SALT LAKE CITY — Travis L. Wright lived large. He hunted big game on the Serengeti. He took family and friends on exotic trips to places like Tahiti and Egypt.
He gave his wife as much as $20,000 a month in spending money. He drove luxury cars. He bought a former NBA player's home, forking out $130,000 on landscaping alone.
And he did it all with other people's money.
"You destroyed my career. Destroyed it!" a man yelled at Wright as he left a federal courtroom Thursday after pleading guilty to mail fraud. "You're a pig, Travis."
The man, who declined to give his name, said his 88-year-old grandmother invested her life savings with Wright — $2.1 million. She lost all of it.
Wright, 48, of Draper, pleaded to the felony charge in U.S. District Court in connection with one of the largest Ponzi schemes in state history. Mail fraud carries a 20-year prison term and a $1 million fine.
Federal prosecutors recommended Wright serve eight years and pay $44 million in restitution. Judge Clark Waddoups will sentence him July 26. Wright and his attorneys had no comment.
From September 1999 to March 2009, Wright, as the sole manager of a firm called Waterford Funding, took in more than $100 million from 200 to 225 investors, according to court documents.
Wright told investors he placed their money in a fund and used it to make loans for commercial real estate projects. They were promised a return of 8 percent to 44 percent over a nine-month investment period. One of the loans was to a Sandy-based venture for a sandwich-in-a-can to be sold in vending machines.
Instead, Wright spent $15 million of investors' money on his lavish lifestyle.
The scheme unraveled in late 2008 when investors stopped receiving interest payments. Investigators found Wright had brought in new investors to pay off old investors, which constitutes a Ponzi scheme.
Maurice Burton, an 87-year-old Cottonwood Heights resident, gave Wright $330,000. It grew out of money he'd made as a Merchant Marine in World War II and invested in real estate over 56 years. It was in a trust for his son who has multiple sclerosis and his autistic grandson.
"It's a little late for me to start over," Burton said.
Furthermore, eight years in prison, he said, isn't long enough for Wright.
"I'm going to do everything I can do to get him some extra time," Burton said. "I don't think it's half long enough."1 comment on this story
The federal bankruptcy court held an auction last year for hundreds of Wright's possessions, including dozens of guns, 50 sets of animal antlers, three sets of elephant tusks, and a taxidermic lion, wildebeest and impala, among others. Also sold were bronze sculptures, motorcycles and high-end furniture.
The sale netted about $3.7 million, court records show. The court also recovered $851,000 in tithing and donations paid to the LDS Church using investor money.
Proceeds of the auction were to pay a portion of the money owed investors.