by Lorenzo Bagnoli

Italian authorities announced Tuesday that they have arrested seven suspected fraudsters who are believed to have lured more than 200 people into investing in an “eight star” resort in Belize that was never built.

Chief developer Domenico Giannini and his partner Fabio La Rosa allegedly created a fake company called Puerto Azul Holding Company, based in the Bahamas. They claimed they were building a massive “ultra-luxury” resort called Puerto Azul on two tropical islands off the coast of Belize, police said.

The company advertised the fake resort to investors through a series of promotional events, including one held at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. With the help of unsuspecting celebrity agent, Oscar Generale, the company managed to trick John Travolta, Kelly Preston and Andrea Bocelli into hosting the event and Adrian Brody into entertaining the guests. The company bragged about the event on its website.

Investigators say the celebrities were unaware the project was a scam and cooperated with authorities. Despite collecting nearly 20 million euros (US$ 21 million) from investors, the company never even purchased the land. Instead, the money was diverted into offshore accounts in Belize and Luxembourg, and ultimately into Giannini’s Swiss bank accounts, according to the press release.

Police say the project never would have gotten off the ground anyway because the land was protected by strict environmental laws. Following a year-long investigation, police are charging Giannini and La Rosa along with five other suspects with money laundering, fraud and conspiracy. Law enforcement officials have also seized real estate and assets worth 18 million euros (US$ 19 million) from the suspects.

Giannini targeted unsuspecting investors ranging from successful entrepreneurs to elderly retirees. Police additionally found that one such investor, a wealthy businessman, invested 6.5 million euro (US$ 6.95 million) allegedly earned through a tax evasion scheme.

This article was published on OCCRP website on January 18, 2017.