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A Stranger Than Fiction Scam That Got Dead Serious

It has all the ingredients of a trashy potboiler: a supposed trillion-dollar fortune stashed away in secret European bank accounts, the mob-style murders of a shadowy British financier and his wife in France, and the dreams of American investors gambling on hitting the big time. But the true story that began unfolding in a federal courtroom in Atlanta on Oct. 8 is heading toward a much more prosaic denouement. The Securities & Exchange Commission believes thousands of gullible U.S. investors have been conned by one of the most outlandish scams in the history of get-rich-quick schemes.

The SEC maintains that investors were sold a stake in a nonexistent fortune. According to an SEC complaint, the scheme was hatched early in 1989. That's when Sam S. Brown Jr., a onetime oil promoter, met in Luxembourg with Leslie W. Chorlton, a British businessman. In Atlanta, Brown formed SBC Chorco Inc. and allegedly solicited funds from investors to finance Chorlton's efforts to free up an $800 billion fortune that Chorlton purportedly had amassed by facilitating the trading of commercial paper among European banks.