Golnaz Vakili was the perfect mark. A young real estate lawyer, she was fiercely independent and eager to make a name for herself in a crowded field. Instead of applying to the big downtown firms, she opened up her own shop in a shared office at Yonge and Sheppard. The early days were exciting, if stressful. She carried some student loans and had to cover rent, insurance, Law Society dues, a salary for an assistant, computers and expensive legal software, and she had to hustle to find clientele.
In November 2010, just a few months after Vakili passed the bar, she was introduced to a man named Arash Missaghi. Like Vakili, Missaghi was originally from Iran, and she remembers him bowing slightly in the Persian manner when they met. Missaghi described himself as a broker and financial manager, and he seemed to have a deep knowledge of finance and real estate law, littering their conversation with statutes and banking references. Still, Vakili was wary of him. He had penetrating eyes and spoke with a Godfather-like whisper. When he suggested they meet to discuss business opportunities, she declined.
She was right to be cautious. Unbeknownst to Vakili, Missaghi was one of 23 people charged (though never convicted) in Project Tic Toc, an 18-month investigation into a massive cargo-theft ring in which Toronto police seized drugs, $3 million worth of stolen goods, $100,000 in cash, a .45 calibre handgun and, most ominously, a number of fake York Regional Police uniforms. In 2009, he was charged with conspiracy to commit murder, though the charges were dropped. And though he appeared to be wealthy, Missaghi had been an undischarged bankrupt since 2000.
But he was persistent and, after repeatedly brushing off his requests, Vakili eventually relented. Missaghi began to send real estate work her way. This was the beginning of what would become a nightmare for Vakili and many others and would go on to generate international intrigue and a complex web of civil, criminal and regulatory proceedings. Missaghi is, at present, the subject of allegations and criminal charges that have yet to be proven in court.
It all started in the summer of 2011, when Missaghi told Vakili about a deal he was working on for an Armenian-Canadian couple named Vasken and Annie Yeretsian. They had made their money in real estate—residential projects in north Toronto and Forest Hill—and, in 2002, had purchased a high-end property of their own: a huge lot at 7 High Point Road in the Bridle Path. They paid $2.8 million for the place and had borrowed almost all of it from CIBC. With their two daughters, they moved into the existing home on the lot and drew up plans for a 14,800-square-foot palace in the faux French style, complete with a turret, Italianate frescoes throughout, a stunning marble staircase, a four-door garage, a wood-panelled library and entire rooms devoted to tea, music and billiards. The Yeretsians quickly fit into the Bridle Path scene: Vasken became the neighbourhood representative for their street, and the girls attended the nearby Toronto French School. According to one relative, Vasken and Annie became so enamoured with their status as apparent one-percenters that they gradually distanced themselves from their extended family.
By the mid- to late aughts, though, the couple had run into financial trouble. Rescue came in the form of an unlikely source: a man named Grant Erlick, who claims to have been their landscaper. He was handsome, chatty and resourceful, and he mentioned that a business associate—Arash Missaghi—might be able to help.
Missaghi talked a convincing game, and he’d soon extended a loan to the Yeretsians to give them a bit of financial breathing room. Along the way, he recommended that they hire his lawyer, Vakili, instead of their own—a decision that would prove to be calamitous.
As fast as salvation had arrived, it was gone. In a series of quick moves, Vakili submitted the Yeretsians’ home for registration under a numbered company controlled by Vasken; a few days later, he was mysteriously deleted as director and replaced by Erlick, the landscaper. Suddenly, the Yeretsians’ dream home was no longer theirs.
When Annie Yeretsian realized as much, she panicked. She demanded an explanation from Vakili, who insisted that she had all the appropriate paperwork. Annie threatened to sue; Vakili calmly requested a copy of the statement of claim, as if to say, Bring it.
While their legal challenge played out, the Yeretsians’ financial woes worsened and they were evicted. With the house empty, Missaghi moved on to the second phase of the operation: borrowing money against a property he didn’t actually own.
He approached Tova Marks, a private lender from North York with whom he’d had business dealings in the past. Petite, blonde and age 73 at the time, she was an experienced investor who’d launched herself in the mortgage business in the early 1980s as a single mother of three. Her daughter, Cindy Adler, herself a mother of four, was newly separated and had decided to use the first equalization payment from her ex-husband to follow her mother into the lending business.
In October 2011, the mother-daughter investors met Missaghi for coffee at Bayview Village Shopping Centre, where he presented a stellar investment opportunity: 7 High Point Road. The home, he said, belonged to a friend of his named Bob Beiki, a wealthy Iranian who needed a private loan. The truth was that Beiki had come to Canada from Malaysia as a refugee claimant in 2008. Missaghi gave him a Bentley to drive and, according to Beiki, coached him on what to say. When Adler arrived to check out the property, Beiki emerged as its glamorous owner, giving her the grand tour of a property he knew almost nothing about.
Marks and Adler were intrigued. Here was an opulent home on a gorgeous lot in Canada’s most exclusive postal code. If they had hired their own real estate lawyer, they might have realized they were walking into a trap. But Missaghi recommended Vakili. Near the end of 2011, Vakili and Marks met for lunch at the O&B Café Grill at Bayview Village, and the two hit it off.
Vakili was gregarious, and her story was compelling. Her family had settled in North York after fleeing Iran when the Shah fell. Her father, Bijan, drove a cab and later became a jet engine technician. Nassrine, her mother, was a teacher. Vakili herself had graduated with a BA in political science from York University, earned a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Windsor and graduated from the University of Windsor and University of Detroit Mercy’s dual law program, which trains students in both the Canadian and American legal systems. Her high school boyfriend, Mehdi, came with her and studied engineering at the University of Windsor. Now, she was opening her own practice and looking for clients.
“I felt good about the arrangement because I wholeheartedly felt like I was helping her start her career,” Marks later recalled. The mother-daughter investors agreed to extend $1.45 million to Missaghi, secured by what they understood was a first-ranking mortgage on 7 High Point. Vakili passed along the paperwork to complete the loan, all of it bearing the signature of the fake owner, Beiki. Of course, the loan wasn’t secured—not by a mortgage or by a strand of hair or by anything at all. And what neither Marks nor Adler knew at the time was that on the very day they’d advanced the loan, a company under Missaghi’s control—his wife was its sole director—purchased the real mortgage against 7 High Point Road, presumably using Marks and Adler’s cash. In three masterful moves, it appeared that Missaghi had obtained a property he had no right to, borrowed against it and then legitimately bought into it—all without spending a cent of his own money.
The High Point Road property was just the beginning. Police allege that Missaghi and Erlick repeated their schemes across the region, each time mixing financial sleight of hand, audacity and as much charisma or intimidation as required—claims they both deny. All these transactions were occurring at a time when the federal government was taking steps to prevent an economic disaster like the one that took place in the U.S. in 2008 from happening here. New regulations to stop Canadians from buying real estate they couldn’t afford, however, drove some cash-strapped homeowners, like the Yeretsians, to turn to private lenders instead—a world largely devoid of oversight and regulation and, therefore, rife with risk.
There are two main varieties of real estate scams, and the allegations against Missaghi suggest that he is comfortable with both. The first, identity fraud, relies on access: a son or daughter steals their mum and dad’s ID and the deed to their home and borrows on the property as its purported owner. The second type, value fraud, is often called an “Oklahoma,” after the scam historically common in that state of digging a deep hole, filling it with oil and then selling it as a well. With diabolical ingenuity, Missaghi and his cohorts allegedly combined both types of fraud. And, crucially, they relied on the young lawyer, Vakili, to facilitate the entire operation.
Today, in Toronto legal circles, Vakili’s degree of complicity is a polarizing subject. Some of the sources I spoke to are convinced she was a savvy participant and beneficiary; others say that she was young, inexperienced and unaware and was hoodwinked by a mastermind. The truth might well be somewhere in the middle.
I met with Vakili in the early fall of 2018. She claimed she didn’t know that Missaghi and Erlick were having her sign forged papers until May 2012. That’s when Vakili says she became aware of the extent of Missaghi’s methods and capacity for intimidation.
Missaghi had convinced his lender, Marks, to hand over $550,000 for a commercial building in Scarborough. She sent the funds to Vakili, who was asked to hold them in trust until closing. But a few days before the deal was supposed to close, Missaghi called Vakili and said that “the borrower”—in fact, a company he controlled—needed the money immediately for reasons he didn’t explain.
Vakili called Marks for permission, but she said no. According to Vakili, when she relayed her answer to Missaghi, he became enraged, said that Vakili had scotched the deal and hung up. Hours later, according to Vakili, he showed up at her office and handed her what appeared to be a letter from Marks authorizing her to release the money. Marks, however, had never written or seen any such letter. Vakili says she tried to contact Marks to confirm the authorization but was unable to reach her. She didn’t want to further anger Missaghi, who terrified her. She released the funds. Days later, on closing, Vakili says she realized there was a problem with the specifics of the loan—Marks would, in fact, be the fourth-priority mortgage holder, not the second—and she called Missaghi to try to stop the transfer.
Vakili says that he again showed up at her office, calling her an “idiot” and “stupid.” On her desk, he spotted the letter of authorization he had supplied, grabbed it and ripped it up. According to Vakili, Missaghi, possibly recognizing that she was putting it all together, threatened to ruin her if she went to the police: he would put liens on her parents’ home and drag them through years of litigation. According to Vakili, Missaghi said her life would go back to normal so long as she processed one or two more deals. She thought about going to the police, but Missaghi said he had high-ranking cops on his payroll and, if she talked, he’d hear about it. Over time, he hinted at his violent past and criminal connections. Vakili decided to cooperate, fatefully crossing from a naive rube into a knowing accomplice.
Now, with a lawyer on board—however reluctantly—Missaghi and Erlick were set up beautifully. They expanded the scope of their efforts, eventually orchestrating at least a dozen alleged scams across the region, including Yorkville, Richmond Hill, Innisfil, Woodbridge and Vaughan.
The alleged operation was running perfectly—a profitable and repeatable exercise that seemed to grow more daring with each iteration. Then, in the fall of 2012, Missaghi went too far. He had met Lorraine Fusco, a woman with a young daughter who was seriously ill with a kidney condition. Fusco needed money to seek treatment for her in the U.S. She held a promissory note from a former employer worth $990,000, tied to a mortgage on a property in Markham. But when she sought to cash out, the employer refused to pay her. Fusco would have to sue to enforce the deal and didn’t have the time or energy for that, especially given her daughter’s health. When she was introduced to Missaghi, she was immediately buoyed. He seemed sophisticated and knowledgeable. Missaghi offered to buy the promissory note and pay her $700,000 upon resolution of the matter. Fusco agreed. He asked if Fusco had a lawyer to draft and sign off on the paperwork and then suggested his own. Vakili had a new client.
Missaghi soon reported back that the negotiations were unexpectedly fraught and that he would need to engage in complex, expensive litigation. He proposed a new offer: $585,000. Fusco reluctantly agreed. Vakili met with Fusco and had her sign a stack of papers. If Fusco had looked more carefully, she might have seen that the paperwork provided no assurances that she’d get paid any money at all. Two days later, without Fusco’s knowledge, the action was settled. Vakili received a cheque for $728,803, which she transferred to a company controlled by Missaghi. Fusco didn’t get a cent.
For weeks, Fusco repeatedly asked Vakili and Missaghi for status updates, but she was stonewalled. At one point, Vakili texted to say she was in the hospital and medicated, then later on a conference call and couldn’t pick up. Eventually, Fusco contacted a securities lawyer—one of the crucial developments that would doom Vakili’s career—who investigated and discovered that the funds had been transferred weeks earlier. Fusco was devastated. Her new lawyer called Vakili, who eventually admitted the transaction had been completed, but she said the funds now belonged to a numbered company. The lawyer said he’d report her to the Law Society and contact the police. Vakili replied—with impressive bravado for someone who’d just been found out—with a counterthreat: “I do wish to advise you that any losses or damages incurred with respect to misleading and fabricated statements to the authorities will result in a claim against your firm and your client.”
Missaghi had developed what appeared to be a thriving Ponzi scheme, with the mother-daughter team of Marks and Adler as the primary lenders. But to keep the ruse alive—and to keep making interest payments to Marks and Adler—he needed cash flow. With some audacity, he went back to them and asked for $2.5 million, again secured by 7 High Point Road.
In the interim, though, Annie Yeretsian had succeeded in having the title of the house returned to her name (Marks and Adler were unaware). To prepare the way for the new loan, Vakili again transferred the property out of Annie Yeretsian’s name and this time into Beiki’s—whom Marks and Adler believed owned it all along. A month later, the $2.5-million transfer was processed. Their total outlay to Missaghi and his various companies would eventually reach $6.4 million.
Incensed, Annie Yeretsian reported Vakili to the land registrar, the provincial authority on property matters. Marks and Adler received a summons to attend the resulting hearing and asked Vakili what it was about. Improvising, she convinced them that it concerned a minor property-boundary issue and that they didn’t have to attend. The scheme was unravelling.
At the hearing, Vakili concocted another lie to cover up her previous ones, saying that her assistant had executed the transfer and mortgages in error. They had been intended for 17, not 7, High Point Road. The land registry adjudicator sensed something was off and decided to contact the owner of 17 High Point, pushing the matter over until May. Vakili’s delay tactic worked for the moment, but the façade was already crumbling. A week later, Fusco filed suit against Vakili and Missaghi.
Vakili was a mess. She was subsisting on coffee during the day and bingeing on fast food in her car and candy and chips when she got home at 10 or 11 p.m. Her weight ballooned and she began to suffer from back and knee problems. She developed chronic acne, her hair thinned, and she became short-fused and irritable. She told her husband nothing. “I didn’t want to talk to anyone because I didn’t want to have to lie,” she says.
It’s possible that Missaghi, Erlick and Vakili might have stickhandled their way out of the Fusco situation or Annie Yeretsian’s challenge. But what they couldn’t afford was for Marks and Adler, who represented the main source of funds, to become suspicious. Unfortunately for them, Adler was dogged—a recent divorcée who was rebuilding her life. She became annoyed that Vakili was slow in recovering the proceeds of a separate mortgage that had matured and took steps to have it transferred to another lawyer. Vakili begged Adler to leave the file with her and claimed she had issued a notice of sale on the address. As proof, she gave her postal receipts, but Adler was skeptical. She contacted Canada Post to check whether they were real; they weren’t. Fearing the worst, Adler painstakingly pored over all of Vakili’s transactions and discovered that she, her mother and the investors they represented had been handing millions over to a team of alleged fraudsters for years.
Marks was at her grandson’s wedding when she got a call from her daughter, who was hysterical. She said that they’d been the victims of a massive fraud, scammed by the likeable young lawyer they’d grown so fond of. “As she sat there with me in my kitchen, in my home, having tea or breaking bread with my family,” Marks later observed, Vakili had been “robbing me of money that took years of hard work and sacrifice.”
Adler called Vakili and accused her of fraud. In turn, Vakili told Missaghi the news: their financier was on to them. According to Vakili, Missaghi drove to her office. Worried that the authorities might arrive at any moment, he took Vakili to an empty condo on the waterfront he had just purchased. He brought in chairs and a table and set up a command post to figure out what to do. Missaghi allowed Vakili to go home—otherwise her husband would suspect something was amiss—but he forbade her from confiding in him or anyone else. He had a driver wait outside her condo in the morning to drive her back to the empty condo, then return her home, sometimes as late as 2 a.m. Eventually, after days of plotting, Missaghi informed Vakili that she would have to leave the country. It would just be for a few months, enough time for him to sit down with Marks and Adler, sort everything out and pay them back. Then she could return to resolve her issues with the Law Society. Vakili refused to go—she promised that she’d talk to no one—and even offered to take the blame for everything, but Missaghi didn’t think she’d hold up under police scrutiny.
Then, early one morning in March 2013, Missaghi handed her a plane ticket. He laid out a path designed to confuse police: she’d fly from Montreal to Brussels, then take a train to Paris and await further instructions. He rushed her back to the condo she shared with Mehdi and gave her 20 minutes to gather her things. She ran inside and wildly threw items into a suitcase—she later discovered that she’d packed mostly purses and yoga pants—and then, though Missaghi had warned her not to, she scrawled two quick letters: one for Mehdi, the other for her parents and brother. She apologized for leaving, said she’d be safe and asked them not to worry. She stuffed each into its own envelope and got back into the car.
She stayed in a hotel that night. In the morning, Missaghi and Beiki picked her up and drove her to Montreal. At the airport, once she’d received her boarding pass, Missaghi and Beiki walked her to security. Missaghi bent forward, as though he was about to kiss her on the cheeks. Instead, he put his lips to her ear and whispered, “Get on the plane and don’t look back.”
Vakili had left not a moment too soon. Adler went to the Law Society with her evidence, and an investigator soon arrived at Vakili’s office looking for her and found her files and computer missing. Vakili’s husband, Mehdi, arrived soon after, upset and bewildered. He had given his in-laws their letter the day after her departure, and the family gathered at their home in North York. The Vakili men tend toward stoicism, but Vakili’s mother, Nassrine, was in tears. They knew their daughter was stressed at work, but she’d put up such a good front that her goodbye notes were the first indication that anything was seriously amiss.
A few days later, they got their first call: Vakili was in Europe, though she wouldn’t say where. She told them she was safe and that they shouldn’t worry. They quickly learned not to ask too many questions: she was providing no answers. She worried if they knew the truth, they would go to the police and put themselves in danger.
Vakili spent three months in Paris, walking to the point of exhaustion—she didn’t have enough money to do anything else. Around the time that she expected to return home, Vakili says that Missaghi outlined a proposal: he would give her $500,000 and find her a home and business in Brazil if she was willing to live under a new identity. It would mean never returning to Canada and maintaining only limited contact with family and friends. She was livid.
“You have no intention of ever fixing this for me!” she said. But she was powerless. She had left her credit cards with Missaghi so she couldn’t be tracked, and she had no money of her own. Missaghi told her he was working on a plan.
Then, in June, Missaghi told her she would travel to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The region, a product of a Turkish invasion of the island in 1974, is recognized by just one country—Turkey—and is one of the most politically and economically isolated places in the world, subject to trade sanctions and travel embargoes. All flights out are Turkey bound. But fugitives there never worry about extradition, and expats tend not to ask one another too many questions.
Settling in the small town of Kyrenia, Vakili would find odd jobs but was often alone and unemployed. Missaghi would send a few hundred Euros every few weeks, but it was barely enough to live on. Meanwhile, she would check in with an associate of Missaghi’s via text, as if to a parole officer.
Vakili spent her days rescuing stray cats and dogs, and they all slept together in her tiny room in the Mediterranean heat, sometimes sharing a can of tuna for dinner. Separated from her family, her career in tatters, lonely and ashamed of her actions, she became despondent.
Nearly a year after arriving, she decided she’d had enough and, with money sent by Mehdi and her parents, bought a ticket home. She even secured an export document so that one of the dogs she was particularly fond of—a spaniel cross named Archie—could accompany her. But, she says, men approached her, intimated that they worked for someone she knew and suggested that she remain in Cyprus. She cancelled her flight.
Back in Toronto, Vakili had left behind a tangle of civil suits and clients with ruined real estate investments and lost life savings. The Toronto police investigated but realized there was little they could do without Vakili. Interpol issued a warrant for her arrest. In 2014, her passport expired and she knew, due to the outstanding charges, that she wouldn’t be able to renew it. The Law Society removed her licence in absentia in 2015.
As Vakili began to meet people in the area, she adopted an alias, Christine Lamb—inspired by a little girl she had seen clutching a stuffed lamb one day—so they wouldn’t discover her past if they Googled her. She moved to a small village in the craggy hills southwest of Kyrenia with her animals, which, at one point, included as many as 70 cats. Her home backed onto a sheep farm and reeked of manure.
Though she had long insisted he not come, Vakili’s husband, Mehdi, arrived for a visit. He was shocked by what he found: she had lost 80 pounds and gained new wrinkles and threads of grey in her hair.
Finally, in November 2016, almost four years after boarding the flight in Montreal, Vakili couldn’t take it anymore. With help from her family, she hired a private investigator in Canada and flew him to Northern Cyprus. There, he interviewed her about the mortgage frauds for 11 hours and provided the recorded audio to Toronto police.
It was just what investigators had been looking for, and the Toronto police assisted Vakili with her return. She arrived in Canada in March 2017. Police met her at the airport and, the next morning, she walked handcuffed into court for her bail hearing. There, in the gallery, she saw her parents waiting for her.
Since then, Vakili has cooperated with investigators. Conveniently for Missaghi and for Vakili, police have been unable to locate any of her files or her work computer. Given the risk to her safety, she has remained in hiding—“a secret life,” in the words of a judge. She and Mehdi had a baby boy late last year. Eventually, Vakili pleaded guilty to two charges: forgery related to several of the real estate deals, and obstruction in relation to her testimony at the land titles hearing.
In February 2018, she appeared at Old City Hall for sentencing, accompanied by her lawyer, Marie Henein (her parents helped cover the bills). Vakili was 37 years old. With her father and husband in the gallery, she stood before the judge: “For my part in this and for the poor decisions I have made, I am sincerely sorry, and I don’t know”—and here, Vakili began to cry—“that I will ever forgive myself.” During the hearing, her infant son’s cries occasionally interrupted the proceedings. The Crown was looking for jail time, but Henein argued for leniency. She asserted that Vakili’s only financial stake in the operation had been her legal fees and that Missaghi wouldn’t even let her keep the entirety of those—claims backed by forensic accounting conducted at the behest of the police. Over the course of two years, she made just $12,000 from the work she did for the group. The judge gave her a conditional sentence of two years less a day, including eight months of house arrest.
Largely on the basis of Vakili’s information, police charged Missaghi and Erlick with fraud, conspiracy to commit an indictable offence and being accessories after the fact. Missaghi has also been charged with forgery, and Erlick, with money laundering. Beiki—the pretend owner of 7 High Point—was charged with forgery. He claims that he is merely a victim of Missaghi. All told, their fraud charges add up to an estimated $17 million related to at least a dozen properties.
Members of the Marks group have filed numerous lawsuits against Missaghi and his various companies, to which he has responded by affidavit, calling the allegations “false, misleading and scandalous” and placing the blame on Vakili: “If Ms. Vakili has committed fraud on the scale alleged by the Plaintiffs,” then he and his co-defendants are “likely victims as well.”
I asked repeatedly to speak to Missaghi and Erlick so that they could both provide their side of the story in more detail, but both declined, instead providing a general statement of innocence through their lawyers. The case is expected to go to trial within 18 months, and Vakili will testify.
Vasken Yeretsian, who spent years trying to build 7 High Point Road into a dream home for his family, was still making daily site visits to the property as recently as last year. Still stately and sprawling from afar, the place is, on closer inspection, now a shambles—a hollow husk.
One day early last year, on one of his visits, Vasken noticed that the lock had been removed from the gate and replaced with an orange bungee cord. He saw Missaghi drive up to 7 High Point in his black Range Rover, then through the gates and onto the property. A tow truck followed. Missaghi got out of his car and wandered over to the four-door garage. He backed a gold Bentley out and had it towed away.
In June of this year, 7 High Point sold for $9.5 million. The legitimate first lender, a syndicated group, got $3.4 million. The remaining $4.3 million (after taxes and fees) is being fought over by Missaghi’s alleged victims—and there are many.
If subsequent Law Society actions are any indication, Missaghi is still active in the real estate game. In July 2016, Rasik Mehta, a young lawyer whose practice focused on real estate, had his licence suspended pending review over “the alleged mismanagement of trust funds in what is described as a possible Ponzi scheme.” The Law Society panel made reference to a client both Vakili and Mehta shared, with the initials “A.M.”
This story originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.