoma Sausage case, Hoynacki called the Napa County Probation Department to find out the name of Clark’s probation officer. Then Hoynacki returned to the house in Berkeley to confront Clark. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Hoynacki, who admits the incident has made him less quick to trust people. “I was standing in the doorway, and [Clark’s] eyes were so bloodshot, like he hadn’t been sleeping.”

The moment Clark made another excuse about the room, the college student fired back. “I don’t think Nicole would be too happy to hear about this,” he said, referring to Clark’s probation officer.

The threat worked, and weeks later, Hoynacki received a refund. Still, the undergrad was shaken up enough that he called local police, and through a free legal service offered at Cal, learned about other students who had reported problems with Clark. One year later, in September 2014, the Alameda County district attorney issued a 13-count indictment against Clark, including nine felony charges for grand theft and forgery. Clark pleaded no contest to one felony count of grand theft of real property and received five years of probation.

This time, he paid back the full $14,100 he owed to his victims. But Clark was still writing those restitution checks when he began creating trouble on an entirely different continent.

 Nairobi, Kenya • 2015

With the Maasai Mara National Reserve to its west, Lake Nakuru National Park to the north, and Tsavo National Park to its southeast, Nairobi—the capital of Kenya—is famous for being a gateway to safaris. This bustling city of 4.6 million has, over the past decade, become known for something else, too: tech. Dubbed the Silicon Savannah, Nairobi has blossomed into an innovation hub where entrepreneurs such as Martha Chumo could dream big.

In 2013, then 19-year-old Chumo crowdfunded a little more than $15,000 to launch the Dev School, a coding camp that focused on empowering young Kenyans by teaching them computer programming skills. In 2015, after educating 250 students, receiving glowing reviews from graduates, and expanding her school’s courses into South Sudan, Chumo became connected with a programmer in California’s Bay Area who seemed to share her passion for diversifying the tech sphere.

On a popular blog, the man had chronicled his experience applying to different coding schools before learning JavaScript, Fullstack, and Python at a Silicon Valley boot camp called Coding House. Under the Twitter handle @Blackguycoding, he often drew attention to the need to change the notoriously white- and male-dominated culture in the technology sector. Chumo agreed with this idea, and when the man and his family decided to move to Nairobi, she hired him in July 2015 to be the Dev School’s CEO—trusting him to transform her small startup into an internationally renowned institution.

It only took two months for that man, Perrin Clark, to begin undoing much of what Chumo had built. In September, some Dev School employees noticed their latest paychecks hadn’t been deposited. After the nonpayment continued through November, one fed-up employee sent out a companywide email putting the new CEO on notice. That email made its way into the hands of tech journalist Tefo Mohapi. “I can somewhat safely say the above e-mail is the proverbial s*** that hit the fan because it all went downhill at ‘lightspeed’ from there,” wrote Mohapi on the website he founded, “It gets worse when you also discover that [Clark] stole money from students who thought they were registering for courses with the Dev School.”

Chumo quickly replaced Clark with an interim CEO. But according to Mohapi, she couldn’t fully extricate Clark from her company because, for months, he disputed accusations of theft and insisted on bringing in mediators, referring to an arbitration clause in his contract. Meanwhile, Clark continued organizing tech events in Kenya, including Nairobi Developer Week.

It wasn’t until Mohapi published his article, titled “An American Criminal, a Dev School and Thousands of Dollars Missing,” in March 2016 that Clark’s reputation in the Silicon Savannah cratered. Nairobi Developer Week was canceled. Chumo’s Dev School never recovered. Her LinkedIn page shows the coding school closed in late 2015, and when I approached her about an interview, she declined, saying, “Having been a victim of his at a young age…I have since done a lot of work to regain the ability to trust.”

Colorado • Summer 2023

It’s unclear when Clark and his family returned to the United States from Kenya, but they were back in the country by April 2017. That’s when Rachel (who declined to comment for this article) initiated divorce proceedings, according to Alameda County court records.

Those weren’t the only court documents I discovered. Paperwork from the Sonoma Sausage case arrived at my Denver home in a thick manila envelope. Much of the information contained on those 55 pages wasn’t particularly illuminating, until I came across a section titled Defendant’s Social History. “Perrin Clark was born on April 28, 1980, in Las Vegas, Nevada,” it began. Over the next three pages, a narrative emerged about a bright child with a troubled upbringing.

Clark was the second of three boys in a military family that moved constantly. Throughout Clark’s childhood, his father was called on long deployments to the Middle East, during which time his parents often experienced marital stress. Clark coped by becoming independent and staying away from the house whenever his parents fought. Clark was homeschooled, and most of his interaction with peers happened at church. At 18, he refused to move with his parents from Utah to Florida, where Clark said he’d previously experienced extreme racism, and instead settled in Sacramento, near his older brother. It was there that Clark attended seminary school, and it was through a church event that he met Rachel.

Less than a decade later, Perrin Clark had multiple felonies attached to his name. By late 2017, he decided to leave that name behind. Beginning in December, Clark petitioned the Alameda County court three times to legally change his name. The first two petitions failed. The third, filed in May 2018, was granted.

That a name change was possible for Clark seemed to strain the limits of credulity. Any court with knowledge of Clark’s past should’ve considered that he might use a new identity to defraud new victims, which is exactly what he was accused of doing shortly thereafter when he founded Bay Area coding outfit Represent Development Agency. The firm, which was supposed to pair developers from underrepresented backgrounds with coding projects, closed in June 2019 amid complaints from contractors that they weren’t being paid.

Not every U.S. state allows an individual with a felony conviction to apply for a legal name change. In Colorado, any felon who petitions for one is immediately denied unless he or she shows good cause. But in California, felony convictions are not necessarily disqualifying. Even so, Arash Hashemi, a Los Angeles–based lawyer whose firm specializes in laws surrounding name changes, says it’s typically challenging for convicted felons to change their legal names in the state. California courts are supposed to run criminal background checks, Hashemi says, which should show whether an applicant is on active probation. Being on probation is usually an automatic disqualification unless a petitioner’s probation officer supports the name change.

The Alameda County Probation Department confirmed that Clark was indeed on probation at the time of his petition. But office staff said the department had no records indicating it had ever been made aware that Clark had petitioned to change his name. There are no transcripts of the successful name change hearing, and the only justification for the requested change appears on Clark’s initial application: “turn over a new leaf.” Whatever Clark said in court, his words resonated with Judge Frank Roesch (who declined an interview request through a clerk). On August 24, 2018, the court approved case number RG18906392. Perrin Vidal Clark was now Aaron Maxwell Clark.

Colorado • 2021–’22

Were it not for the novel coronavirus, the April 2021 bill signing would have been conducted in person. Instead, Colorado Governor Jared Polis invited key supporters of the legislation—a bill that would make it easier for former inmates to get firefighting jobs—to appear alongside him on Zoom. Among them was one of the bill’s sponsors, then Colorado state Representative Dylan Roberts, who name-checked a nonprofit that had helped him champion the cause. Aaron Clark, the CEO of Justice Reskill, smiled proudly as he watched Polis sign the bill that his four-month-old nonprofit had helped get passed.

Clark’s reputation, along with the financial fortunes of Justice Reskill, had been growing in Colorado for months. He was seen at events alongside government officials—including Polis, then Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, and onetime head of the Colorado Department of Corrections Dean Williams—and he was shaking hands with respected grant-makers all over town. The first notable outlay—a $50,000 grant—had come in early 2021 from Brad Feld, the venture capital kingmaker who’d introduced Clark at the Boulder Chamber awards. No one in Colorado, including Feld (who did not respond to multiple requests for comment), seemed to be aware that Clark had learned computer programming after encountering the criminal justice system himself.

Throughout 2021, additional investments and grants rolled in: a $100,000 grant from the AJL Foundation, $250,000 from the Colorado Trust, and another $368,000 from various other organizations and individuals who donated through the website Open Collective. Another $43,531 grant from Colorado’s Department of Law—taxpayer money awarded through the state’s top investigative body—was approved on paperwork signed by both Clark and Colorado’s chief deputy attorney general, Natalie Hanlon Leh.

Inside Justice Reskill, however, a familiar pattern repeated itself: Clark wasn’t paying his employees and contractors. This time, though, the nonpayment of wages had a more dramatic impact. Because some of Clark’s employees had criminal records and had struggled with finding employment, they had little to no savings to fall back on. They lodged a complaint with the Colorado Department of Labor.

Clark hired an attorney named Cynthia Wellbrock to help him settle the wage disputes. The lawyer initially assumed Clark had simply mismanaged his organization’s finances, but when Clark didn’t pay her, the attorney felt broadsided. “In my 20 years of having my own firm, I have never, ever, ever had a client screw me over for money [like that],” she says. She sued Clark for the roughly $4,000 he owed her, and her case was soon joined on the court docket by the suit from Diverse Talent.

When word of the payment disputes reached Danielle Shoots, she was concerned. When word reached her that Clark had been falsely claiming she was on Justice Reskill’s advisory board to lend credibility to the company, she was furious. The respected venture capitalist had helped approve Clark’s quarter-million-dollar grant through the Colorado Trust when she’d worked there, and now she was hearing about an increasing number of Black business owners and contractors to whom Clark owed money. Shoots began her own accounting of the money Clark owed various companies and individuals, and once her calculations crossed the half-million-dollar mark, she had no doubt she was looking at the work of a con artist. On December 9, 2021, she sent a searing, 11-paragraph email to Clark—and copied the entire board of Justice Reskill.

Woman with braids
Venture capitalist Danielle Shoots sent a scathing email to Aaron Clark in late 2021. Photo by James Stukenberg

“Aaron, it has been brought to my attention in multiple ways the depth of the cons you are currently perpetuating on our community,” Shoots began. “To come into a community, pretend you are pro Black economic equity, and then take advantage of every single person who helped you is unforgivable. To contract with brilliant Black businesses and then not pay them is worse than asking for free labor…. By my estimation…you owe the Denver Black community $500,000.

“The real toll your behavior is going to take is priceless,” she continued. “How dare you pretend to care about justice involved people? How dare you pretend to care about Black businesses? How dare you sit at the Black leadership table with people who have cried, fought, and hustled to build real businesses and brands with nothing and from nothing…. You frequently talked about letting Black women lead. And even though that was clearly [a] fraudulent narrative you used to gain entry, you weren’t wrong. It’s Black women who will ensure you never do this again.”

Even with Shoots’ email circulating, Clark held on as Justice Reskill’s CEO—until Denver Post reporter Sam Tabachnik learned about the wage theft allegations. Tabachnik (who is a friend of mine) had centered his piece on one Justice Reskill employee who was owed $23,000 in unpaid wages. Soon after the story ran, Clark disappeared. He shut down his social media profiles and stopped participating in the two Colorado civil trials accusing him of nonpayment. Judges in both cases issued default judgments against him.

Getting an accurate account of how much Clark may have stolen is nearly impossible. Some estimates suggest, however, that he could have left Colorado with hundreds of thousands of dollars in pilfered funds. It’s unlikely that such money would ever be found.

Colorado • Fall 2023

It’s a well-established fact of criminal justice in America that prosecutors focus far more on violent crimes than they do financial crimes. This isn’t just true at a local level, where under-resourced district attorneys and police departments may decide undertaking complex financial investigations isn’t worth the effort when there are murders and robberies to solve. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse database from Syracuse University, which has been compiling federal government statistics since 1989, white-collar crime prosecutions by the U.S. Department of Justice are hovering near a 20-year low, largely due to the FBI shifting its priorities to anti-terrorism efforts after 9/11.

Financial crimes are far from victimless, however, and the damage inflicted by them is often more than monetary, says research presented by the U.S. Attorney’s Office out of Alaska. Those who fall prey to financial scams frequently suffer emotional harm from the crimes and often blame themselves for trusting the con artists who charmed them. Those feelings of shame mean financial crimes are underreported.

Still, the Federal Trade Commission logged 2.4 million fraud reports during 2022—a 30 percent increase over 2021—involving $8.8 billion in illegally siphoned funds. Trying to recover that money can prove arduous. Patrick Gillette, a Denver attorney who practices judgment collection law, says chasing down cash—even after winning a civil court case—can be frustrating and expensive. If the money does exist, including in the form of real estate or bank holdings, it’s up to the creditor, not the court, to locate it. “We got rid of debtor’s prisons a very long time ago,” Gillette says. “So, if someone doesn’t pay the judgment, you can’t have the court throw them in jail. Your only recourse is to find where their assets are and levy upon them. But it’s so easy to hide assets—it costs almost nothing to register an LLC, which can serve as a shell.”

Clark has at least two LLCs filed in Delaware, even though the corporations don’t name him as the registered agent, but rather a forwarding company that can be used to obscure ownership. Even if a court were to issue a subpoena to Clark’s LLCs for bank or personnel records, the subpoena would be sent to the mailing address of A Registered Agent, Inc.—located next to a home goods store in Dover—and it’s unlikely Clark would ever see the court order.

Some of Clark’s creditors have already tried—and failed—to collect from him. Wellbrock, Clark’s onetime attorney, attempted to collect from one of Clark’s Chase Bank accounts but was told by the bank that the account didn’t exist (likely because Clark closed it). Vance Sharp says he’s still looking for both Clark and his ex-wife with the help of debt collectors in hopes of recovering what he believes is more than $300,000, after factoring in interest, in outstanding restitution owed.

It’s also unclear if law enforcement is looking for Clark. The Denver Police Department says it has no records that it has ever looked into him. The FBI and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office both say they can’t comment as to whether they have active investigations.

Clark’s biggest legacy in Colorado, however, may not be any money that’s missing but rather the investments that haven’t occurred since Equity Solutions, ECC, and Justice Reskill collapsed. Shoots, who now runs a venture capital firm focused on business owners of color, says that much of what she warned about in her email happened. Clark benefitted from a snowball effect in investments—and a lack of vetting—once powerful and well-respected funders began throwing money at him. But now Black entrepreneurs and DEI consultants are struggling to attract the same kind of attention, money, and energy that Clark did with such ease three years ago. “Sure, it’s been a few years since George Floyd and people are easily distracted,” Shoots says, “but Aaron’s a part of it. It does incredible harm when someone takes advantage of getting money. There’s no way that doesn’t float through the bias machine, making people go, ‘Yup, Black folks can’t have money. You can’t trust them.’”

What makes Clark even more complicated, adds Regan Byrd, another former ECC consultant from whom Clark temporarily withheld pay, is that he knew how to use his Black identity to provide cover for his deceitful behavior. “People like Clark are so injurious because they know that they can get a certain amount of buy-in with Black community members, but also with a certain kind of well-meaning, progressive white person,” she says. “And I warn white allies about that. Being an ally against racism is not just thumbs-upping and agreeing with whatever a person of color is telling you; you have to use your discernment and critical thinking.”

Woman in glasses
Regan Byrd worked with Aaron Clark at Equity Solutions until it collapsed in 2021. Photo by James Stukenberg

Byrd says there’s been little to no public discourse among Clark’s funders since he disappeared, as if they’re embarrassed. But Byrd isn’t afraid to continue speaking out about the experience and has pondered what she might say to Clark if she ever sees him again. “Interestingly enough, I would be willing to approach him with compassion,” Byrd says. “I would say, ‘To me, your behavior speaks to something deeper. It speaks to a kind of trauma. So what is the reason that you spent your energy on defrauding people rather than your energy on building something when you had all these resources? And what do you need to not do this again?’ ”

The now 36-year-old, independent DEI and anti-oppression consultant wasn’t confident she’d ever get the chance to ask him those questions. I wasn’t convinced I would, either.

Colorado • October 2023

Early on in my reporting, soon after I’d begun asking around about a man named Perrin Clark, I got a call from an unknown number with an Oakland, California, area code. When I listened to the opening seconds of the voicemail, I knew my digging had begun to yield results: “Hi, this is Aaron Clark.”

I dialed back. Clark picked up, although he didn’t plan to answer any questions that day. Instead, he said he’d consider submitting to an interview. We arranged a call in early October, but he stood me up. The following week, however, I finally got Clark on the phone.

The now 43-year-old began by saying he remains proud of his efforts in Colorado. Over the past year, he’s also spent a lot of time—with the aid of therapy, he said—reflecting on personal “shadows” and learning from the past. He said his ego, along with an unwillingness to delegate authority in areas he’s not skilled in, such as forecasting and budgeting, stymied numerous business ideas and cut short his many altruistic missions. “I’ve learned that I’m really great at starting things and getting [people] excited,” he said, “but I am not an operator and finisher of things.”

I asked him if he understood why others might view him a different way: as a scam artist. “It was never my intent to defraud a single person. Full stop,” Clark replied. “But I do understand the difference between impact and intent…and I will acknowledge completely that there are a lot of people that have been impacted negatively and adversely.”

He explained that his story has been one of repeated mistakes and naiveté, including the crimes he committed—and pleaded no contest to—at the Sonoma Sausage Company. “That case was hard because there was no intent to harm. There was an intent to try to build, and I just was very naive,” he said. “I was unaware in terms of: You can’t use someone’s checkbook or their credit card without their permission, and if they do give you verbal permission, you probably should write it down…and all of those decisions [of mine] became a charge.”

As for the money he raised for Justice Reskill and Equity Solutions in Colorado? It’s all gone, he said: “With Equity Solutions, that was money that was given by organizations or companies that wanted training. And so that money went out to the consultants that were doing the training, for the most part.” But he added that he would like to pay back the lawyer, Wellbrock, and Diverse Talent, the two litigants who won default judgments against him in Denver. “And I will welcome any conversation with any person that my decisions and my actions, whether intentional or not, caused impact upon,” he said. “That is probably the least that I could do.”

Clark’s confidence and charisma were on display as he spoke. He never hesitated, never got rattled, even when I brought up allegations like those about the Dev School. He explained away those situations, too, as well-intentioned mistakes. His delivery was convincing.

Former ECC consultant Herrera Moreno mentioned she’d had similar experiences. “His body language was always very comfortable, even [during] conflicts,” she said. “And most, if not all, of the time, the conversations were very unsatisfying. He would either say just enough to make you think, OK, he gets it, or it was him letting you know how much he was carrying and how much he had on his plate.”

Far too often, Herrera Moreno would find herself wondering if Clark had listened to her. She’d leave the conversations feeling exhausted and disoriented. “It was performative when he would say that he was ‘aware’ or that he ‘would change’ or that ‘next time it’ll be different,’” she said, before issuing me a warning. “If you’re trying to understand why he did it, I don’t think that’s going to be a satisfying story to write, because it’s never going to make sense.”

It’s true that many of Clark’s actions defy logic. In key ways, he never fit the mold of a classic con man. Most scam artists make their livings incognito, finding marks and vanishing the moment they cash in. Clark never ducked the spotlight in Colorado; instead, he appeared to seek it in any way he could.

On that last point, things have changed. Clark refused to answer only one of my questions: He wouldn’t reveal his whereabouts. He was only willing to say he’s working in sales outside of Colorado. All of his previous businesses’ websites have been taken off the internet, and most of Clark’s social media accounts have been scrubbed, deleted, or made private. The few breadcrumbs I was able to find don’t seem intended for others to find.

But there is one message Clark left that does seem designed for us to see—one that suggests he imagines a return to a time when he enjoyed power, influence, and access to large sums of other people’s money. It’s written on his Instagram profile, which is private but has a public bio line. In mid-2023, the bio line went from blank to conveying a single line of text: “Don’t call it a comeback.”