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Long, Funny But True!  
User currently offlineJAT From Canada, joined Feb 2000, 1101 posts, RR: 10
Posted (13 years 5 months 3 weeks 1 day 16 hours ago) and read 1412 times:

Gone: $553,000 and a small town's trust
Woman's loan spree leaves hoodwinked seniors reeling
Dale Brazao
STAFF REPORTER

DALE BRAZAO/TORONTO STAR
HOUSE ARREST: Audrey Bruce shopping on a recent Wednesday, the one day she is allowed out for four hours.
ORANGEVILLE - The bankruptcy announcement might have slipped by unnoticed if it hadn't involved one of the town's most upstanding citizens.

Audrey Jean Bruce was a pillar of her community, a retired bank teller who volunteered at the seniors home and sang with the Sweet Adelines barbershop chorus.

In her spare time, the 66-year-old grandmother baked apple pies for her next-door neighbour and drove elderly friends shopping, to bridge games and hair appointments.

All the while, this ``sweet, grayhaired granny'' was hitting up her friends and neighbours for private, personal loans - $4,000 here, $27,000 there, $55,000 a county road over. When Bruce suddenly pleaded guilty to stealing $17,000 from the ladies auxilliary of the Avalon nursing home and the Sweet Adelines, it sent shock waves through this tightly knit community of 20,000.

The rumours swirled.

Then, a week later, Bruce dropped a bigger bomb. She declared personal bankruptcy, owing a staggering $553,680 - most of it to 25 of her closest friends and neighbours.

Most who fell for Bruce's schemes are either retired or close to retirement. Some have lost their entire life savings. One couple in their 80s, Harry and Margaret Brown, are owed $55,000.

A March 1 creditors' meeting disintegrated into a wild shouting match as Bruce faced the people who saw her as a trusted friend and, incredibly, told them every penny was gone.

``She basically told us that she had been robbing Peter to pay Paul and she ran out of Peters,'' said Marie Brown who, along with her husband, Paul, had loaned Bruce $35,000. ``She said the money is all gone and we should just accept it.

``We kept asking where the money was and she kept saying she didn't know, couldn't say, or wouldn't say,'' Brown said. ``We asked how did it get started? Who was the first one? And she just kept saying she couldn't say.''

Bruce knew who among her friends had money, knowledge gained from her 30 years as a teller with the Toronto-Dominion Bank.

Although she retired in 1989, she admits she has been borrowing from friends for at least 15 years, and all the receipts she gave her creditors were loan forms taken from the bank.

What became clear at the meeting was that the 25 creditors who have registered to date all fell for one of two tall tales: Bruce needed the money to buy a farmhouse in Markdale, or to buy a cottage in Wasaga Beach.

Both deals were too good to pass up, she told them, prying the money loose with promises of quick repayment and a high rate of interest - as high as 13 per cent.

She asked them all to keep the transactions secret, and especially to ``not tell Don.''

Donald Bruce, her husband of 46 years, a retired school custodian, did not know and would most certainly not approve of her clandestine investments, she told them.

Incredibly, and to their collective detriment, they all complied - in keeping with the rural ethos that a promise and a handshake is all that's needed to settle a deal between friends.

``I felt like I should have had the word sucker stamped on my forehead, until I walked into that meeting and saw 25 other suckers sitting there,'' says Brown, a teacher's assistant at a local high school.

``She told us there was never any property in Markdale, or any cottage in Wasaga Beach. She had made the whole thing up, and she'd been doing this for at least 15 years.'' Among the hardest-hit were Harry and Margaret Brown, one of three different Browns on the creditors' list.

Margaret Brown has since suffered a stroke and is confined to a wheelchair. Her family was hoping to use the money to buy a van equipped with a wheelchair lift for the 84-year-old, but has had to postpone the purchase.

``To take old people like that is a real tragedy,'' Marie Brown says. ``To take old people who are your friends is even worse.''


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The creditors who gathered in the Dawson Room last month to confront Audrey Bruce were, for the most part, lifelong friends.

Many had known her more than 50 years. Some, like Paul Brown, Marie's husband, had gone to school with her. Her own brother and sister fell for her stories.

The list of creditors reads like a practical guide to Orangeville:

Former mayor Gordon Courtney is owed $11,000.

Don Brown, who operated a TV repair shop until his retirement last year, is out $8,000.

Don Black, the electrician, is out $15,000.

Doug Brayford, a retired farmer, is owed $25,000.

Mel and Tillie Rowley, longtime friends who sold their farm and moved into an apartment in Orangeville in anticipation of Mel's retirement - hit for $40,000.

The biggest debt is $65,000, owed to George Roberts.

Even Bruce's own family didn't escape. Her brother, Douglas Allen, has registered a claim for $4,000. Her sister, Belle Braiden, 80, is on the books for $4,500.

That's the bankruptcy trustee's books - not Bruce's - because her own accounting of who is owed what can't be found.

When Bruce told creditors she had been borrowing on the sly for the past 15 years, Don Black challenged her, saying his wife had been dead longer than that, and Bruce had borrowed from her.

As the news spreads, more creditors are stepping forward, seeking to register their losses. Many others in the area between Shelburne and Orangeville are rummaging through the sock drawers of elderly or deceased relatives for receipts that Bruce might have given them.


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Richard Greenall lost $15,000. It was part of his inheritance. He can't believe the little old lady next door took him the way she did.

Or the way she broke the bad news to him.

``She called me about midnight one night and said I wasn't going to see any of my $15,000,'' Greenall recalled in an interview at his home.

``She said, `By the way, I've declared bankruptcy and I can't pay you back,' '' Greenall recalled. ``Then, bold as brass, she said she hoped we could remain friends.''

The short answer was no.

``I hung up on her and went to see a lawyer,'' Greenall said.

``The lawyer then tells me he can't represent me because he's been retained by her husband, Don,'' he said, shaking his head. ``Then he tells me he didn't think there was a lawyer left in Orangeville that hadn't already been retained by the other creditors.''

The 34-year-old computer technician considers himself one of the lucky ones because, after much cajoling, Bruce actually repaid an earlier $5,000 loan.

He very much liked his neighbours of five years. He and Don would occasionally share a beer in the summer and Audrey, forever bubbly, would often often pop over with a freshly baked pie. But, while most neighbours chat about the weather or borrow a cup of sugar, Greenall said Bruce was constantly asking for money.

``What really bothers me in all of this, is Audrey's total lack of remorse,`` Greenall said, adding that a preliminary report from the trustee has ruled out drugs or gambling as causes for her actions.

``They told us that she apparently has a problem handling money,'' Greenall said, allowing himself a hearty laugh. ``No guff.

``I'm a young guy. A $15,000 hit hurts, but I can afford it. Some of these people have lost their entire life savings, and that's a real shame.''

Greenall, one of five ``inspectors'' chosen to represent the other creditors, says most are convinced Bruce has stashed the money somewhere.

``The question everybody wants answered is: What the hell did she do with all that money?

``They didn't have a lavish lifestyle. They don't have a house in Florida. They don't go to Casino Rama.''

The unfolding drama has given new life to a mystery that's puzzled him for several years. Greenall woke up one morning to discover a neatly dug, one-metre by one-metre hole on the property line between his yard and the Bruces. It hadn't been there when he cut the grass the previous evening.


When he confronted the Bruces, both denied any knowledge of it.

The police were called but dismissed it. Now, with half a million dollars missing, he's worried about treasure hunters prowling around his back yard looking for a buried strongbox.

And with tensions running high among some of the creditors, he's considering erecting a sign on his front lawn pointing next door - simply to avoid any confusion about who lives where.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Audrey Bruce's amazing borrowing ability was based on a dangerous combination of trust and secrecy. She was trusted wholeheartedly. And she swore each and every one of her creditors to secrecy.

When Bruce approached longtime friend Marie Brown for $25,000 in 1993, she said it was to buy a farmhouse in Markdale, a small village south of Owen Sound.

Brown's husband, Paul, had gone to school with Bruce. Both had dealt with her at the TD Bank. So when Paul received a severance package of some $50,000, Bruce knew about the money. She handled his deposit.

When she came asking for a ``short term loan'' of $25,000 to buy a house, offering 9 per cent interest, the Browns didn't hesitate.

As she had done with the others, Bruce handed them a TD demand note showing the interest and the due date. In each case, Bruce crossed out the bank's name, replacing it with the name of the creditor.

The loan was supposed to be for a year. Every time they pressed her for the money, she kept them at bay by paying the interest.

``She was a good friend. We just trusted her completely.''

So much so that when Bruce came back three years later for another $10,000, they again took out their cheque book, even though she still owed them $25,000.

This time, Bruce needed money to drill a well and install a new septic tank at the Markdale property.

At least 25 area residents own a piece of that fantasy Markdale farm or the phony Wasaga Beach cottage, judging by the worthless demand notes and bounced cheques they waved at the March 1 gathering.

Bruce didn't stay long at that meeting.

``She basically said, `I don't know, I don't know, I don't know' and left,'' said Greenall. ``Then we sat around and swapped stories.''

Most of them were the same, particularly the litany of lies and outlandish excuses they got whenever they tried to call in their loans: A debenture that never seemed to mature. A death in the family. A deadbeat who owed her money.

If that wasn't enough, Bruce offered up post-dated cheques as ``security.'' The cheques weren't to be cashed, she warned, promising to come back later with a bank draft or a money order.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Fran and Jim Braiden have known Audrey Bruce all their lives, a friendship that cost them $27,000.

``My husband's father was married to her sister,`` Fran Braiden said. ``He's known her since he was 4 years old.''

Bruce's personality, she says, was bubbly and contagious. She drew people to her.

``Audrey had everything going for her. She is outgoing, she was a smart dresser. She was the kind of person you'd just love to come see you if you were in the hospital.

``Jim was in with a heart attack back 10 years ago and Audrey used to come in and chatter about something. Jim would say, `Oh, she just made your day.' ''

Making his day now would be the return of the $27,000 Bruce owes them, a debt they've been trying to collect for the past two years.

Last September, when the Braidens really needed the money for their daughter's wedding, Bruce came up with a postdated cheque and a handwritten note:

``Fran. Jim. On Thursday or Fri. morning I will see you folks with the Brink's Truck.''

It was signed: ``Love Audrey.''

The Brink's truck never did arrive. And the postdated cheque, for $12,610, bounced.

Three days after Bruce pleaded guilty to theft, Jim Braiden, who trucks bottled water to Toronto, drove from his home in Shelburne to confront his longtime friend.


``She came to the door, `Oh, come on in Jim,' '' Fran Braiden says, telling a story she's obviously told many times before. ``So Jim said, `Audrey, this isn't a real friendly visit. I just come to see, you know, about my money. Are you gonna pay it back, or what's going on with it?'

``She just looked at him and laughed and said: `No, Jim, you are not going to get anything. I've declared bankruptcy.'

``She has shown absolutely no remorse. It's just amazing how she could have carried this off. We're all just local people and so many are 70 and over. It just makes you cry.

``Her mother would roll over in her grave.''


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In his preliminary report to the creditors, bankruptcy trustee Clyde Yorke advises that Bruce has been diagnosed with ``an obsessive compulsive disorder which she attributes to her financial demise.''

But because Bruce has either destroyed - or can't find - her record book, only those who can produce loan notes signed by her can get on the creditors' list.

``The trustee requested the debtor to provide confirmation from her attending physician and psychiatrist, which we have now received,'' Yorke's letter notes. ``She is currently undergoing treatment and counselling.''

A lien has been registered against the Bruces' home, which recently sold for $203,000. But because Don Bruce is not implicated in his wife's activities, he can't be compelled to give up his half share.

After deducting a $75,000 secured mortgage registered against the house by the TD Bank and legal and other fees, creditors are left with just $50,000 - to be split however many ways.

And although investigators know Bruce borrowed more than $250,000 from July to December of 2000 alone, the only other asset they've found is $12,000 in RRSPs.

``Her response has been that she has not owned any other assets, as most of the money has circled as interest and principal payments in an ever enlarging cash requirement and cannot recall having other assets,'' Yorke writes in his report dated Feb. 28.

Bruce continued to borrow even after her arrest last November on 12 fraud-related charges, in the theft of money from the Sweet Adelines and the Avalon ladies auxiliary.

``If we're lucky, we're looking at maybe recovering 10 cents on the dollar,'' Fran Braiden laments.

But most creditors think Bruce has a selective memory when it comes to their money.

``There's no way, given their lifestyle, that she could've spent nearly $600,000,'' Braiden says.

Marie Brown has her own theory. ``They've ruled out drugs. They've ruled out gambling. The only thing left is sex. She must've spent it on sex,'' she laughs.

``She should be horsewhipped for what she's done.''


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On Feb. 6, Audrey Bruce stood before Madame Justice Jane Kerrigan-Brownridge and pleaded guilty to two counts of theft over $5,000.

In an agreed statement of facts, Bruce admitted stealing $9,250 from the Sweet Adelines and $8,187 from the Avalon Care Center auxiliary between October, 1997, and August, 2000. She was treasurer of both organizations.

Bruce obtained some of the money by forging the signature of Anne Richardson, president of both organizations.

When she discovered the thefts, Richardson did two things. She confronted Bruce and called police.

``She is no longer with the Adelines for obvious reasons,'' Richardson said in a telephone interview. ``She broke the law, and she broke our hearts.''

Richardson said Bruce repaid the money within 48 hours, but the hurt and betrayal will take time to heal.

``The past year has been a nightmare for us,'' Richardson said.

Bruce's husband, Don, maintains he knew nothing of his wife's troubles until police came to their home in early January. Although he drove his wife into town on one of her court days, he believed she was just going shopping.

The moment his back was turned, it seems, she sneaked into court.

Neither the crown, nor the judge, apparently knew the extent of Bruce's activities.

Kerrigan-Brownridge spared her jail time, giving her a conditional sentence that included six months of house arrest and a year's probation - part of which stipulates she not take on any ``position of trust.''

For the first three months, Bruce is allowed to leave her tidy gray bungalow in the Purple Hill subdivison (the sale closes in July) only for medical or legal reasons. Wednesdays she can go out for four hours, between noon and 4 p.m., ``for the necessities of life or for grocery shopping.''

Bruce makes the most of her four hours of freedom every Wednesday, say creditors who have made it their business to find out about hers.

The Star followed Bruce on one such outing as she and her husband darted about town in their leased 2000 Chevy mini-van.

The trip began at Money Concepts, a company whose logo is ``Down-to-Earth financial management. Your Terms. Your Comfort.''

Minutes later Bruce entered the TD Bank branch on Broadway Ave., where she previously worked, waving and smiling at customers and employees as she did her banking.

Stops at the Everything for a Dollar Store and a stroll through the Wal-Mart completed this two-hour shopping spree. Then it was back to the house she and Don have called home since the late '40s.


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Tillie Rowley's appointment at Daniel's Hair Styling salon last November cost her $40,000.

While getting her hair done, she chatted happily about how she and her husband had just sold the farm and were moving into an apartment in town. Sitting in the next chair, listening to every word, was her good friend Audrey Bruce.

A week later, Bruce was on the phone asking to borrow $25,000 - short-term of course. She needed it to buy a cottage with two girlfriends from Dundalk. The price was $72,000, a deal too good to pass up.

When she showed up at their door the next day, the amount had climbed to $28,000, to cover legal fees and other incidentals.

Bruce was offering 10 per cent on money that would be paid back Feb. 27, three months later, when a debenture was coming due. She gave the Rowleys a demand note to that effect.

Three weeks later, Dec. 6, she was back for another $12,000, saying one of the friends had backed out.

The Rowleys bought the story. Bruce gave them another piece of paper to cover this new loan. They would have their money back pronto, plus interest, when another small debenture came due Dec. 22.

``We didn't ask for any collateral. Up here your word is your bond,'' said Mel Rowley, who drives a cement truck and was hoping to retire later this year when he turns 65.

``I've known Audrey for 50 years. I used to run a feed lot and I'd do business at her bank - sometimes three times a week.''

The Rowleys were among the last people tapped by Bruce, who continued to hit her friends up for money even after her arrest last November.

The Rowleys first suspected something was wrong during a New Year's Eve party when someone suggested Bruce was up to no good.

``Somebody said: `Have you heard about Audrey? She's out borrowing money and not paying people back,' '' Mel Rowley recalled.

Their hearts sank, but they - like everyone else - didn't say a word.


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``What we want to know, is what the hell she did with it,'' says George Roberts, who tops the creditors' list at a whopping $65,000.

The rumours, which began to trickle out even before her first court appearance, have turned into a torrent, especially after news of her conviction and bankruptcy made the local paper.

The wild stories spreading around town are, well, wild. She stashed the money in a Swiss bank account. She buried it in a back yard. She's being blackmailed by the Mafia.

The most pervasive, the one that just won't go away, is that the money is stashed somewhere offshore.

``If I were the cops, I'd slap one of them there electronic bracelets on her and follow her to the Cayman Islands,'' one farmer was overheard telling a friend in a local Tim Horton's.

``If I did what she did, I'd walk around town with a paper bag over my head,'' came the reply, as both old timers sighed with relief that neither had lent her any money.

Orangeville police say they are investigating and have been in contact with Ontario Provincial Police, because some of the creditors are outside their jurisdiction.

Those who know her well say the grandmother of one has lost 10 pounds and aged 10 years. But her spirits remain high, and she walks around town with a smile on her face. And that just drives her creditors nuts.

In a brief interview Wednesday outside her home, Bruce refused to answer any questions about the scandal.

``That's none of your business,'' she told The Star. ``I have nothing to say to you at all.''

When reminded she owes almost $600,000 to people - most of them elderly - with whom she grew up, Bruce snapped:

``Prove it!''


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Dale Brazao is an investigative reporter. E-mail him at: dbrazao@thestar.ca

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I could not believe this when I read it! I still keep thinking it's a joke!!! What's your take on this.

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