BOSTON (WPRI) – Stephen Miller says he was impressed by the young Jasiel Correia, whom he first met at the Tipsy Seagull bar in Fall River in July of 2013.
Miller testified Tuesday that Correia – who was then 21 and running for Fall River City Council – told him he had recently sold an app for $250,000 and was developing a new one.
After several more meetings, Miller forked over $50,000 to invest in SnoOwl, Correia’s app to help locals find restaurant deals. He later invested another $20,000.
He was assured, Miller told the jury, that Correia was not planning to draw a salary yet from the company.
“He said he was not going to take a dime,” said Miller, who works in real estate in Warwick.. “His payday was going to come at the end.”
But prosecutors claim Correia took much more than a dime from Miller and other investors. He allegedly spent their money on a lavish lifestyle for himself and his girlfriend, buying a Mercedes and designer clothes, going on trips, and even taking a helicopter tour of the Newport mansions.
Miller never got any of his $70,000 back, he testified Tuesday. And he said he never would have invested had he known that Correia’s first restaurant website, FindIt, had not really been a big success. (Prosecutor David Tobin said the claim that Correia had sold it for a large sum was “malarkey.”)
“I thought he was a boy wonder,” Miller said. “He had that first idea, he made a couple hundred thousand, now he has this new idea. I thought he was going to be the next greatest thing.”
Correia’s college roommate Alec Mendes testified Monday that FindIt, which he created with Correia, made little money. And a business plan for SnoOwl said FindIt ultimately failed because it wasn’t mobile-friendly.
Correia, the former mayor of Fall River, is facing numerous fraud charges related to allegedly stealing the investors’ money — just some of the allegations in the vast corruption trial currently underway in federal court in Boston.
The former mayor is also accused of extorting marijuana vendors for bribes in exchange for his mayoral signature on letters to allow them to open cannabis shops in the city. He faces 24 criminal counts in all, and has pleaded not guilty.
“This is a case about lying, cheating, stealing and shakedowns,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary Hafer said during opening statements on Monday.
Correia’s defense attorney Kevin Reddington has argued Correia’s spending was effectively just taking a salary from SnoOwl, an app he was working hard to launch even as he sought political office in his hometown of Fall River.
Also on the stand Tuesday morning was Dr. David Cabeceiras, a Fall River orthodontist who was SnoOwl’s first investor.
Cabeceiras knew Correia through his son, a fellow classmate at Bishop Connolly High School, and invested $50,000 into the development of the app.
He then continued cutting checks at Correia’s request, in total investing $145,000, he told the jury. But he started to become concerned about his investment when Correia was elected mayor of Fall River in 2015, wondering who would run SnoOwl and get the app off the ground.
As he got more involved in the company, Cabeceiras said he made an astounding discovery: some of the checks he gave Correia had been cashed, rather than deposited into the SnoOwl bank account.
“My first emotion was fear,” Cabeceiras said. “I didn’t quite understand why he did that.”
Another emotion followed, he said: “Deception was what came to my mind.”
As for his $145,000 investment, Cabeceiras told the jury: “It’s gone.”
Both Miller and Cabeceiras said they would not have invested in the company if they knew Correia would use their money on personal expenses.
Later Tuesday afternoon prosecutors called retired New Bedford businessman Mark Eisenberg – who testified via Zoom from Florida and said he had invested $25,000 in SnoOwl.
The prosecutor asked Eisenberg if he considered a “$300 bottle of cologne” to be an “ordinary course of business expense.”
“Absolutely not,” Eisenberg said.
Under cross-examination, Reddington claimed that personal expenditures like expensive cologne happened “well before [Eisenberg] invested a nickel” in SnoOwl.
Eisenberg testified that eventually the app “just kind of fell off the face of the earth. It ceased to exist.”
Tobin asked what he thought made SnoOwl go away. Eisenberg replied, “my opinion is that it was abandoned by the creator.”
The pool reporter in the courtroom said that going into an afternoon break, Correia’s mother appeared to be crying, and the former mayor put his arm around her and led her into a private room with Reddington. (Seating inside the courtroom is limited due to COVID-related restrictions so only reporter is allowed in the room at a time.)
Later in the day jurors heard testimony from Victor Martinez, owner of the Piezonis restaurant chain, who also invested $25,000 in Correia’s startup venture. Like Eisenberg, he testified that he would never have knowingly invested in the company if he knew Correia would use the funds on personal expenses.
Asked where his money is now, Martinez testified, “it’s probably buried right next to the app. It’s dead.”
Also testifying on Tuesday was Carl Garcia, owner of Carl’s Collison Center in Fall River.