FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Andrea and Colin Chisholm III fancied themselves Scottish aristocrats, insisting on being called Lord and Lady and leading a lavish lifestyle fitting of royals.
They owned a $1.2 million, 83-foot yacht that was docked in South Florida. They lived in waterfront homes in Minnesota and in Lighthouse Point, Fla., and had $3 million tucked away in various bank accounts.
He was the successful, wealthy executive of a Miami-based broadcasting business; she, the owner of a company that bred pedigree Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, including one that won an award at the Westminster dog show.
And all the while, for about a decade, the Chisholms collected food stamps, Medicaid and welfare. First they got it from the state of Minnesota, then Florida, then — for about a year — both, simultaneously.
When Andrea gave birth to a son in Palm Beach in 2007, Minnesota picked up the $22,000 tab. When the couple moved north after a little more than two years in the Sunshine State, Florida kept paying out their benefits.
“These rich folks ripped off the system,” said Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman, who announced fraud charges against the couple on Friday. “And I will assure you that this office is going to do every darn thing we can do to make sure these people do hard time.”
If they can find them. Officials in Minnesota say they believe Andrea Lynne Chisholm, 54, and Colin A.J. Chisholm, III, 62, have left the country and headed “someplace warm.”
The Lord and Lady have been on the run for about six weeks.
In Florida, the Department of Children and Families is still reviewing the case.
If evidence of fraud is turned up here, another investigation could be launched, according to Ashley Carr, a spokeswoman for Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.
In all, the Chisholms fraudulently took $167,420 in benefits from Minnesota, according to a criminal complaint filed in Hennepin County. About $60,000 of it went toward massages at a spa.
The story the duo told benefit workers to reel in that money is more than a little different than the life they were actually leading.
In public assistance paperwork filled out between 2004 and 2012, they claimed they had to live with Andrea Chisholm’s mom in Minneapolis. They said they had no jobs, no cars and, at one point, just $80 cash to their names, the criminal complaint said.
Meanwhile, Colin Chisholm was telling potential investors in TCN Networks, a satellite television company he owned, that he had assets totaling $97 million.
“He’s a con artist,” said Virginia Mance Chisholm of North Carolina, who was married to him for more than 20 years and helped investigators in Minnesota build their case. “This is what he did for a living.”
In 2004, at same time the Chisholms were beginning to apply for benefits in Minnesota, the couple were also negotiating the purchase of $1.2 million, Fort Lauderdale-based 1963 yacht called the “Wishing Star.”
Colin Chisholm told the yacht’s owner, Richard Ross of Stuart, that he controlled about $30 million in network television advertising on CNBC. Ross and the Chisholms agreed to a down payment of $220,000, monthly payments of $7,500 and a lump sum payment of $157,000, due in March 2005.
The Chisholms took over the yacht in January 2005. They renamed it the “Andrea Aras” and docked it at the luxury marina at Turnberry Isle in Aventura.
“It’s outrageous,” Freeman said. “You hear of people getting public assistance when they’re having a hard time in their lives and getting it back together. And then you see this.”
For a few months, the couple made their monthly payments. Then they stopped and the Coast Guard seized the yacht — or, as Andrea Chisholm later claimed to a lawyer, “stole” it.
By that time, the royal couple were renting a waterfront home in Lighthouse Point.
They staged a mighty battle to get the boat back, but after a trial in federal court, the judge sided with Ross. He wrote that Colin Chisholm’s testimony was “almost entirely lacking in credibility.at best, evasive, and at worst, perjurious.”
Ross wasn’t surprised by news that the Chisholms are now wanted for fraud. He said the couple were sneaky and sophisticated, and had him fooled in the beginning.
They had butlers and chauffeurs who drove guests to the yacht in limousines, Ross said. The “Lord and Lady” thing, he said, was “hysterical.”
“I mean, they’re criminals,” Ross said. “They would make believe that they had all this money. They were selling some scam.”
The Chisholms left Florida for Minnesota in 2008. They moved into a luxury, $1.6 million house on Lake Minnetonka with Andrea Chisholm’s elderly grandmother, Eloise Heidecker, who she gained power of attorney over.
The pair funneled money from their businesses through her bank accounts, hiding it from authorities, according to the Minnesota complaint. The Chisholms used cash to pay their $2,750 monthly rent.
The several hundred thousand dollars in Heidecker’s bank account “included transactions that would not be expected for an elderly woman with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis,” the criminal complaint said.
That includes $23,000 in charges for airfare, hotels in New York City, California and Florida, cell phone payments and fine dining — all in just in one month.