A Utah resident who engineered the 2011 purchase of a failed seaside resort off Hilton Head Island was charged Tuesday with defrauding investors and the Beaufort County tax collector.
An indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston named James Thomas "JT" Bramlette, who is accused of misleading financial backers and spending more than $1.5 million of their money on personal expenses, such as a Range Rover automobile, country club dues and college tuition.
Two business associates the prosecutor said helped Bramlette raise money also face criminal charges.
The alleged scheme centered on the purchase of the bankrupt Melrose Resort on Daufuskie Island about eight years ago. The deal was funded with $17.5 million in high-interest loans from a Netherlands-based lender.
Accessible only by boat and occupying a prime spot on Calibogue Sound, the resort was developed on about 680 acres in the 1980s. It grew to include an inn, beach cottages, a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, tennis courts, an equestrian center and home sites.
It struggled from day one. In 2009, the then-owner filed for bankruptcy protection.
Bramlette and his Pelorus Group showed up about two years later with an ambitious goal.
"We're going to revitalize this entire project," he told a local newspaper.
Bramlette and business partner Anthony Hartman went on to raise at least another $10 million by issuing high-interest promissory notes to investors who were told their money, including retirement savings, would go to renovate the shuttered property and acquire more land.
By 2014, Bramlette and Hartman had fallen behind on the mortgage, prompting the lender to obtain a $27 million court judgment. They also struggled to pay utilities and other day-to-day bills, the government said.
Efforts to refinance or sell the resort failed. Bramlette and Hartman transferred their stakes to a group of Salt Lake City lawyers in exchange for a $700,000 loan in 2014. They defaulted and were officially out as property owners by the following May.
Even so, they continued to solicit funds "in an attempt to regain the resort" without disclosing that fact, according to a court filing.
Bramlette told one investor in an August 2015 email that "by us not selling the farm ... we are going to capture big returns on Melrose over the next 5 years." Hartman communicated to another several months later "that the asset is now owned by our team."
In early 2017, Bramlette notified investors that they controlled a 1.25 percent take in the company formed to buy the property, "even though he had no ownership in the resort to assign," according to the indictment.
In addition to funds Bramlette allegedly spent on personal expenses, much of the money that was raised went to the mortgage lender in an effort to stave off foreclosure, prosecutors said.
Bramlette also is accused of wiring a bogus receipt to the Beaufort County treasurer's office to show his Utah firm had paid the resort's delinquent $503,000 tax bill. It was part of a ruse designed to cancel a court-ordered sale of Melrose, according to the indictment.
The resort went back into bankruptcy about two years ago. It's now "dilapidated and largely abandoned," according to the U.S. Attorney's office. The Dutch lender was handed the keys to the property in early 2018.
The third person named in the indictment was Travis Kozlowski, a Pelorus Group partner who, according to the indictment, raised $500,000 for a Melrose real estate deal. He and Bramlette then allegedly switched the ownership of the property and failed to repay $350,000 they had borrowed against it without telling the two investors who provided the money.
Assistant U.S. attorney Rhett DeHart filed the criminal charges, which come after a Securities and Exchange Commission civil lawsuit in Utah over the failed Melrose deal. Bramlette, Hartman and Kozlowski are among the defendants in that case.