Did money manager die in shame, or make an escape?

The letter left the distinct impression Aubrey Lee Price planned to kill himself.

"My time has just run out. I die and will be buried in shame and regret as I should," said the rambling, confessional letter sent to business associates just before Price disappeared last month. Authorities say he told some he planned to jump to his death off a ferry out of Key West.

The source of the one-time Atlanta financial advisor's shame: Some $23 million in losses for clients over the past two years. Federal prosecutors also say he embezzled $17 million from a troubled south Georgia bank that a Price-led group had helped save but was shut down Friday in the wake of the soured investment scheme.

But federal authorities and some of the clients think Price may still be alive and on the lam — possibly in South America, where it's believed he owns property and once did church mission work. The FBI last week sought a warrant for Price's arrest, and the Securities and Exchange Commission accuses him in a civil complaint of defrauding investors.

"I don't believe he's dead. I believe he planned for this exit," said Wendy Cross, an Atlantan who says she lost her $364,000 nest egg by investing with Price.

The still-unfolding mystery surrounding Price has become one of the oddest but most intriguing chapters in Georgia's financial crisis.

More than a year ago, Price was in the news for helping rescue tiny Montgomery Bank & Trust in Ailey, Ga., 170 miles southwest of Atlanta. The bank was on the brink of becoming another fatality in the string of failures that followed the housing bust. In December 2010 a firm controlled by Price, who most recently lived in Valdosta, poured in $10 million of investment money.

That convinced employees, long-time shareholders and customers of the little bank to pump an additional $4 million into the struggling institution. Price became a director and investment chief.

Now it appears that feelgood story, with its "It's a Wonderful Life" overtones, turned into a financial potboiler.

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Eastern New York accuse Price of funneling the bank's investor capital into accounts he controlled at other banks and providing false bank statements to Montgomery Bank management. The alleged scheme appears to have cost the Ailey bank as much as $17 million, precipitating its final downfall.

Price's primary investment firm, PFG, also had individual clients such as Cross, who said her account is empty and she has no idea where the money went.

Taking blame

The 20-plus page letter titled "Confidential Confession For Regulators," bearing Price's name at the end, said his primary investment groups are "essentially bankrupt," and that he is "100 percent responsible" for client losses he purposely obscured.

"I created false financial statements and defrauded investors, regulators, other work associates and bank employees,"the letter said. A copy was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The federal complaints reference the letter by title and quote from it.

The AJC made repeated attempts to reach Price's wife and parents, but those efforts were unsuccessful.

The letter asserts that investors and employees in his ventures knew nothing of Price's fraud, which it said was aimed at recouping investor money.

The letter quotes Scripture warnings about the pitfalls of pursuing wealth and defying God, and rails against bankers, regulators and the pressure cooker industry of money management.

Price grew up in south Georgia and attended Brewton Parker College, a Baptist institution straddling the Ailey-Mt. Vernon town lines, according to associates who spoke to the AJC and a bio listed in securities filings.

He lived at various times in Florida and Georgia and several years ago helped start a North Fulton church, according to property records and state business registration forms.

He worked for the former Banc of America Investments before founding PFG and related firms, with offices in McDonough and in Florida. Price also counted until recently a residence in Bradenton, Fla., that he sold.

From 2009 to June, Price and his investment vehicles raised about $40 million. The SEC said Price promised his clients "low volatility."

But instead of investments in traditional stocks, Price also put money into much risker bets, including South American real estate.

Nearly $37 million was placed into a trading account at Goldman Sachs from 2009 to 2011, which suffered heavy losses. The SEC in its civil complaint alleges Price falsified clients' account information to conceal "massive trading losses," and transferred funds to an operating account of one of Price's companies.

Return to roots

By mid-2010, Price and several of his investors were looking to start a new venture to buy a distressed Georgia bank, rehab it and possibly make a run at buying up other distressed institutions. Georgia was leading the nation in the number of banks felled by the real estate bust, so there were plenty to choose from.

Price turned to his south Georgia roots, setting up an investment group to pump money into Montgomery Bank in Ailey, a town of 450 people on U.S. 280 near Vidalia in the heart of Georgia's onion country.

Montgomery Bank was one state's most troubled institutions. Like some other rural Georgia institutions with limited growth opportunities in their local markets, the Ailey bank tried to cash in on the real estate gold rush elsewhere.

But its mid-2000s jaunt to the Georgia coast left the bank awash in bad loans. A regulatory rebuke faulted Montgomery Bank for slipshod internal controls and poor loan underwriting during the boom.

At its peak in 2008, the bank employed about 90 people in branches in Ailey, Vidalia and on St. Simons Island. It employed only about 45 at the end of March, according to the FDIC.

Regulators approved Price's bank group, known as PFGBI LLC, to buy a controlling stake in the bank for $10 million on New Year's Eve 2010. The AJC profiled the bank and the coalition of big-city investors and locals who rallied to try and save it.

State banking experts hailed the investment as a "success story" to save a more than 85-year-old institution vital to its rural community.

"We are excited about the opportunity this investment presents us," Price said at the time. In addition to a board seat, he took a post as coordinator of the bank's investment portfolio.

According the FBI arrest warrant request, Price wired approximately $21 million from a bank subsidiary into accounts for the purpose of trading securities such as U.S. Treasuries. The warrant request said Price doctored account statements to "conceal his theft of bank funds and/or his trading losses," which appear to total at least $17 million.

An SEC civil complaint lists at least $10 million in "unexplained" transfers from the bank to a Goldman trading account.

By sometime this year, the SEC said, Price and his investors' investment in the Ailey bank was "substantially worthless, as the bank's cash assets have been substantially depleted," and most of the bank's reserves "were misappropriated by Price and lost in trading."

In the letter bearing Price's name, he said he didn't fully understand the banking industry, or the depth of the problems in Montgomery Bank's balance sheet. He said he was scrambling to keep it afloat.

He claimed bank officials weren't forthcoming about its poor condition, though bank analyst reports consistently listed the bank among Georgia's most troubled.

Price accused the bank, the FDIC and Federal Reserve of pressuring the sale in late 2010 and limiting his time to evaluate the deal.

"It seemed that everyone was interested in a 'feel good' story about banking," the letter said.

'No body has been found'

Price was last seen in Key West boarding a ferry headed to Fort Myers, according to federal authorities. Friends and colleagues received the letter a few days later.

The FBI said a recent Coast Guard search off the Florida coast turned up nothing.

Price frequently traveled to Guatemala and Venezuela, where the FBI said it is believed he owns real estate. The FBI also has said Price might own a boat large enough to make it from Florida to Venezuela.

Asked if he believes Price is alive, W. Shawn Murnahan, senior trial counsel for the SEC in Atlanta, said, "As far as I know, no body has been found, so we have to consider that [a] possibility."

The Price letter is an apologia, repeatedly claiming good intentions with bad results.

"I hid many things fraudulently and deceptively, to try and give myself more time to pull some positive returns together," it said. "To be clear, nothing has been taken, only lost through stressful periods of trading a bad investments ... I am emotionally overwhelmed and incapable of continuing in this life."

Cross, who said she will be forced to sell her food truck business to cope with the loss of her nest egg, doesn't buy it.

She said she moved her money to Price on the advice of a former adviser who worked for him. When her portfolio dropped 20 percent in April 2011, she called Price for an explanation. She said Price wept and told her he "got greedy" with some trades that bombed.

Cross found herself consoling Price. He begged her to stick with him, promising to pay back losses out of his own pocket. She stayed.

"This guy," Cross said, "was the best actor."

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