Well-known Lithuanian basketball and football players have fallen victim to a swindler who promised them a 40% return on a four-month investment in his Greek god busts business, Lietuvos Rytas reports.
One of those stars is Kęstutis Šeštokas, who once played at Lithuania's best basketball clubs and was part of the national team.
Šeštokas has now put his basketball days behind him. His daily concerns now centre around a lakeside villa that he runs together with his wife Diana.
The estate, located in the picturesque lake-dotted landscape of Molėtai in northern Lithuania, is a popular venue for events and weddings. How can it not be - it bears the name Lithuanians associate with basketball excellence and is expertly managed by Diana Šeštokienė, 42, who overseas every detail of events hosted here, from menus to decorations and wedding photography.
The estate is also where Šeštokas, 40, invested his earnings from his basketball days. The Šeštokai family business is doing well now, although it took some scrapping and saving before it took off. And even now it takes as much work and exertion as professional sports to keep it going, Kęstutis and Diana say.
Šeštokas has not entirely severed ties with basketball. Before completely retiring, he played with a local team in Molėtai, Ežerūnas-Karys, and it is from his former teammates that he heard of an investment opportunity that sounded almost too good to be true.
The Molėtai team had a benefactor, a seemingly successful businessman who generously supported local sports and athletes. In 2013-2014, the team was even renamed to Tiumenas-Ežerūnas in honour of its benefactor, Juozas Tumėnas.
Son of the deputy mayor of Šiauliai, Lithuania's fourth-biggest city, Tumėnas previously did business in Vilnius and headed a basketball team that played in the second-tier National Basketball League. In Molėtai, a small and quiet town by any standard, he "felt like a Tzar", according to Šeštokas. He contracted good players for the basketball team and paid them good salaries.
He also approached the players with a business proposal. Tumėnas' new venture was expanding successfully, but needed quick investment not to lose momentum. He offered a 40% return on a four-month investment, signing promissory notes and even paying back the principal with the promised interest to early investors.
Seeing how some of his former teammates made quick profits, Šeštokas convinced his wife to give some of the family's savings to Tumėnas. In 2014, the family handed over €15,000 to the businessman. The Šeštokai have not seen the money since nor the interest promised and have little hope of recovering it.
Brilliant business idea
What was this brilliant business idea that Tumėnas insisted could bring in such jaw-dropping profits? The answer is Greek gods.
Tumėnas told his investors he was making plaster busts of Greek deities and historic figures and selling them in Denmark and Sweden. He even presented white busts of Zeus or Apollo, Socrates or Voltaire to his investors, who still keep them at home.
A number of basketball and football players as well as local businessmen were tempted by the promise of a quick return and gave their money to Tumėnas. The Lietuvos Rytas daily reports that in all, he owes over €3 million to investors.
Šeštokas and his wife are among the few who agreed to talk openly about the apparent swindle, while many others spoke to the newspaper only on condition of anonymity.
Diana Šeštokienė said that after she gave €15,000 to Tumėnas and the four-month term ended, the businessman offered to return the money or extend the loan for four more months. She agreed to wait, in exchange for generous interest, but demanded the money back when the second term matured. Predictably, Tumėnas started coming up with excuses for delaying the payment and eventually stopped responding to phone calls altogether.
Another creditor, a once famous athlete who spoke to Lietuvos Rytas on the condition of anonymity, recalls Tumėnas' tactics:
"He kept promising to bring me the money, but each time he'd come empty-handed. He then changed phone numbers and disappeared and only about a month ago, he resurfaced and asked for a meeting. Tumėnas said he would place a bet on some sports game and would pay back the debt. I don't believe him, so I said: you are not my friend or father, so unless you have the money, don't call me.
"It's a shame that I could be so stupid. But I've already written off this debt - there is no hope of getting the money back."
Tumėnas has recently filed for bankruptcy. Vilnius District Court opened bankruptcy proceedings against Tumėnas and has appointed a bankruptcy administrator.
However, the proceedings may prove long and complicated. The bankruptcy administrator received claims from 12 creditors and six bailiffs. A creditors' meeting must agree on a three-year debt restructuring plan, which might prove complicated.
Stories of retribution
The affair of Tumėnas' Greek gods business has spun a mythology of its own. Stories, most of them unsubstantiated, have been circulating among Lithuanian sportspeople about how some creditors took the matter into their own hands, including rumours of rides in the trunks of cars.
One urban legend says that one famous Lithuanian football player reportedly sold the debt to a Chechen mob. The Chechens then invited Tumėnas for a talk in Moscow. The story goes that Tumėnas soon repaid the debt, while the interpreter he brought to Moscow still cannot kick his stammer. But none of these stories can be substantiated.
One businessman has told Lietuvos Rytas that he convinced Tumėnas to meet him outside a shopping mall in Vilnius. Tumėnas arrived in a Mercedes and said that his plaster bust business was stalling, that he had no money, but would come up with some soon enough.
The businessman than grabbed Tumėnas hand and took off his watch. "I wanted to take the Mercedes, but I thought it must be leased."
"It is worth €30,000, make sure you don't pawn it cheaply," was Tumėnas' reaction. The businessman took the watch to a shop for appraisal, where he learned it was worth several hundred euros.