Clifford Stauffer, a middle-age Mennonite cabinetmaker, lives a quiet and isolated life in rural Kaufman County with his family and church, largely ignorant of the modern world. A simple man, he is devout and trusting of others, prosecutors said.
To Johnny Clifton, he was the perfect mark.
Clifton, 52, a former stockbroker and oil and gas fraudster, joined forces with a young car thief and fast-food worker named Joshua Pugh to concoct what a veteran federal prosecutor called the most elaborate and “lavish” fraud he’s ever seen.
At one point, the duo arranged for a convoy of rented black SUVs with hired security guards to snake its way to Stauffer’s home, as a helicopter hovered overhead.
“Frankly, every time I uncovered a new fact with the agent, we were just astonished because it kept getting worse and worse,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney P.J. Meitl.
The two men claimed to be members of the Illuminati, a mythical clandestine group of wealthy and powerful individuals said to control world events. The defendants used the bogus storyline to fleece the highly religious victim out of $1 million, then tried to intimidate him into keeping quiet. And they were not above threatening violence to achieve their goals, according to federal court records.
Clifton was the first to be sentenced, in August, and got 13 years. Pugh, 25, is next.
Documents from the sentencing hearing offer new details as to how the defendants pulled off their white-collar heist from 2015 to 2017, using religious iconography, forged documents and people posing as leaders of nations speaking in foreign languages.
“The victim was so sheltered both geographically, socially, personally,” said FBI Special Agent Colin Crow, during the August sentencing of Clifton. “He really only stayed with his church, his family and his business. He had no knowledge of pop culture or media.”
Pugh told the victim that the Illuminati was a "clandestine cabal of high net worth individuals who delegated control of the world to a select group of 43 families through the manipulation of banks, politics and intelligence/law enforcement organizations," the indictment said.
Although it has some historical basis, the Illuminati is actually a fictional conspiracy in how it's described in novels, film and popular culture as a secret and powerful society. But for Stauffer, it seemed very real based on the lengths to which Clifton and Pugh went to convince him.
Both men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Pugh remains behind bars. His sentencing has been delayed at least five times for various reasons.
Attorneys for the men declined to comment. Clifton is appealing his sentence.
Stauffer, 53, did not attend Clifton’s sentencing hearing, and he’s not expected to show up for Pugh’s. His pastor said he is a private man who is embarrassed by the matter. However, in a brief interview with The Dallas Morning News, he expressed forgiveness for his tormenters.
“I hold no ill will toward them,” he said.
Clifton had asked U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle for leniency, saying he wasn’t a threat and had learned his lesson.
But the judge said she didn’t hear much remorse from Clifton for his actions. And she agreed with the prosecutor that he tried disingenuously to pass the blame onto his younger and less sophisticated accomplice.
“I mean, there’s so many twists and turns, and it’s all telling this poor man all these lies,” Boyle said. “And it went on for so long.”
Stauffer’s faith prevents him from suing anyone. But he said he hopes the men “can find help and overcome their tendencies.”
Stauffer inherited his cabinetmaking business from his father, and he ran it with his sons, Crow said. The overhead was low. They had “virtually no debt” due to his religious beliefs, and the family lived “frugally,” Crow said. Stauffer, for example, built and repaired most of what he needed with his sons, so he managed to earn significant savings over the years.
“He had … what looked like the world’s oldest mobile phone,” Crow said.
The FBI agent said Clifton and Pugh researched the Mennonite faith online, as well as famous families and major donors to the Mennonite Church. And when Stauffer learned he had been scammed, Clifford and Pugh told the victim that these donors would “pull their support” for the church if the criminal investigation continued.
“At one point, they even approached the victim’s pastor” in an attempt to get him to keep quiet, Crow said. “That was a severe pressure on the victim.”
Pugh told Stauffer that he was the "wealthy scion of a powerful and well-known family," the indictment says. And he claimed that he and Clifton were members of the Illuminati and founders of an elite real estate company called Sectors Global Management, according to the indictment. Clifton told Stauffer that the Illuminati selected him to invest in Sectors for reasons that Clifton was not allowed to know, the indictment said.
Crow said Clifton claimed his “ancestors were allied with the Catholic Church in the 1700s in a fight against Spain, and promises were made, which somehow ended up with Mr. Clifton and his ancestors being members of this secretive cabal.”
To appear convincing, the defendants used bodyguards, chauffeurs, a virtual library of faked documents and “contrived video chats and teleconferences with purported world leaders,” the indictment said.
They acted very friendly and yet they were my worst enemy,” he said.
In February 2017, Pugh hired off-duty law enforcement officers to escort him to Stauffer’s workshop in Kemp. Pugh arrived in a Bentley, followed by a caravan of vehicles, court records show. Pugh had bodyguards wear earpieces for show, and he claimed to be close to famous entertainers like Prince, before the musician’s death.
Pugh told Stauffer that his assets could be seized and he would be jailed if he didn’t comply with his demands. And he quoted Scripture to the victim and used Bible verses to talk him into continuing to give him money.
“They said that the CIA could have the victim or his family whisked away and call it counterterrorism,” Crow, the FBI agent, said during the first sentencing hearing.
Pugh said that he had “connections to high-level finance, intelligence and political officials” and that his father is a successful international businessman, the indictment said. Pugh showed Stauffer faked tax documents indicating he had an income of about $45 million, according to the indictment.
Pugh also showed the victim a triangular chart that showed the Illuminati’s structure, which included the words “World Monarch” and “Crown Council of 13,” according to the indictment.
Clifton also claimed to have elite business connections, authorities say. And he told the victim that his own life would be in danger if he did not agree to Sectors’ demands for money, the indictment says. Clifton and Pugh hired investigators to watch Stauffer’s home and business, Crow said, and they told him not to tell his wife or his attorney anything.
“The victim was terrified,” Crow said. “He feared for his life, his family’s safety, and the impact that it would have on his church.”
It’s not clear how the FBI learned of the scam, but once agents were involved, they hit a roadblock.
FBI agents had to bring Stauffer to their Dallas offices to show him they were not involved in any conspiracy, Crow said.
“It took us a long time to convince the victim that the FBI was actually not part of this organization,” he said.
Clifton told the judge at his sentencing hearing that he has a degree in business administration and worked for several Fortune 500 companies like MetLife.
“I associated myself with some wrong people, and I bought into the machinations of other people,” Clifton said. “This entire incident is outside the scope of my normal behavior as a law-abiding citizen.”
Meitl, the prosecutor, told Boyle, the judge, that it did not come down to the better-educated Clifton getting involved with the wrong people. He said the two men share equal blame for the crimes.
“But I think it’s fair to say Mr. Clifton is more of the book-smart fraudster, and Mr. Pugh is a get-it-done-in-the-field kind of fraudster,” Meitl said.
During the sentencing hearing, Clifton launched into a detailed argument as to why he should be given leniency, citing U.S. sentencing laws and recidivism statistics.
Clifton was ordered to repay $150,000 by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for false claims about oil and gas partnership interests, federal authorities say. The SEC said in its 2013 cease and desist order against him that “the pattern, self-serving nature and egregiousness of Clifton's fraud demonstrates his unfitness to participate in the securities industry in any capacity.”
Meitl said Clifton also was fired from one job for embezzling. He said Clifton allowed his child support to come out of his new wife’s paychecks “while he was stealing all this money and driving around in a Maserati and a Porsche.”
“This is just the first time he got caught by the feds,” Meitl said.
Boyle ordered Clifton to pay $1 million in victim restitution.
Stauffer said he has not received a penny and doesn’t expect to get any money from the men who scammed him. He said God is helping him to move on and not have to relive the episode.
“I’m trying to get my life back,” he said. “And to leave it in the past.”