When Richard Scott turned 50 last October, one of his customers dropped by his coin-and-stamp store with a cake with joke candles that wouldn't extinguish, no matter how hard he blew.
Then there was a splashier celebration: Mr. Scott's marquee clients, author Tom Clancy and his wife, Wanda, invited him to their private box for the Oct. 14 Washington Capitals hockey game.
It was the kind of night he would later mention to current and potential customers at Goldie's, a small and rather run-down shop in Prince George's County where he sold coins, stamps, baseball cards, jewelry and, oddly enough, stocks.
It gave him a certain cachet, his business and personal connection to the best-selling novelist and part-owner of the Orioles.
He had met the Clancys through a mutual friend three years earlier at a game at Camden Yards. The couple came to invest $1.4 million with him, and he slipped easily into their social circle.
He regaled customers with stories of parties like the Clancys' 25th wedding anniversary celebration in 1994, where Mr. Scott met their friend Colin Powell. He even intimated that the general might start investing with him, too.
But if dropping the Clancy name caught the attention of potential investors, it was ultimately Mr. Scott's engaging personality that reeled them in.
Soon, he was more than an investments adviser: He was invited to their weddings and family reunions. They remembered his birthdays. They traveled together. Their children called him "Uncle Richie." They even brought him to their churches.
They trusted him with their money, their nest eggs, their inheritances, their children's college funds, the safety nets for the medical care they would need in the final years of their lives.
But then, in November, they learned their trust was betrayed. Mr. Scott abruptly filed for bankruptcy and locked the door of Goldie's.
Most of the $7.3 million that 95 investors had given him over the years was simply gone; the coins and stocks he supposedly purchased for them were nowhere to be found. The toll has been immense -- and immeasurable.
"Definitely it's a financial loss," said one investor, "but it's also a personal betrayal."
What Mr. Scott did with their money remains, for now, a mystery that investigators are hoping to solve by delving through years of financial records. But there is only so much that can be documented when one person hands money over to someone in return for nothing more than a hand-scrawled store receipt.
And that, perhaps, is the biggest mystery of all: Why so many people signed over their financial security to a man who bought and sold stock from the corner of a coin store in a fading shopping strip in Southern Maryland.
The sweet deal
Goldie's is closed now, its rotating display cases bare, the "big board" of coins up for bid stripped clean, the television that continually flashed stock quotations silenced.
But once, the shop in Camp Springs, Md., just west of Andrews Air Force Base, hummed with activity, abuzz with a mix of friendship and commerce. It was the place to have a cup of coffee and visit with the affable Mr. Scott, his partners and even his elderly parents, who worked a couple of days a week.
And it was the place to chase the big killing, the sweet deal that would clinch an early retirement, a vacation house or a child's college education.
Mr. Scott, who grew up in Alexandria, Va., had a long interest in stamps and coins. He was president of his high school coin and stamp club and, after a tour with the Navy, began managing Goldie's stamp operation. After the shop's original owner died about 10 years ago, Mr. Scott became the majority owner. His partner, Edward M. Pereira, nicknamed "Butch," 31, also had worked there for years, starting as a teen-ager who swept up and did other odd jobs.
Mr. Scott and his partners refused requests for interviews, and his lawyer declined to comment because the case is still under investigation. Mr. Scott's father, Corey, rebuffed reporters and investors who telephoned or knocked on the door of their home, saying lawyers advised his son not to speak. Yet the portrait of Richard Scott that emerges from his betrayed investors and one-time friends is revealing -- not just for what it says about the man who drew such trust but about the group of people so eager to hand it to him.
"You'd come in, everyone hugged you, kissed you. 'How was your kid?' 'How was your cousin?' All you needed was a fireplace," C. J. Boggs, a longtime friend and customer says dourly now. "They'd order lunches, ask you to stay. Butch would poke his head out to say hi. Corey would run out to greet you."
The hockey game in October was the last time the Clancys saw Mr. Scott. Their likable, gregarious friend seemed the same as always, enjoying the game and the family and friends gathered around him.