When Therin Miller walks into the FBI office to throw himself on the mercy of the government, he’s not sure if he will leave a free man. To clear his name, he becomes an FBI informant, recording conversations with his roommate and business partner, Brant Holloway, and his associate Lyle Livesay. Therin’s work results in indictments on multiple counts of bank fraud related to the luxury car scheme, plus the arrest of a Russian mobster in Ukraine. But even with the criminals behind bars, will Therin’s life ever go back to normal?
[00:00:00] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] I want my life to go back to normal. I, I didn't mean for any of this to happen, and my intentions were never to defraud or scam anybody. My intentions were never to, to be involved with the Russian Mob.
[00:00:20] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. When we left Therin Miller, he had just made the painful choice to walk into the FBI's Oklahoma City Bureau and tell them he got mixed up in a loan fraud scam. But this is no ordinary scam. Therin's girlfriend, Kirsten Strickler, believes he's tangled up with a luxury car crime ring that's based in Florida run by a Russian Mob figure. She convinced Therin not to go to Florida in a desperate attempt to get back the half million dollars that he borrowed, and then given to his quote/unquote business partners, Brant Holloway, who's also Therin's roommate, and Lyle Livesay, the finance guy who's in Miami. Instead, Therin has gone to the FBI with his story, afraid they might arrest him on the spot, but hoping he can somehow straighten the whole thing out. An agent takes notes, sends him away, and then Therin must wait while living with Brant. It's the longest week of his life. You can hear all those details in episodes 1 and 2 if you haven't listened already, but today we conclude our three-part series, "I Borrowed Money for the Russian Mob." And we begin with Therin finally getting that callback from the FBI.
[00:01:39] Therin Miller: He says, "Yeah, you need to come down to the office. I need to meet with you. He actually had me meet him somewhere publicly. So I met him and another agent. I sat with them, and he said, "Here's the thing. We were able to verify your story." And he said, "Your case is extremely unique because you're telling us a crime is about to be committed, because we will default on the loans." And he says, "We need to set up a meeting with the district attorney and at that point, we'll have further instruction for you." I said, "Okay, that sounds good."
[00:02:10] Bob: Unsure what that all means, Therin agrees to meet with federal prosecutors as soon as possible. Worried about his daughter, worried about his nearly 20-year career in the National Guard, worried that his lawyer had warned him he might end up in jail for 30 years, Therin finds himself in yet another place he never expected to be.
[00:02:31] Therin Miller: He set up a meeting with the district attorney and I walked in and with, with the FBI agent, and we went upstairs to a really tall building downtown, and we walk into a, a, sort of a big conference room and, and I'm setting there with the, the FBI agent and, and the district attorney and, and her staff; they all walk in and set down and you know she's already been briefed up on my case at this point and, and what's happening and, and my situation, and just kind of looked over everything. And so she basically looks at me and she says, "Hey, you know, I'm really, I'm really impressed that you have come to us when you've come to us. Um, you know, it's extremely unique that uh, that, you know, that this is, that this is going on, and, and the fact that this scam is so well put together that," you know the, even the FBI--, he commented, he's like, "This is one of the best scams that I've ever seen." And uh, and so, you know, he, he uh, and she said, 'I'm really impressed that you put stop payments on the banks, that you’ve caught this before it happened, and that you had enough mindfulness to come to us. Uh, so what do you want to have happen?" And I, I just kind of looked at her, like I, what do you mean, what do I want to have happen? Like I, I, that's why I came to you. I said I, "I want my life to go back to normal. I, I didn't mean for any of this to happen, my intentions were never to defraud or scam anybody. My intentions were never to be involved with the Russian Mob. My intentions were I, I wanted to go into business, I, I wanted to make a better life for myself and my family and my daughter. I wanted to, you know, I want to be a, a good person in society." I said, "I've been in the military for two combat tours." I said, "I've, I've desired nothing but that my whole life. What do you mean I, what do I want from this? I want things to go back to normal." And she said, "Okay."
[00:04:26] Bob: And so the FBI agent and the prosecutor give Therin a choice. They will try to help him get his life back to normal if he will work for them, and help the FBI catch the real criminals.
[00:04:39] Therin Miller: Basically, we were able to verify that Lyle and them in Florida, they're the ones that sent in uh, the applications and they're the ones that orchestrated this, and, and through their investigations, they have found that, that, I am actually a very small fish in all of the things that they do and that they're caught up in. And it turns out that they've had somebody, they've had an informant with inside their brigade, uh, you know, the, the Russian Mob, their, their, their brigade for quite some time. "When you leave here today, we're, just know we're going to work with you. We're going to make this, make everything good. Uh, you're going to need to work with us.” And I said, “Yes, whatever you ask. Whatever you tell me to do I’ll do, just yes, I mean, I want life to go back to normal. I don’t want to go to prison, I want to be there for my daughter. I want to watch her grow up. I, yes, absolutely. Whatever you need.” And she’s like, “Good, Agent… the FBI agent, he’ll have some instructions for you.”
[00:05:32] Bob: And so, Therin Miller, the budding entrepreneur, signs papers to become TM, an FBI informant.
[00:05:41] Therin Miller: She got up and left and he slid over to me, and he said, “I need you to sign this paperwork,” and uh basically that paperwork was me agreeing to become an FBI informant for them, and to get several recordings and work on their behalf to uh, to, to figure out the bigger details of the case. And at that point I signed everything over and made plans to become an FBI informant for the next, I think, three or four months following, maybe a little bit longer, maybe about five or six months following where I did absolutely everything that they told me to do.
[00:06:09] Bob: So he walks out of the conference room, out of the building into fresh air, and feels two enormous and opposite rushes of emotion.
[00:06:18] Bob: On the one side, you were looking at prison, and now you’re thinking, migh--, maybe my life will get back to normal. They believe me. This is great. And on the other side, I’m sure you never set out to be an FBI informant. That sounds scary.
[00:06:33] Therin Miller. Yeah, (chuckles) yeah, so you know that is ex--, exactly kind of, it was a roller coaster of emotions, right, because, you know when you think about things like that, you know they don't know what I know at this point. The, the, they being Brant and Lyle and then they, they don't know what I know at this point. Now, you know, obviously I haven't said anything, um, you know, I, I've tried my best to keep life as normal as possible. I stay in my room at the house, like they don't know anything. And so to hear and say, yeah, you’re going to actually, you're going to become an informant and work for us and get information from these guys, and here's what you're going to do and how you're going to do it, you know, at that point my, my, I mean at the same time I'm, I'm relieved but I'm also scared because I don't know what that entails, you know what I mean. I don't know, does that mean that I'm going to Florida? Does that mean I'm going to, you know what does, what does that mean? Does that mean I'm going to have to go face these guys? What, what does that mean exactly? I, of course, I mean, you know my emotions were all over the place. It was crazy.
[00:07:31] Bob: Don’t forget, Brant is still his roommate, and now Therin has to walk around his home with a really good poker face.
[00:07:40] Bob: And you’re still living with this guy, right?
[00:07:42] Therin Miller: Yeah. yeah, absolutely. I'm still living there. I, I stayed with my parents as much as I can. I made up some stories about you know, hey, I've got, you know, sick family and I need to, you know be here with them, and um, you know so I, I made up a, a lot of excuses of why I wasn't there at the house so I didn't have to be around him, because just, you know, waking up and throwing up and being around him at this point, you know, now that I know a lot more and I, I, you know, I'll say it, I guess, I, I, in a, in a way I was uh, I won't say I was scared, but I, I definitely uh, I had a, like I said a rollercoaster of emotions. I mean I; I was thinking, I mean I was stressed, I was, you know, had so much anxiety and I was like man, I want, I want to kill this guy. I mean I just, I wanted to do so much, you know, and I, I, so I, I stayed away and, you know, you just don't know what that stuff entails whenever they ask you to do all that stuff. So yeah, they don't know anything at that point, and I, I did my best to keep it that way.
[00:08:38] Bob: Kirsten, Therin’s girlfriend, is still very much involved, but now she’s also keeping her distance.
[00:08:45] Kirsten Strickler: At that point, I think he was scared. I was definitely nervous. I didn't want to go to his house. I really didn't go to that house very often, just because, you know, I didn't know what kind of people I was dealing with.
[00:08:57] Bob: At this point, you might be wondering what is it like to be an FBI informant? What does an FBI informant do?
[00:09:04] Therin Miller: Yeah, so really in this case, this was pretty easy because Lyle and them still didn't know at this point, and neither did Brant or them, they didn't know anything at this point. I'd done a very good job at hiding everything and staying away, and so they asked me to get some recordings, and to record conversations and phone calls. At one point they thought that they were going to have me go down to Florida because that's kind of you know, where things were leading in the course of, I guess the, the investigation and the getting more information. And so I'm getting recordings with Brant and I'm also getting you know, not only recordings of him, I'm getting recordings of Lyle as well. There's conference calls and all kinds of stuff.
[00:09:44] Bob: The FBI wants Therin to keep up appearances, to keep pursuing the car dealership idea with Brant just to see where it goes.
[00:09:52] Therin Miller: I had a lot of conversations with him afterwards and kind of picked up where we had left off a couple weeks prior about percentages of ownership. The FBI wanted me, you know, to kind of proceed and see how far Brant was committed and wanted to take this thing. So Brant set some appointments. We started going and looking at empty lots and different places to actually buy a dealership or buy some land to have a dealership built, and so we actually started talking to landowners and things like that, you know, around Oklahoma City, and you know that whole time I'm recording conversations, you know as well.
[00:10:23] Bob: Therin wears a wire as they say while he secretly records conversations with Lyle and Brant.
[00:10:30] Bob: Were you like wearing a recording device like we see on television?
[00:10:33] Therin Miller: Uh, yeah, you could say that. I won’t say exactly what I was wearing ‘cause I signed some documentation saying that, but yeah, it was exactly kind of like a, a wire that I, I was wearing and, and had with me. And yeah, so I, I had that. And everywhere I went it was recording. And I was able to pick up our conversations, I guess in a way lead/follow, I did what the FBI told me to do as far as getting the conversations and getting questions, but then it was also leading him to see how far this was really going to go, you know, and, and so how far and how committed is he really to making this happen, again, him not knowing what I know.
[00:11:14] Bob: Brant and Lyle don’t know what’s going on, but they don’t really want Therin around anymore. After all, as far as they know, they have his money. So they try to pay him off. Brant makes an offer that Therin refuses.
[00:11:30] Therin Miller: He started getting really mad at me because uh he'd come to me and he was like, “Hey, this is a lot of money, you know, I'll pay you.” And he's like, “Here's the deal, Therin. I'll pay you $50,000 and you can just walk away and leave all the money with me, and I'll worry about paying the banks back.” And I was like, “No.” And he's like, “Well then just take some of the money because this is a lot of money, Therin, you need to take some of this money.” And he's like, “You know, that to you, that's,” and at this time, he wasn't lying, he was like “To you, you know, $50,000 could do a lot for you. That can change a lot of things. You can go open up your own business. You know, you can go open up another business. You can go do something. Just let me pay you some money and then you walk away from this whole deal, and I'll open the car dealership.”
[00:12:04] Bob: Therin plays along by making himself too good of a business partner.
[00:12:09] Therin Miller: And, you know, I was like, “No, I don’t, I don’t know why you would want me to take some money and not be a part of this. I, I absolutely want to be a part of this.” You know, I, I had to make him feel like, so I could continue to get information, I had to make him feel like I was 100% committed and, and there was nothing. And so he kind of got started getting really mad at me because I refused to either a) take the money, or take a very small percentage of ownership.
[00:12:31] Bob: Brant becomes increasingly frustrated that Therin won’t just take the money and go away, but Therin did go away, at least physically. He moves out, finally. And then so does Brant in dramatic fashion.
[00:12:45] Kirsten Strickler: It was definitely a relief, um, at that point, I think Therin's main concern was the safety of his daughter, and at that point Therin didn't want to live there, and that's mostly because he didn't want the Russian Mafia to know where he lived. It seems like a pretty reasonable thing. And so, he ended up renting out his house, and renting a place in Oklahoma City just so that they wouldn't know where he lived. Brant eventually did move out. They, of course, in, you know, true form, you know, poured Kool-Aid all over the carpets and the whole petty nonsense, but at that point I really think Brant was convinced that he had gotten away with it. I don't think they had any idea that Therin was working with the FBI at that point.
[00:13:29] Bob: That's so brazen to me, my goodness.
[00:13:32] Bob: Bob: At this point, what does Kirsten think about all this? This roommate turned business partner turned loan fraud criminal with connections to the Russian Mob? Remember, she’s the one who found the story connecting Lyle Livesay, Brant’s partner in Florida, the money guy, to Mani Chulpayev, the mobster who’d been in and out of federal prisons for decades. And her boyfriend, Therin, of just a few weeks, well he’s now an undercover agent? Not an easy way to start a romantic relationship.
[00:14:05] Bob: And you knew at the time that for several months he was an FBI informant, right?
[00:14:10] Kirsten Strickler: Yeah, absolutely.
[00:14:11] Bob: Answer this question or don't, that's up to you entirely, but I, I can't not ask it. So you're telling your friends, hey, so this new guy I'm dating, turns out he's involved with the mob, and he's now an FBI informant. I don't know if you actually did that or not, but how did you feel about that?
[00:14:26] Kirsten Strickler: Um, I was actually pretty skeptical of it. I really wasn't telling my friends. I did tell my family; I told my parents, and uh I think my dad was like, "Nope, you told me too much. I don't want to know anything else." And I was like, okay. Like, so I think that, you know, I was definitely concerned, but at the same time I think part of the reason is like because I had knew him, I knew who he was, I knew he was in over his head, even if we weren't dating, I would have helped him as a friend. I don't even think it was so much about the fact that we were dating, it was more so like, I just cared about him as a person and I knew he was a good person, and I just didn't want to see him end up in prison for something that I knew he had no part in.
[00:15:12] Bob: And it makes a ton of sense to me that you, you had known him for almost two years at this point, so that's not like this is a brand new person in your life.
[00:15:19] Kirsten Strickler: Correct.
[00:15:20] Bob: Even after Brant moves out, Therin keeps on talking to them, keeps on recording conversations. He regularly checks in with the FBI. And they tried to raise the stakes.
[00:15:31] Therin Miller: I would have to meet with them occasionally and drop off recordings and, and uh get new instructions of, you know, where they wanted the con--, the conversation to go based off of their investigation themselves. And Brant moved out, and I called Lyle. Um, they wanted me to call Lyle, so I called Lyle and basically played it like, to Lyle, like, “Hey, Brant's a complete (BEEP), and I still want the money. Let's do this,” you know, and, that's kind of where everything went. And so Lyle was like, “Yeah, Brant, I've worked with him before. He is an (BEEP). He is just a childish and immature kid, and he doesn't know anything,” and really, you know, at that point I, I was like, well wow, Lyle's, again this is what I'm letting on, but I'm like, yeah, Lyle's on my side here.
[00:16:10] Bob: After a while, Therin settles into his life as a secret informant.
[00:16:16] Bob: Were you ever worried that oh no, wait. He’s catching on?
[00:16:19] Therin Miller: You know what, I, actually, no. The FBI was very good at relaying to me how natural I needed to make the conversations. And they were also very good about not letting me know more than what I needed to know to get the information that I needed to get, which was less information is more information, I guess is a way. So the only real, I guess, crazy questions, I guess you could say that I needed to work in I guess, was hey, who owns these cars? Like who, who owns True Cars Express, and but Lyle was very good about, you know, like when I started asking questions like that, that, 'cause that was different from obviously our conversation, right, like, who owns that dealership, Lyle? Like that's, that's different from Lyle telling me how to get money, how to pay banks, what to say and, 'cause he's trying to coach me on the opposite side to, to make sure that I'm not doing anything or letting on anything that would tip anybody off to the fraud itself also.
[00:17:28] Bob: So this whole time you were an actor, and you were very good at it.
[00:17:31] Therin Miller: Yeah, I was actually. I was very, very good at it. Um, I felt like, uh Lyle really believed, you know, I, I did a very good job at making him believe that, that I didn't know what was going on. And I did a very good job at asking the questions, and getting to the answers that the FBI wanted, you know, for their investigation, and when you're looking at a large prison sentence, or you're looking at things like that, you know, you're in that kind of trouble I mean you’ll, you'll be a better actor than Leonardo di Caprio, you know what I mean, like, you sell yourself on this is who I am now. I mean, you know, otherwise these are my other alternatives, you know, and uh so I did a very good job at that and, and Lyle never caught on and I got more information out of Lyle as time passed and I kind of, in a way, Lyle kind of alluded a little bit to Mani Chulpayev. He kind of alluded to him and kind of would, I guess causally I guess maybe bring him up, not in a sense of business, but more as like a, hey, I've got to meet with my business partners and kind of in that sense, in that realm. Um, but he never really talked about him explicitly.
[00:18:45] Bob: Did he refer to him by name?
[00:18:46] Therin Miller: Yeah, actually, yeah. There was a, a time or two where he did actually refer to him by name. Um, but again, you know it was, he didn't know what I knew and, you know, so yeah, he did refer to him by name, and I did not ever press into that because I knew that that line of questioning would be way out of character for the dealings that I have with Lyle. So I never pressed into that kind of line of questioning. And, and they, they, the FBI did not want me to do that either. They knew what they knew because of where the money was going and who Lyle was hanging out with every day because they had somebody that, that was kind of keeping an eye on things. And so, they knew a substantial more than anybody. So, I never pressed Lyle on that line of questioning. That would have probably tipped me off pretty fast.
[00:19:34] Bob: Several months pass. Many, many more recordings are passed to the FBI. Things seem to be going slowly and then, suddenly, the FBI moves in. But they still don’t want to blow Therin’s cover. So they have to make it look like Therin is in trouble too.
[00:19:50] Therin Miller: I have another meeting with the FBI agent, and I think it was another member of, I don't believe it was the district attorney herself, but it was another member of that office. And I was basically informed, “Hey, we have enough information. We're going to go and arrest Brant, and arrest Lyle. We're going to issue the arrest warrants. The arrest warrants will happen, we’re going to issue them on Thursday, and we're immediately going to go arrest them. You need to be away from these areas.” You know, and kind of go from there. They, at the same time, wanted to make it look as though, obviously that I was being arrested as well in the, the whole entire scheme of things. So that's how they kind of played it off. They need--, they needed to make it look as though and, and not to tip them off either, they needed to make it look as though I was arrested and being questioned as well, because of they needed to get more information from Brant and Lyle.
[00:20:44] Bob: Brant and Lyle are charged with a 10-count indictment dated May 2nd, 2017, including bank fraud and making false statements to an FBI agent. And Therin, Therin is indeed able to avoid criminal charges thanks to his cooperation with authorities.
[00:21:00] Mr. Miller had some potential culpability which he knew. He did come forward and that's why he was not prosecuted.
[00:21:09] Bob: That’s Julia Barry, the Department of Justice lawyer who prosecuted the case. She wouldn’t discuss much of the case with us, but confirmed Therin’s critical role in the prosecution.
[00:21:19] Julia Barry: I won't go into the details of his cooperation, but I think it is fair to say that decisions were made because Mr. Miller came forward and cooperated, yes.
[00:21:31] Bob: The guilty pleas comes relatively quickly, thanks in no small part to Therin’s secret recordings.
[00:21:36] Julia Barry: In the course of plea negotiations, Mr. Livesay pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering, which was alleged in the indictment, and Mr. Holloway was allowed to plead to what amounts to a reduced charge in so far as the maximum penalty goes. So initially, Mr. Holloway and Mr. Livesay were both charged with violations of 18USC Section 13.49, and that's lawyer's speak for conspiracy to commit a financial fraud crime. And it carries a maximum of 30 years in prison. A general conspiracy charge under 18USC Section 371 carried a maximum in of five years in prison, and Mr. Holloway was allowed to plead to a superseding charge, charging him with Section 371.
[00:22:29] Bob: So Brant pleads guilty to a different violation, a different kind of conspiracy charge that wasn’t in the initial indictment. It carries a potential for less prison time. At his sentencing hearing, Brant pleads for leniency. He tells the judge, “Words cannot describe how truly sorry I am for the behavior,” according to a court transcript. “I let negativity get the best of me. The person standing before you is a different man than two years ago.” His lawyer tries to paint Lyle as the real criminal, and Brant as someone who just put his head in the sand when criminal financing arrangements were made. Government lawyers, however, paint Brant in a different light. One says, “I want to believe everything that Mr. Holloway said to the court today, but it is extremely difficult for me because I have not personally been lied to as extensively by any one person ever in a case that I’m investigating.”
[00:23:20] Therin Miller: I didn’t go to any of the court appearances or anything like that, because again, it still needs to look like I'm in just as much trouble and uh, you know, they don't want to tip off a bigger investigation that they had on the, the Russian Mob, on the, their brigade down there in Florida, uh, and Georgia as well. So they didn't want to tip that off and so I never went to any of those. They always spoke on my behalf. You know, I say spoke on my behalf, I guess they did a good job at just not letting anybody know that I wasn't also in trouble as well.
[00:23:47] Bob: Ultimately, Brant is sentenced to two years in prison, three years of supervised release, and he’s responsible for $415,000 worth of restitution. Livesay is sentenced to four years in a federal prison. And meanwhile, in late 2020, Mani Chulpayev was arrested in Ukraine, extradited to the US, and indicted on federal charges of bank fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering. His case is still pending. And Therin, well, he ended up as simply the initials T.M. in court documents and a Department of Justice press release.
[00:24:23] Bob: So I’m looking at this press release here, and one of the lines in it according to the indictment, “Livesay and Holloway submitted false loan applications in the name of Holloway’s roommate T.M.”
[00:24:34] Therin Miller: Yep.
[00:24:35] Bob: So that’s you, right?
[00:24:37] Therin Miller: That is me. That’s right.
[00:24:39] Bob: What is it like to see your initials, T.M., in a press release from the FBI?
[00:24:43] Therin Miller: You know, um, it’s all surreal to be honest. It’s surreal because uh, they told me they were going to do everything that they can to protect my identity, um, and put T.M. and you know, they did that throughout the whole entire investigation and everything, and I have nothing but great things to say about the people that worked on this, that believed me, that would just give me an opportunity and believed me. And so to see my initials in there it’s surreal, you know, and mind-blowing to be honest. I mean even, even to this day I, it, you know, it, it’s like a movie, man, it’s, it’s... you know.
[00:25:16] Bob: Only after the guilty pleas are entered does the full extent of the crime, the incredible efforts of the scam become clear. The crime was so elaborate, the criminal actually moved in with his victim.
[00:25:31] Therin Miller: I think that’s what makes this such an unbelievable, made for movie story, I guess you could say, because the fact that it is tied to, that a roommate moves in innocently to take some interest in, in mentoring somebody and helping actually has way deeper, more evil intentions to actually get me tied into a much bigger crime organization that is obviously out there doing a lot of harm to a lot of people.
[00:26:04] Bob: Just how elaborate was the plot to use Therin? Brant had begun the scam even before he moved in.
[00:26:12] Therin Miller: I found that out after everything had went down. He actually filed for the dealership license for a, you have to go before the state and get a dealer’s license, and that was actually filed in September before he moved in, at my address. In fact, you can, if you do a, a google search, you can actually find that information. You can actually find where Brant had made that reg--, in my, in the name of my home address at that time where I lived in, in Yukon. And so, yeah, this was so well planned out, and how I became a mark, I have no idea other than I had a 3,000 square foot home, and in Oklahoma, you know, that is a, a very nice home in a very nice neighborhood. I was in the military. So maybe, I mean I, I mean not maybe, I mean clearly a target for somebody who would be a good target to get a lot of money out of, and, and that's exactly what, what happened.
[00:27:15] Bob: It really is incredible how far they went to keep up the ruse.
[00:27:19] Therin Miller: You know, your mess becomes your story, and I think in this instance, the level of betrayal that I felt was so deep, and that’s why I think I had so much anxiety and so much stress and so much literal, physical sickness, um, that was taking place. To actually move in, to act as if nothing is going wrong, you know, to be able to know every day that I am scamming this person for a lot of money, and you’re still able to sit down across from me and, and eat dinner with me and my daughter and my girlfriend, or... that is a whole ‘nother level of crime.
[00:27:55] Bob: Kirsten is also kind of amazed at how far the criminals went in this scam.
[00:28:01] Bob: I write about scams for a living. But the fact that this went so far as to, to move in with the person who is your mark, I mean that's really next level in my mind.
[00:28:11] Kirsten Strickler: It's definitely a long con. I'm going to tell you, they don't call it con men for nothing. I mean the, the thing about this is, is the scam was actually so brilliant, it was a really, really, really good scam. These are not dumb guys. With all of their faults, Brant and Lyle are not stupid. They're extremely intelligent, and that's why they were able to swindle, 'cause Therin was a very small part in this overall scheme.
[00:28:36] Bob: Kirsten is pretty sure her boyfriend was maybe only a few weeks away from being an accomplice to a crime and ending up in prison himself.
[00:28:44] Kirsten Strickler: If I'm going to be homes, I think that really the reason that he was able to get some sort of justice for what happened is because we were able to see those red flags and catch it so early. 'Cause I do believe that had we waited a couple of months, or it took us a little bit longer to figure it out, we would not have been as lucky and I think it would have been much more difficult for us to get a conviction and quite honestly, it's very possible Therin would be sitting in jail.
[00:29:12] Bob: Therin did not end up sitting in jail, or laying in the trunk in the back of a car because he did the right thing and faced the music, came forward to the FBI. But what he really wanted, just to get his normal life back, well, he hasn’t really gotten that yet.
[00:29:27] Bob: So this is a question that I know will be on people’s minds, so I’m going to ask it. Why are you telling this story now? Is there some reason you feel safer or is this more relevant now for some reason?
[00:29:38] Therin Miller: Yeah, you know, it’s funny that you asked that. Me and my wife have been talking about this quite recently. Now I’m, I’m much more confident of going after I’ve gone through this. Not only am I much more confident in myself because I have come out not as a victim in this, I learned a lot through this process. It did financially ruin me; I will say that. Um, you know, I did end up filing bankruptcy. The banks still came after me.
[00:30:04] Bob: The bankruptcy means Therin isn’t on the hook for the nearly half million dollars in loans he signed for, but he can’t borrow money the way average consumers do. And he won’t be able to for many years. He tried recently to refinance his car loan, for example, and was rejected.
[00:30:21] Kirsten Strickler: Yeah, so that's probably the most difficult part. After everything, the banks were made whole, Brant's going to serve his time and get out and be a free man, Lyle's going to serve his time and get out and be a free man, you know, they'll be ordered to pay restitution, but ultimately the person who kind of ends up in somewhat of the worst situation is Therin, and that's because he had to declare bankruptcy.
[00:30:45] Bob: So you're telling me that long after these criminals are out of jail and theoretically living normal lives, Therin is still suffering the consequences.
[00:30:54] Kirsten Strickler: Absolutely. Absolutely.
[00:30:57] Bob: That's maddening.
[00:30:59] Kirsten Strickler: Yeah it, it's frustrating because you know, the criminals, they serve their time and they're done, but the victims, they're revictimized every time they want to refinance a house. They're revictimized every time that they need to get a, maybe a business loan in the future, or that they need to refinance their vehicle to lower their interest rate.
[00:31:19] Bob: So even though you were exonerated, and even though you actually helped put a part of the Russian Mob in prison, every time you interface with a bank, you still have to face all these questions.
[00:31:31] Therin Miller: Yes. Every time. Every time I interface with a bank, every time I interface with a credit card company, anything, it doesn’t matter, you know, that if it comes down to any kind of uh, financial uh institutions, whatsoever; it doesn’t matter whether it’s um, investment accounts or whatever, I still am faced with the same questions. I’m still faced with the, uh, I guess the stain of bankruptcy.
[00:31:56] Bob: So Therin’s life isn’t back to normal, but in at least one way, it’s better. He may have lost his credit score in the ordeal, but he gained a wife.
[00:32:07] Kirsten Strickler: He proposed in August of 2019. He rented a helicopter, and um, flew over Ranger Stadium where we had our first date, and um, he proposed to me over the top of Ranger Stadium. So he was a, he did it all by surprise. It was very, very good. Very romantic, um, he did a good job.
[00:32:30] He flew a helicopter over a baseball stadium?
[00:32:33] Kirsten Strickler: Yeah, yeah, he did.
[00:32:36] Bob: (laugh) That's an amazing story.
[00:32:40] Bob: At the beginning of this story I told you that Therin thought his new roommate, Brant, a young, cool, entrepreneur was the right person at the right time to come into his life. That was pretty far off the mark. But it turns out the right person did come into his life right when he needed her. Remember, she had just begun training to become a bank fraud investigator when they met.
[00:33:03] Kirsten Strickler: It's kind of a, an interesting story. I think we kind of just met, you know, I know people who believe in a higher power, but I, I think that some of the reasons that we ended up dating around the time that we did was because I had some particular skills that were helpful, and it was able to, to kind of help him through that particular time in his life.
[00:33:24] Bob: So, uh, how long after that did you get married?
[00:33:27] Kirsten Strickler: Uh, we got married, uh we went to Mexico in 2020, so our wedding actually got postponed because of COVID. But we needed up going to Mexico and got married on the beach and was just a little, small wedding. You know, I think there was probably 10 members of the family, um, so it was just right in the heart of COVID.
[00:33:48] Bob: All this, this is a remarkable, uh romance to me. And, and back to the very first thing you said to me, it does sound providential that he would right at time when he clearly was in, in, his back was against the wall in a very unique way, the right person showed up at the right time for him. How, how does that make you feel/
[00:34:07] Kirsten Strickler: Um, I think that's just part of our story, and I think it's part of um, I believe that God sends the right people into your life uh, just whenever you need them. And I think, you know, we were meant to come into each other's lives at that point in time. You know, I've kind of used this experience to sharpen my skills, and further advance my knowledge of business lending, and uh it's actually what uh inspired me to pursue my CPA and my Certified Fraud Examiner's License. So I'll be, my last class is over the summer, and so I'll sit for the exams and so hopefully by the end of this year, I'll actually be a, an expert on the subject.
[00:34:49] Bob: And you're going to try to make sure that it's not just Therin who's safe from this kind of crime, you're going to try to make sure that lots of people are safe from this kind of crime, right?
[00:34:57] Kirsten Strickler: Absolutely. And so I, I work for a bank, and you know, we see lots of um, unfortunately, um, fraud and, and banking kind of go hand in hand. Anywhere you have lots of money, you're going to have people trying to steal it, and so you know, working at a financial institution, I think is um, a great way to be able to use that skillset because um, you know, I've been able to identify red flags and you know prevent future losses and prevent future people from being victimized. So you know, if I can use that and continue to do that, I think that uh, it'll be a good, good outcome of a very bad situation.
[00:35:37] Bob: After seeing him go through all of this, particularly seeing him rather bravely walk into the FBI building, how, how did that make you feel about him?
[00:35:47] Kirsten Strickler: You know, um, I was proud of him, because, you know, he wasn't going to let someone take advantage of him, you know, he was very brave going through all of this. Um, and not to say that there weren't days that he wasn't, you know, depressed about the whole situation, but you know, he pushed through it, and I think he actually uh, did his best, and you know, we've done our best that you know we try to use what happened as a learning lesson, so my dad used to always tell me, he's like, "Well, if it didn't hurt a little bit, you probably didn't learn very much." And I just kept telling that to Therin. I was like, "Well, babe, um, you know, this one hurt a lot, so uh, I hope that, you know, we learned a lot from it." And um, you know, "We've got to figure out a way that we can use this learning experience to be better and to make better decisions, and um, in fact, he really used it uh, as further motivation um, to be able to start his own business, and prove that he was going to be successful regardless of what happened.
[00:36:56] Bob: And as they head into their new life together, Therin and Kirsten from the Oklahoma National Guard say they aren’t afraid about their brush with the Russian Mob.
[00:37:05] Kirsten Strickler: I think at this point, you know, we just decided to live our lives and that we can't live in fear of what's going to happen. Um, you know, both of us are, are veterans, and you know, we, we keep our house very well protected, and it's really all we can do.
[00:37:21] Bob: All you can do, listener, is pause for a moment and think about all the times you’ve heard that warning, you never know who’s on the other end of a scam. Maybe it’s just a solo, small-time criminal, or maybe that criminal is part of a crime ring, and the money will be used to fund something awful, like terrorism. But next time that sounds like hyperbole, think of Therin and Kirsten.
[00:37:45] Bob: One of the lessons that I take from this story personally is you know, the internet is full of thousands and thousands of stories every day of, you know, someone who sent money to someone they thought they were in love with, but was really on an oil rig in Mexico or something like that. Um, but each one of those stories, you, you never know what, what's at the end of that string, and while it might just be, you know, a sad story for one individual, it could very well be a part of something much larger, right?
[00:38:11] Kirsten Strickler: Absolutely. We have a, a saying in fraud, uh where I actually took a lot of my fraud classes is, we have what's called like the cookie crumb theory, which is that you know, nobody ever starts out as a con man going after a million dollars. It always starts with $50 here. It starts with these smaller crimes, these smaller frauds and schemes, and then typically as they become more confident and they get better at what they're doing, that's when they start going after larger sums of money. And so there's almost always a trail. So if you're dealing with a con man, there is something in their past, it's just a matter of whether or not they've been caught, or whether or not there's a record of it.
[00:38:59] Bob: Julia Barry, the Federal prosecutor in the case, said it’s really important for people to have a thorough understanding of just who they’re dealing with when going into business with someone, and should something unexpected happen, if things go sideways, the sooner you come forward to the authorities, the better.
[00:39:17] Julia Barry: I think it's safe to say that one should always be leery of engaging in a financial transaction with someone you don't know, and, in particular, with someone you never met. And if, as one in Therin Miller's position uh ends up learning one's information is being used to obtain loans and anything about those loans is misrepresenting something that, that is misrepresenting anything on the face of a loan, once you contact the authorities right away and come forward as quickly as possible as Mr. Miller did in this case, um, and, and we appreciated his cooperation. I would say first of all that by virtue of the fact that we charged two individuals with statutes that carry in some cases up to 30 years in prison, that we take these sophisticated financial crime schemes very seriously at the US Attorney's Office. And second, I would say if you find yourself a victim to one of these schemes as Therin Miller did, follow his example. He did the right thing by coming forward early, by meeting with authorities, and providing whatever information he could to contribute to the prosecution of the individuals who needed to be held accountable. So, I would simply say that reporting is important. Vigilance is also important, but without reporting, we can't do our job.
[00:40:57] Bob: And Therin, well, he wants to make sure none of his loved ones ever go through anything like this again.
[00:41:05] Bob: So if somebody listens to this story, uh, or you know, they’re just innocently putting an ad on Craigslist for a, a roommate, what sort of advice would you offer uh with all this experience you have now?
[00:41:18] Therin Miller: Well, at the very beginning of this I, I had a saying that uh, that uh my papa, who's no longer with us, he used to say to me all the time and “A man is, is worth only two things in this world, uh, his word and his handshake, and his handshake doesn't mean anything anymore.” That's the rest of that story, that, that line. And I believe now after all of this, it is your duty to yourself, to your family, to your future self, your future success, to question everybody and everything when it comes to money, period. It doesn't matter uh if they're asking you for $100 or if you get a phone call asking you for personal information for a line of credit or whatever, it doesn't matter what it is, question everything, and after you've questioned it, question it again, and uh, don't act off of emotions when it comes to these things, you know. I was so excited that I had a mentor, that somebody that was going to mentor me through business, and mentor me into what I wanted to become one day that, you know, I probably would have caught some of these flags way, way sooner if I would have looked at everything through the eyes that I have now. Obviously, I didn't have enough financial literacy, uh, beforehand, uh to have probably caught onto the more deeper stuff. You know, and if you're a parent, this is something that I, we do with my daughter; we've started young. I mean she's 12, but we start, we start teaching her about financing and, and finances and things like that right now, so that way when she's ever presented with anything growing up, that she makes good decisions based off of others' experiences, you know, and you don't have to go through a mistake like I did to learn from other's experiences.
[00:43:02] Bob: It’s smart to learn from mistakes, but it’s even smarter to learn from someone else’s mistakes. Hopefully, we help with that here at The Perfect Scam, and I’m pretty sure Therin and Kirsten are helping with that today.
[00:43:19] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Researcher, Haley Nelson; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; and of course, our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.
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