Backer’s disappearance triggered a desperate search in British Columbia and in Washington state after surveillance footage showed a cyclist fitting his description getting off a ferry 90 minutes away in Port Angeles, Wash., the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported.
A Facebook page, “Finding Harold Backer,” was set up by his friends, some of whom traveled to Port Angeles to search for Backer.
“His friends and family care deeply about his wellbeing and we want to try to make contact with him if he is there and he is not in distress,” Luke Mills, a longtime friend, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. at the time.
But what had initially appeared to be a missing persons case soon took a strange turn once Backer’s clients began receiving a letter from him. Among them were friends he had made as an athlete, as well as his brother.
Backer said in his letter that he’d been running a “pyramid” scheme, paying one investor with funds from another, after losing much of his clients’ money during the dot-com market crash toward the end of the 1990s.
“My investors have been my friends and I have done a terrible thing to my friends,” Backer wrote in the letter obtained by the Victoria Times Colonist. “If admitting to fraud would help restore the losses, I would accept the criminal penalty.”
He expressed remorse, saying he was “truly sorry for the effects of my poor decisions,” adding that he had life insurance policy “with a face value of $1.5 million” that might cover most of the losses.
“This amount should be divided among my investors in a pro-rated fashion, either by the grand totals from the most recent investor statements, or by using the original amount invested,” he said. “This should cover almost all the amount outstanding.”
In an unexpected twist in the case on Friday, Backer turned himself in to Victoria police after his long silence. He remains in custody on two counts of fraud over $5,000, but the charges could change, authorities.
“It came as a surprise,” Victoria police spokesman Constable Matt Rutherford told the Times Colonist. “He was safe and he came on his own accord.”
Backers’ clients say he took millions.
The Victoria Police Department released a statement saying that “financial and major crime detectives” are working the case. Investia Financial, the company Backer worked for, has said it is not responsible for Backer’s losses since he handled the transactions using his private company, My Financial Backer.
Backer competed in rowing in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games, but never won a medal. He graduated from Princeton University in 1985, then earned an MBA at the Ivey Business School in Ontario.
“In class or on the water, Backer was the strong, silent type: “six-three, quiet, smart and commanding,” according to “Golden Boy: The Disappearance of Harold Backer,” a documentary by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. investigative program “The Fifth Estate.”
After his Olympic career ended, Backer returned to the Brentwood preparatory boarding school in Mill Bay, B.C., where his rowing prowess had first emerged. He stayed in Mill Bay, a town of about 3,200 people, when he later launched his investment business. By many accounts, he lived modestly.
Tony Carr, his first coach, described Backer in the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. documentary as a “great intellect.”
“His high school career was exceptional. His university career was exceptional. He got an MBA after that. Then his career as an athlete was exceptional.”
On the day that Backer disappeared, his bicycle was fully loaded with camping gear, the documentary reported. He had his passport, but not his cellphone, apparently so he couldn’t be tracked.
Even Backer’s reason for disappearing became apparent, friends initially stood by him.
“This is a guy loved by friends around the world who would do anything they can to help him fix whatever the problems are that exist because of his financial decisions in the past,” Michael Vatis, a longtime friend who had rowed with Backer at Princeton, said shortly after he disappeared.
But Carr, who said he lost nearly $800,000 in retirement funds and money his wife inherited, felt betrayed.
“I feel that I have been kicked, absolutely kicked in the groin,” he said in the documentary. “I was sickened by it. How could I be so wrong? How could so many other people be so wrong? We trusted him.”
Another former coach, Boris Klavora, and his wife, Betty, lost more than $800,000 that they’d entrusted to Becker, the Times Colonist reported. Backer had eaten at their table many times when he was a young athlete.
“My husband said he will visit him in jail, look him in the eye and ask him what was this all about,” Betty Kavora told the newspaper. “We are disappointed.”
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