Fraud scheme leads to felony charges; more than $2.3 million involved

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 9, 2011

By Nathan Hardin
SALISBURY — Federal authorities have charged a Salisbury man with bilking institutions and individuals out of millions of dollars.
Among John Knox Bridges’ victims, federal prosecutors say, was the N.C. Transportation Museum Foundation, from which he is accused of stealing $600,000 in 2009.
Bridges was indicted Aug. 18. He was arrested and formally charged Thursday. He was released after posting $25,000 bond.
Bridges has pleaded not guilty and asked for a jury trial, court records show. The case has been scheduled for court Oct. 3 in Charlotte.
Sitting on the front porch of his home at 207 S. Ellis St. reading Friday afternoon, Bridges greeted a Salisbury Post reporter, but declined to comment on the charges against him.
It was in the garage of the home that Bridges reportedly threatened suicide two weeks before U.S. Attorney Anne M. Tompkins signed his federal indictment.
Bridges shot himself in the left torso with a shotgun after a Salisbury Police officer shot him with a Taser in an attempt to incapacitate him.
The shotgun blast sent Bridges to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, where he was initially in critical condition before later recovering.
Allegations of fraud
According to court documents, Bridges is accused of engaging in “a series of schemes and artifices to defraud individuals and charitable organizations within the Western District in North Carolina and elsewhere.”
Bridges was accused in 2009 of taking more than $600,000 from the foundation of the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer, along with $800,000 from North Carolina fresco artist Ben Long.
Federal prosecutors say the total amount of money involved in Bridges’ schemes from March 2004 to January 2010 is believed to be more than $2.3 million.
According to the indictment, Bridges “solicited several individuals to invest in a fictitious company called “Logan Investments.”
Bridges told people he would invest their money in a private oil company in Texas that was building a pipeline to transport petroleum across the U.S., according to court documents.
But Bridges actually used the money for international travel and personal living expenses, according to federal authorities.
“In truth and fact, Bridges was paying such investors with funds received from other victims in the manner of what is commonly known as a ponzi scheme,” the federal indictment states.
Court records also show prosecutors believe Bridges “fraudulently caused $600,000 to be wired from” the N.C. Transportation Museum Foundation to the Lindbergh Foundation, based in Minnesota, in July 2009. That was to repay money he’d gotten from the Lindbergh Foundation, the federal authorities allege.
At the time, Bridges was a board member of the N.C. Transportation Museum Foundation and president of the Lindbergh Foundation.
But the Lindbergh Foundation discovered the money came from the museum’s foundation and called North Carolina about the wired funds. He later again repaid the Lindbergh Foundation’s money, about the same time he was allegedly swindling a childhood friend and members of his father’s church out of $400,000.
He even got authorities involved, according to court documents that say Bridges told federal investigators his computer had been hacked in 2009 and $600,000 had been stolen from his personal bank account.
Bridges resigned from his position on the N.C. Transportation Museum Foundation board in September 2009 at the request of board officials.
Roy Johnson, president of the N.C. Transportation Museum Foundation, wasn’t aware of the federal indictment Friday afternoon, but said Bridges would have to answer for his actions.
“Obviously the wheels of justice are turning,” Johnson said. “I think Knox is going to have to answer for what he did.”
Johnson said Bridges returned the reportedly stolen $600,000, along with legal fees to the Transportation Museum foundation less than six months after his Sept. 2009 resignation.
‘Climate of quietness’
Bridges was raised in Mecklenburg County and attended his father’s Presbyterian church in Charlotte. That’s where Sherry Austin met him.
Austin grew up with Bridges in Back Creek Associate Reformed Presbyterian church. They were good friends. But according to Austin, Bridges stole nearly $400,000 from her and a close friend.
According to Austin, Bridges hid behind the prestigious image of his father, the Rev. A.C. Bridges, and the church.
Austin said the faith-based atmosphere of the church makes it easy to take advantage of others.
“You need to beat the bushes harder” at church, Austin said. “You need to be more suspicious, not because people are more crooked in that environment, but because it is so easy to hide behind a reputation for doing good and surrounded by an atmosphere of faith.”
Looking back, Austin said, there were signs that something was amiss and she thinks a “climate of quietness” within the church ultimately led to Bridges claiming a lot of victims.
“That hush-hush attitude hurts people in the long run because innocent people are given to understand,” Austin said. “They find out later that he’s not honest.”
Austin said the reputation of the Bridges family kept people quiet.
“People didn’t speak up when they had suspicions because of his father being a beloved pastor there for years,” she said. “Out of respect for his parents, people assumed the best out of him.”
The humble neighbor
It took Austin a while to grasp the extent of Bridges’ “web of deceit.”
“He’s not being indicted as a serial killer,” she said, “but they use the same techniques.”
Austin said Bridges ate Sunday dinner with her and her family, took his victims on luxurious trips to Europe and other destinations.
“They had no clue he was doing this not with his own money, but with money from charitable organizations.”
In 2009, Bridges came to Austin and other victims and told them the same thing he told investigators, that his computer had been hacked and he needed $600,000 because there was “a conspiracy against him” and he needed help to keep his business afloat.
Bridges had been a family friend for years, Austin said, so she and a friend gave Bridges $400,000 as a personal loan.
Austin said some of Bridges’ victims were trying to make a profit by investing in his businesses, but she said she was simply helping a childhood friend.
Austin joked Friday morning, calling him “Good old, Knox.” He was humble, she said. And that’s what made him charming.
“He lived so humbly. He appeared to,” Austin said. “He lived next door to my mother-in-law in a modest ranch house and drove an old truck and would wear an old floppy T-shirt.”
Still, Bridges dazzled those around him with tales of his exotic travels around the world and friendship with the Lindberghs, she said.
Austin alleged that Bridges targeted “vulnerable women” for his frauds. Some of his victims, she said, lost everything in the schemes.
“He was after vulnerable women and you would never in a million years think that he even had relationships with women,” Austin said. “He’s not the swashbuckling type that you think would have a way with women. I feel it’s partly because he’s gifted at swindling.”
Austin said there was an “enormous amount of emotional devastation” after learning everything Bridges is accused of doing. She said she wants to warn others that anyone can be a victim of fraud.
“If you think this can’t happen to you, you just haven’t met someone like him,” she said. “This type of person is so gifted at what they do that there will always be people who will believe there has to be another side to it.”