Bay Area motivational speaker P.J. Van Hulle calls it a "Prosperity Summit." Her online promotional videos show workshop attendees hugging and dancing with Van Hulle. In testimonials, clients say her advice works.
"Just what P.J. said happened in my life, she said I would get unexpected checks and increased business," said a workshop participant. "I came to the first workshop, I got an unexpected check in the mail."
It is all part of Van Hulle's investment training program; her website says people can earn as much as $10,000 a month in extra income.
The 33-year-old has posted pictures of herself enjoying an upscale lifestyle -- a limo ride in Las Vegas, a safari in Africa, a $50,000 vacation on a private island in the Bahamas. She writes about her real estate empire worth more than $6 million. But last year, that empire began to crumble.
"The wealthiest people in the world also have the most debt," she said. "This is called leverage."
Van Hulle filed for bankruptcy in December; it was granted earlier this year. The records show she owed 30 individual investors more than $1.9 million.
"Financially, right now there is no future," said Susan Jetter, who is one of those investors. She put up $50,000 to invest in real estate, and she says Van Hulle promised a 15 percent return. But now, her money is gone.
"Nobody was regulating P.J., and nobody is regulating P.J. right now," she said.
Jetter says Van Hulle also offered to split the profits on two buildings in New Orleans. Jetter got loans to buy and renovate them. She says Van Hulle agreed to pay the property taxes and insurance and supervise the renovation.
But Van Hulle stopped making payments in 2008. The property fell into disrepair and the bank foreclosed last year. Now, the single mother says she has lost her life savings -- $200,000 -- and she is facing more than $450,000 in debt.
"I haven't really been able to be there for my son, like, you know, psychologically and emotionally, because there's that undercurrent of, you know, we don't have anything," said Jetter.
"It just sickens me to know what she's done to me, my husband and lots of other people," said former investor Paula Mahaffey.
Mahaffey and her husband gave Van Hulle $12,000 to invest in a real estate joint venture. But in a lawsuit, they accuse Van Hulle of fraud and allege that Van Hulle and her business partner, Caroline Hegarty, never bought any properties with that money.
Mahaffey asked Van Hulle for her money back.
"She laughed at me, she goes, "Miss Paula, you're kidding me.' She goes, 'I can't give you the money back.' She goes, 'I am completely cash poor right now,'" she said.
In the answer to the lawsuit, Van Hulle confirms that Mahaffey paid $12,000 into her joint venture, but denies that it was "intended for use as a down payment on properties."
The I-Team caught up with Hegarty outside her Vallejo home.
Dan Noyes: There are a lot of people who have a lot of questions about where their money is. Can I talk to you about where there money is?
Hegarty: You have to talk to P.J.
Hegarty told us over the phone she no longer works with Van Hulle. She claims she did not receive any money from the deal with Mahaffey, even though her company, Regal Capital Holdings, is listed as managing partner on the contract.
Noyes: Are you actually registered in California to do business under that name?
Hegarty: You know what, I...
After Hegarty declined to talk on camera, we looked for Van Hulle at a house in Orinda listed in bankruptcy papers as her address and at an office building in Walnut Creek where she rents space. We did not find her.
But Van Hulle sent the I-Team several e-mails. She claims the $12,000 Mahaffey gave her was an "upfront non-refundable contract fee" -- although the phrase never appears in the contract -- and "the purpose of that fee is to serve as liquidated damages." She writes Mahaffey and her husband were "presented with" real estate "deals," but "changed their minds" -- which Mahaffey denies.
Van Hulle also says she "stopped making payments" on Jetter's property in New Orleans "because the real estate market crash created extreme financial hardship for me" and that she "cannot be held personally responsible for what happened in the economy."
Van Hulle claims she has set up a plan to repay investors, but Jetter says the only money she has received from Van Hulle in the last four months is a check for $26.11.
One way Van Hulle is raising money is through more Prosperity Summit workshops, like the one she hosted in March, just days before her bankruptcy was finalized.
Her website is now accepting credit card payments for a Prosperity Summit workshop scheduled for October at $2,995 a head.
"I think she needs to get off of the Internet, putting herself out there as the 'Prosperity Queen,'" said Jetter.
"She's back out there doing the same thing to vulnerable people," said Mahaffey.
Van Hulle recently updated her website to say that she "learned a lot" from "going bankrupt," and that she wants to teach people "how to bounce back from a loss." Several investors have filed complaints about Van Hulle with state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as the Department of Real Estate.
Have a tip on this or another investigation? E-mail the ABC7 I-Team or call 1-888-40-I-TEAM.