Oscar Villarreal Swindled Cleveland's Rich Out of Millions... and Then He Disappeared

A theory: There are two kinds of philanthropists, and Cleveland's got the bad kind. Cleveland's got the cloak-and-dagger trustees and the hoarders of recognition.

Good philanthropists, according to custom, generally try to promote the welfare of humankind. They write checks, sure, but also policies. Sometimes they're "venture philanthropists" who treat their gifts like for-profit investments. Sometimes they're passionate about a political issue, a disenfranchised group, or an historic institution. Most times, they participate in their giving. They value and help accomplish the stated goals of the recipient.

Bad ones, according to cynical locals and the assorted white, powerful men who've run afoul of Cleveland elites, give largely (or in many cases only) because of the status it confers upon themselves. They give for the naming rights and the parties. They care a lot more about the perception and the prestige of their organizations than they do about their activities. They sit on boards, in the words of the late left-wing billionaire Peter B. Lewis, "because it's socially the thing to do."

For Oscar Villarreal, philanthropy was just another disguise. Villarreal was the ambitious young Mexican swindler who seduced 51 of Cleveland's most powerful corporate leaders into forking over $18 million between 2009 and 2013. In order to get their money, he had to ingratiate himself among them, had to build his brand in a way that local elites couldn't resist. And that meant playing at giving back.

In July 2010, at the tender age of 26, Villarreal was elected to the Cleveland Institute of Music's board of trustees. But when his term expired three years later, the leadership chose not to ask him back. It turned out he wasn't what they were looking for. He never showed up to meetings, for example. He wasn't engaged. He didn't, admitted one CIM staffer, "seem to care all that much" about the organization.

Was Villarreal, the alleged piano enthusiast, not quite hip to the social sanctity of board membership in Cleveland? Was he not mindful of the rarity, as a twentysomething and a foreigner, of his own? For a man who worked so tirelessly to curate his image after the fashion of the wealthy investors he lured to his phony funds, the oversight was a substantial one.

But can the young man be blamed? How could Oscar Villarreal, Cleveland's own wunderkind Ponzi-Schemer, have been expected to learn and ape the proper ways to give money when he was so focused, from 2009 to 2013, on taking it away?

And how could the cream of Cleveland's philanthropic crop — "We're talking [Sherwin-Williams chairman and CEO] Chris Connor. There was nothing higher on the food chain," says one former Villarreal associate — have been taken for such a ride?

Just so we're not all on pins and needles, Villarreal is currently "at large" in Mexico. That's what the authorities are saying anyway. He's been living there since late 2013, when he scurried south to escape the heat of a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation and the looming ire of antsy investors who were beginning to wonder where their money had gone. The various chairmen and managing partners suddenly seemed to take exception to the fact that, for the duration of their investments with Villarreal, they hadn't been afforded the courtesy of regular paperwork.

Said one early investor to an FBI investigator: Villarreal was "the poorest provider of information you will ever meet."

The nimble spokesman for the Department of Justice wouldn't specify just how "at large" Villarreal remains, when Scene pressed earlier this month. He told us that "law enforcement" was "actively looking" for Villarreal back in March, a month after he'd no-showed his arraignment here in Cuyahoga County and a second warrant had been issued for his arrest. A couple weeks ago, the same beleaguered spokesman said only that Villarreal remained at large, and apologized that he couldn't say more.

When or if he's found, Villarreal will be extradited to the United States to stand trial for his misdeeds. Though his Tucker Ellis attorney, John McCaffrey, has tried to soften the blow by reminding reporters that Villarreal paid back investors $12-plus million, his client is nonetheless wanted on 21 Federal counts, 19 of which explore the gaudiest frontiers of frauds and swindles. In January of this year, the latest indictment pinged Villarreal for two additional tax falsification charges. We'll include the details mostly for comedic value: In 2009, Villarreal reported about $200,000 of income even though he made close to $5 million. In 2010, he said he made $316,000 when he actually hauled in nearly $3.5 million.

Despite the alleged manhunt in Mexico, Villarreal's online presence remains as active and as self-aggrandizing as ever. Two primitive websites and a sporadically updated Twitter feed continue to churn out (by bot or human hand unknown) the same self-reflexive web of lies and misrepresentations he spun for potential investors six years ago:

"Oscar Villarreal has an enviable history of international business success," his account, @OscarVillarre1, tweeted in March.

"Oscar Villarreal is on the cutting edge of high tech oil and drilling services," the same account tweeted some weeks earlier.

"Oscar Villarreal is a graduate of the Harvard Business School in a specialized business program. #OscarVillarreal #Education," was Oscar's nugget of publicity on March 31.

The most recent entry on his Wordpress vanity site — "Oscar Villarreal--International Business Beat" — dated March 26, 2015, kicks off with this logjam: "Oscar Villarreal is an international business expert. He is a master of the international business scene. He has that special mix of the right background and specific acumen that produces success. He has had great success in the arena of international business over the year and at this time, he operates in a number of industries ... ."

The only industry in which he appears to be operating, though, apart from search engine optimization, is con artistry.

By all accounts, and certainly by his own, Oscar Villarreal arrived in Cleveland from Mexico as an exchange student in 2002. Baldwin-Wallace University, where Villarreal told Cleveland Magazine he was enrolled in a 3-2 program through Columbia University, first has a record of his attendance in Fall 2003. According to BW at that time, he transferred credits from Tri-C, Cleveland State and Kent State. Though Cleveland Mag reported that Villarreal had been accepted at "several" Ivy League colleges (information presumably furnished by Villarreal himself), we've been unable to confirm.

"He even go (sic) the opportunity to study engineering at the University of Geneva in Switzerland," says one of Villarreal's entries on his Wordpress site. "From there, he began his education in pursuit of advanced studies at the Harvard University Business School and specialized in a concentrated program on geopolitical studies and energy development."

BW wouldn't say whether or not Villarreal participated in the Switzerland program — FERPA regulations forbid them from releasing academic records without a student's express written consent. But it did concede that such a program existed. It is coordinated, as it happens, by Kent State.

The media and alumni relations folks at Harvard Business School, however, were definitive. Oscar Villarreal was not an alumni of their institution. It's possible he may have taken a "custom program" in their executive education curriculum, one spokesperson said. But if the course were longer than eight weeks, his name would have been entered in the alumni directory, where it was nowhere to be found.

In an early rhapsodic write-up of Villarreal in Crain's Cleveland Business — he was one of 2006's "Twenty in Their 20s" — Villarreal claimed to have begun interning with the consulting firm Tech-Start LLC in 2003. It was the first "small firm" he'd ever worked at, he'd told Cleveland Magazine in 2005, having already worked at Fortune 500 companies (plural) in previous years. Villarreal was also taken at his word when he professed to speak four languages fluently and to have played piano competitively in Madrid. Crain's even erroneously wrote "his native Spain," when discussing other nations' words for "prodigy."

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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