OCEANSIDE, Calif. (KGTV) — An Oceanside man accused of taking investors' money for a failed environmentally friendly business is being accused again—this time, of taking cash from investors in a new business venture and later resigning.
Stephen Read lived next door to Ron Fleming. They became friends when Read moved to Oceanside a few years ago.
"Great guy," Read said. "I said, boy, this guy is almost too friendly, but that's nice. He's welcomed us into the neighborhood."
In 2019, Read said Fleming approached him about investing in a new business—a CBD wellness company called Gratia Ventures. The company's mission statement said Gratia Ventures was to help improve people's well-being with "cannabinoid and pure organic products."
Read showed Team 10 the business plan where Fleming is listed as the Chief Operating Officer and one of four board members. Read said Fleming asked him for money for the business.
"I said, 'You know Ron, I don't really have the money,'" Read told Team 10. "I wasn't going to invest."
He said Fleming convinced him. "He talked me into 20 grand," Read said.
The check was written for $21,000 in February 2020, with part of the funds coming from Read's savings and inheritance money.
When Read lost a job early in the pandemic, he asked Fleming for a few hundred dollars back. "He would say… I'll give you that tomorrow," Read said. "So a week went by, I asked him again. He said, 'Man, the lawyers are so slow. I'm going to fire them.'"
He said it finally got to the point where Fleming was ignoring him. Read said he never got that money.
Read told Team 10 when Fleming's former friend Mark Baker contacted him a few months later, Read got a bigger look into Fleming's past.
"He asked me, 'Do you know Ron Fleming?'" Read said. "I said yes. He says, 'Have you ever invested with him?'"
Read and Baker had something in common—they both invested with Fleming's businesses.
Team 10 interviewed Baker last year. He put in more than $200,000 in a company called Pacific Teak. Fleming was listed as the company's founder and chairman.
Baker and several others told Team 10 they invested in teak trees in Costa Rica, which were supposed to help the rain forests. In turn, people like Baker were supposed to see a return on investment when the trees matured.
Baker said he hasn't received anything yet.
"I've had to make a plan B for my retirement," Baker said in 2020.
Like Baker, Read fears his money is gone. According to Read's contract, he was supposed to see principal and interest paid back on Feb. 11, 2021, which is a year after he put money into the company.
"What's going on in my mind is I was gullible," Read said.
Another Gratia Ventures investor recruited by Fleming said they used to be good friends. He did not want to go on camera for privacy concerns but showed Team 10 his contract signed by Fleming. The investor put in $100,000. He said Fleming has since gone silent.
Fleming has gotten into trouble with the state for his previous business venture. The California Department of Business Oversight, now called the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, issued a cease and desist order to Pacific Teak in 2016.
The state regulator found Fleming "misrepresented to investors." Fleming was ordered to "desist and refrain" from offering, selling, or buying any security in California.
Team 10 contacted Fleming about these latest allegations. His lawyer sent a statement which said in part that "investments sometimes are unsuccessful even if there's no impropriety."
Attorney Dominic Amorosa said Fleming did nothing wrong and "there was no lying nor deceit by Ron Fleming in these matters."
"Their investments overlapped with the COVID disaster, which destroyed hundreds of thousands of investments across the world," Amorosa wrote. "[Fleming] has made money in investments, but he has also lost a ton of money in his own investments. But when he has lost money he has not run around telling people that he was defrauded."
Amorosa also said there were two other officers in the company besides Fleming. Team 10 spoke to one business partner who did not want to be identified for this story for privacy concerns. He said he tried to talk with Fleming about the company's finances. Instead, he said Fleming wrote an email in July 2020 saying that he is "leaving [his] position as Chief Operation Officer… due to personal reasons."
An email to Gratia Ventures investors a few days later said he "was forced to resign."
Fleming wrote, "he did everything" his business partners asked, and there were "no complaints."
Read and the business partner said they had been interviewed by the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation regarding Gratia Ventures. A department spokesperson said they could not comment on any investigation.
"I should have vetted him [and] investigated," Read said.
The business partner filed a complaint with the District Attorney's office. A spokesperson confirmed it is under review.
Read filed a report with the Oceanside Police Department for elder abuse. Police confirmed it is under investigation.
"When things are so good to be true, they probably aren't," Read said.