As a kid growing up in northern Utah, Chet Olsen would often take his older brother’s shotgun shells, empty out the pellets, and spread them across a flat surface. He would then guide the pellets around, pretending that each one was a sheep he had to tend to. Olsen, now 62, has a salt-and-pepper mustache that accents his serious demeanor, and his boots display telltale signs of a lifetime of hard, hands-on work. After graduating high school and taking a string of construction jobs, Olsen jumped at the opportunity to launch his own business. It was nothing glamorous — his company, R&C Supply, manufactured chemical fertilizer — but it was his own. Olsen eventually expanded his customer base to include hundreds of farmers and cattle ranchers across Utah County, which allowed him to fulfill his childhood dream of purchasing a herd of sheep.
People tend to know their neighbors in the part of Utah County where Olsen lives, a region south of the cities of Orem and Provo, where clusters of modest homes are grouped together between acres of open farmland. So Olsen frequently saw Al McKee, an unassuming-looking middle-aged entrepreneur who had moved, with his family, to Utah County in the late 1990s from a town outside of Salt Lake City. McKee wore his gray facial hair in a goatee and would often boast, in passing, about his business connections. He owned and operated a company, the Ophir Minerals and Aggregate Group, that mined industrial materials like silica and calcium carbonate. Like approximately 85 percent of Utah County’s population, Olsen and McKee were both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Their families were in the same ward — a term used to represent a local church congregation of Mormons, which is presided over by a bishop.
In 2000, McKee heard that Olsen was beginning to raise a herd of sheep, and he made him a proposition. He brought Olsen to a seven-mile stretch of land on the edges of the county. Dotted with cedar trees, the area, known as the Tintic Mining District, had bustled with industry in its 19th-century heyday. McKee told Olsen that he had bought the land and envisioned multiple mines yielding tremendous profits, like it had when settlers first staked claims in the area. The work McKee planned to do would primarily be underground, leaving an opportunity for Olsen to use the land above for his herd. After a contract was written and signed, Olsen began clearing some of the cedar trees to make the area easier to navigate. He rebuilt fences and reseeded grass so that the sheep would have plenty to eat come spring.
A deeper friendship between Olsen and McKee began to blossom as a result of the deal. Meanwhile, their wives bonded through their participation in a Mormon mentorship program that offered guidance to young women. The couples’ shared love of music took them on vacations to Las Vegas, where they saw Rod Stewart perform, and to St. Louis for a Paul McCartney concert.
Almost 15 years later, McKee offered to sell Olsen some farming equipment at a substantial discount — a lucrative opportunity, given that Olsen could use the equipment for both his fertilizer company and his sheep-herding business. Convinced that the investment was worth the risk, Olsen took out a loan for $755,740 and began to make plans to propel his two businesses toward further prosperity.
“Then someone I thought was my friend came and took it all away,” Olsen says.
Olsen never received any of the equipment McKee had promised him. Instead, McKee kept the money for himself. As Olsen and his wife would later learn, the bogus equipment sale was one of many fraudulent deals McKee had been pitching to investors all over Utah County. Before the schemes were finally exposed, his plot had ensnared a national corporation and a prominent Utah County politician. In the meantime, McKee netted and spent close to $1.2 million.
Sadly, the story of Al McKee and his schemes is not an anomaly in Utah. According to the FBI, the state is a hotbed for white-collar crime, with billions of dollars lost annually by individuals who fall victim to con men. Utah’s large Mormon population is particularly vulnerable to what’s known among prosecutors as “affinity fraud.” Perpetrators of these schemes use affinity — a shared identity formed through membership in the same close-knit group — as a way to gain the trust of their victims. That deep trust is then used to persuade victims to invest money into legitimate-sounding business ventures. Although LDS Church officials declined interview requests on the topic for this article, prominent members have been privately warning fellow Mormons of the practice for decades.
In a 1986 article for the official LDS magazine, Ensign, a prominent Mormon named Dallin Oaks called perpetrators of affinity fraud “scheming promoters with glib tongues and ingratiating manners.” Oaks, who had a leadership role in the church and also served as a Utah Supreme Court justice, went on in the article to write that “though their method of thievery may be immune from correction in this life, sophisticated thieves in white shirts and ties will ultimately be seen and punished for what they are.”
Prosecutors throughout Utah have made combating affinity fraud a priority as well. But even when perpetrators are successfully convicted of their crimes, victims rarely receive even a fraction of their investments back. The payments Olsen has received from a court-ordered restitution don’t even cover the monthly interest accumulating on the $755,740 loan. He and his family are struggling to make ends meet.
“It gets tough at times,” Olsen says. “You’ve got to try to save your credit and you’ve got to try to save your soul.” Gary Anderson’s life changed forever when McKee entered his world in 2009. Born and raised a Mormon in California’s Central Valley, Anderson has always taken great joy in helping others, particularly those otherwise overlooked by society. Anderson, now 72, took his mission trip to Germany after high school, where the friends he met and served with were all planning to attend Brigham Young University in Provo. They encouraged Anderson to do the same, and after writing to the famous Mormon university, he was granted admission and a scholarship. He met his future wife, Molly, while attending the school. It was partially because of Molly’s Utah County roots that, after attending law school in his home state of California, Anderson moved back to Utah and took a job as a prosecutor. He eventually transitioned to defense work, solidifying a long-held belief that working as a trial lawyer was a good way to make a living while also helping a lot of people. In his mid-30s, Anderson served as a Utah County commissioner; then he went back to practicing law, until people in the community encouraged him to run for public office again nearly two decades later. He won the election and retook office as a Utah County commissioner in 2006.
In June of 2009, Anderson was at the Marriott Hotel in Provo for a meeting of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah. The nonprofit organization serves as a bridge between the public and private sectors to promote economic growth. Along with the county’s two other commissioners, Anderson listened to a presentation given by Al McKee. Every mineral known to man has been found in abundance in Utah, McKee told the group. All of these minerals, he added, would make Utah County in particular attractive to Fortune 500 companies like 3M and Ford.
The presentation did not go over well.
“We thought he was a blowhard,” Anderson says. “We thought he was full of boloney because he is. He’s just one of those guys.”
Despite this initial impression, Anderson would soon end up working closely with McKee. Utah County had embarked on a project to resurface and rehabilitate Interstate 15, a freeway that runs through the entirety of the county. Ames Construction, a national company with a long history of work in Utah, won the project bid and tapped McKee’s company, Ophir, to provide Ames with road base — a mixture of clay and gravel commonly used in road construction because of its ability to handle heavy loads. When McKee ran into some logistical issues, Anderson, in his role as county commissioner, was called upon to help sort things out.
The eventual success of the interstate project gave Anderson a newfound sense of respect for McKee, and his initial skepticism about the man soon faded entirely. McKee introduced him to people who said that they worked with 3M and mentioned that McKee had saved the company billions. McKee frequently lectured at local universities on the promising future of the mineral industry in Utah County. In many of these presentations, McKee would note that his knowledge of the minerals in the region came from studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
On multiple occasions, McKee worked closely with the county government on economic development, and the commission even named Ophir as the Utah County Business of the Year in 2011.
“We thought he was wonderful,” Anderson says. “Everybody trusted Al.”
When Anderson was up for reelection in 2010, he won handily with 81 percent of the vote. According to campaign donation disclosures, McKee gave a total of $6,500 to Anderson’s campaign through two individual gifts and one donation from Ophir.
In what Anderson estimates was 2013, McKee informed him that he had cancer of the esophagus and was dying. Anderson heard secondhand stories about McKee traveling internationally to receive cancer treatments that were not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Mutual acquaintances told him that McKee was preparing to hand over control of the Ophir Minerals and Aggregate Group to his son. With the exception of a brief phone call in the run-up to Anderson’s reelection campaign, Anderson says he didn’t hear much from the terminally ill entrepreneur for more than a year. Just east of the Tintic Mining District, at the junction of two state highways, is Elberta, Utah, population 275. It was once the sight of a major railroad, but for years only tumbleweed has run across the overgrown tracks.
Plans to renovate the area had developed and stalled multiple times. But, in 2013, while Anderson thought McKee was focused solely on his cancer treatment, the entrepreneur reached out to Ames Construction, the company he had worked with on the Interstate 15 project, with a promising offer in hand. He said he was working alongside leaders of the LDS Church, who wanted to construct a six-building industrial park to serve as the focal point of a newly refurbished railroad, both of which would attract new businesses to the area. If Ames Construction agreed to work with McKee on the development project, the company stood to make millions.
McKee provided Ames Construction with copies of letters, addressed to McKee, that were written on letterhead used by the Suburban Land Reserve, a land management corporation owned by the LDS Church. He also provided Ames with letters purportedly written and signed by Bishop Gary Stevenson, at the time the Presiding Bishop responsible for overseeing all of the worldly business conducted by the LDS Church. The letters showed support for McKee’s role in the industrial project and stated that the church was prepared to invest more than $200 million in the endeavor.
Leadership at Ames agreed to work with McKee on the industrial park, and the company began spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare for construction. In addition to allocating funds for equipment and engineering work, Ames Construction also paid McKee for expenses that the entrepreneur was supposedly incurring while preparing the site.
Meanwhile, Anderson lost his bid at another term as county commissioner in 2014, falling to an opponent from the Tea Party who ran on a platform further to the right than Anderson’s, promising that lessening the county’s bond obligations would bring about economic prosperity. Fortunately, Anderson’s time in office and credentials as an attorney made finding new employment easy: He worked in the public defender’s office, served as the city attorney for the town of Eureka, and did legal consulting. The multiple job titles, coupled with the revenue from his wife’s thriving business selling imported vanilla, yielded some of the best financial times of the Andersons’ lives.
Then, in April of 2015, McKee called, out of the blue. He told Anderson that his business had become a mess while he’d been recovering from cancer, but he now had plans for a promising future. According to Anderson, McKee told him about contracts he had with 3M for calcium carbonate and for the work he was doing to revitalize the Tintic Mining District. McKee needed assistance with getting his business in order, and he offered Anderson a six-figure salary if he would help. Anderson agreed to look at how Ophir was doing before committing.
The two men took trips up to the mining district, where McKee showed Anderson some of the test holes they’d dug and the ore that was being analyzed. McKee provided Anderson with contracts from companies wanting to purchase calcium carbonate, which he said were worth $15 million.
“Let me help you,” Anderson told McKee before officially joining Ophir as a legal consultant.
Early 2015 was also when McKee proposed the big equipment deal to Chet Olsen. McKee said that, through a friendship he had developed while going to school with Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor, he could buy repossessed government equipment at a discount through a company called Associated Land Brokers. When Olsen saw the detailed lists of equipment, each piece seemed to be something that would benefit both his expanding fertilizer business and the growing sheep herd. The list included large spreaders that are used to spray chemical fertilizer onto soil, trailers Olsen could use to haul his sheep, as well as hay bailers, tractors and more. Olsen says that he gave the deal a lot of thought before he began the process of obtaining a $755,740 loan from Western AgCredit, which provides financial services for agricultural purchases.
Around the same time, Anderson says, McKee asked him if he knew anyone who would be interested in investing in a silica mine he was trying to get up and running in the Tintic Mining District.
Eventually, Anderson told McKee that he would invest some of his own money in the project. Over a period of three months, Anderson invested $170,000 — about half of the total value of his retirement account — into Ophir. Knowing that his daughter Sarah and her husband, Nate Schultz, were having financial problems after losing a considerable amount of money during the recession, Anderson also approached them with the investment opportunity.
It was a huge commitment after losing so much, but the couple said that they were trying to develop a positive outlook when it came to their finances. Friends warned them that they shouldn’t invest anything they weren’t prepared to lose, and they had that in mind when a $20,000 investment deal was drawn up and signed with McKee.
“My dad, who is super protective of me as his little girl, would have never put us in a position that would cause us financial hurt, knowing what we’ve been through,” Sarah Schultz says, before acknowledging that her father did not truly know McKee at the time — or about the disaster that awaited them. While that disaster had yet to unfold, some of McKee’s business partners were starting to grow impatient. Ames Construction had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the development project, yet there weren’t any signs that ground would be broken in the immediate future. Meanwhile, Olsen had been providing McKee with funds from the loan he had taken out to purchase the discounted farm equipment, but he hadn’t received anything in return.
When McKee was unable to provide any proof that a return on their investments would materialize, Olsen and Ames Construction began putting pressure on the entrepreneur to make good on his promises. Anderson noticed the increased scrutiny, and he says he pushed McKee to let him help with legal matters. However, McKee would always offer a reason why he should be the one to handle things.
The supposedly terminal cancer that McKee had previously overcome was also back with a vengeance. Anderson says that there were multiple times when a planned business trip to California was canceled at the last minute because McKee said he was in the hospital receiving treatment. On other occasions, McKee said he was unable to deliver paperwork Anderson had requested because he was having tests done. The $10,000 checks that Anderson was receiving as a monthly salary began bouncing, but Anderson says that McKee was quick to provide cash or a certified check instead.
Olsen had similar experiences with McKee as he continued to put pressure on his friend about the equipment he had paid for. It got to a point where every time Olsen called he would hear McKee’s faint voice on the other end of the line saying that he could hardly talk because of the illness. Olsen’s wife, Karen, would often bring prepared meals to McKee’s house to lift the burden on his family.
“That’s what we do out here when someone is sick and dying of cancer,” Karen says.
As McKee’s condition seemed to worsen, Anderson began taking more of a hands-on role in the business. He met with Olsen in person multiple times, attempting to serve as a buffer between Olsen and McKee, whose friendship had become strained. When the pressure continued to build, Anderson says that McKee’s wife, Cynthia, pulled him aside and said that the demands on McKee were killing him. Something needed to be done to calm the worried parties.
Although, to this day, he can’t put his finger on what led him to do what he did next, Anderson agreed to help McKee. Under McKee’s guidance, he started making phone calls to Olsen using burner phones that Anderson claims were given to him by the entrepreneur. One night, Anderson called Olsen’s cell phone posing as David Thompson, the supposed president of Affiliated Land Brokers, and left him a voicemail. When Olsen heard the voice, it sounded familiar to him, and he saved the message.
Olsen still has the voicemail. Anderson begins by identifying himself as David Thompson and, after apologizing for calling so late, details all of his unsuccessful attempts at contacting McKee. Then he describes various permits that needed to be purchased so that the equipment deal could proceed.
“We had to pay those commerce permits, we had to pay ’em. We couldn’t let $2 million worth of equipment go for 11 grand, so I used his credit card,” Anderson states.
Before cordially ending the call, Anderson stumbles through a joke about McKee potentially suing his “David Thompson” persona and then stresses that he had to use McKee’s credit card so that they could keep the equipment.
Anderson also agreed to use the same burner phones to make calls to an Ames Construction executive — this time pretending to be Bishop Stevenson. Speaking as Stevenson, Anderson attempted to ease the executive’s worries. There were never any demands to Ames for money, Anderson maintains, just reassurances that the bishop was still planning on getting to the industrial park project.
In the time that has passed since making those phone calls, Anderson says he’s spoken to his bishop, his family and psychologists in an effort to figure out why he did something he knew he shouldn’t have.
“To this day, I cannot think of what tipped me over the line,” Anderson says. “But I was trying to take pressure off of Al. He was sick, he was my friend. I was worried about him.”
Meanwhile, Olsen was still suspicious about the voicemail from the man alleging to be in charge of getting him his equipment. He had met Gary Anderson enough times to develop a strong hunch that the former commissioner was the real voice behind the call. To confirm his suspicions, Olsen called a friend who was a detective with the Utah County Sheriff’s Office. As soon as the detective, who had worked closely with Anderson in the past, heard the voicemail, he identified the voice as belonging to Gary Anderson.
At the same time, legal representatives from Ames Construction were going directly to LDS Church officials with the letters that were supposedly from Bishop Stevenson. They were able to confirm through LDS legal counsel that the letters were, in fact, forgeries and that the high-ranking church official had never actually had contact with McKee. Realizing that they’d been had, the church’s legal team contacted investigators at the Utah County Attorney’s Office. Anderson’s wife, Molly, woke him up earlier than usual on the morning of December 22, 2015. He wasn’t due at work for another hour and a half, but Molly was insisting that he wake up immediately.
When he came upstairs from his basement bedroom, the scene reminded Anderson of something out of a television show. There was a team of several officers surrounding his home. Once they were inside the house, they informed Anderson that they had obtained a warrant for his phone because they believed that incriminating text messages between Anderson and McKee were on the device. They read him his Miranda rights and, although Anderson says he would have gotten it for them himself, then proceeded to search the home until they found his cell phone.
During the search, Anderson says that he admitted making the fraudulent phone calls.
“We don’t like the sound of that,” Anderson recalls one of the officers stating after he confessed.
“I know,” Anderson says he replied. “It was stupid.”
On February 26, 2016, both Anderson and McKee were charged with multiple felonies — including three counts of second-degree communications fraud.
Due to the potential for a conflict of interest in the case, the Utah County Attorney’s Office requested that the state attorney general’s office prosecute Anderson and McKee. The case was taken by the office’s Mortgage and Financial Fraud Unit, which regularly prosecutes white-collar crime cases in which large amounts of money have been taken from multiple victims. Assistant Attorney General Jake Taylor, who is in charge of the unit and was involved in prosecuting Anderson, says that in most of the cases that his office prosecutes, a violation of trust has occurred. The victims, he adds, typically give money to someone else because they know their family or because they attend the same ward.
Taylor says that the key pieces of evidence in the case against McKee and Anderson were the phone records that investigators obtained after they seized the duo’s cell phones. Those records demonstrated, he adds, that McKee and Anderson were conspiring through text messages to defraud Olsen. In addition to the messages, both Olsen and the executive from Ames Construction had recorded phone calls and voicemails in which Anderson was impersonating someone else.
“If you’re a juror, how do you ignore that?” Taylor asks. “He’s someone that you think could be trusted and here he is making phone calls pretending to be someone he’s not.”
Olsen didn’t realize the scope of his former friend’s crimes until he attended a preliminary hearing for McKee and Anderson on June 2, 2016, where he heard about the other schemes that McKee had been involved in. He also listened intently as a forensic accountant detailed exactly where all of his money had been going.
There were trips to Africa and England, the financing of mission trips for members of their ward, and vacations with extended family to Disneyland during which McKee had paid the entire bill. By the time the accountant was finished, Olsen had heard a detailed account of how his $755,740 had been spent paying for his former friend’s lavish lifestyle.
Most of McKee’s other claims don’t check out either. A spokesperson for MIT said that the school’s registrar’s office had no record of McKee ever being a student there. Olsen would later learn that McKee had never actually purchased the Tintic Mining District, but instead had merely taken out a five-year lease on the property. Neither Olsen nor Anderson believe that McKee ever had cancer, and Anderson now believes that the 3M contracts McKee showed him were forgeries as well.
Anderson’s trust in McKee didn’t vanish until he heard testimony during the preliminary hearing. Up until that moment, the former county commissioner had maintained his belief that McKee’s business dealings were legitimate — even if some of his methods had crossed the line. But when Anderson saw the fake email accounts, forged letters and impersonations that McKee himself had done, he could no longer defend him.
“It was a calculated, complicated, diabolical deal,” Anderson says.
Both McKee and Anderson would end up taking plea bargains that stipulated that, in exchange for having three of the felony charges dropped, they would plead guilty to one count of communications fraud. McKee was sentenced to 15 years in prison and ordered to pay more than $1.5 million in restitution to the parties that were defrauded by his crimes. He is currently being jailed at the Tooele County Detention Center and could be as old as 71 when he is released. He did not respond to requests for an interview.
If not for the phone calls, Anderson’s defense attorney, Nathan Crane, believes that the former commissioner would have just been another victim of McKee’s schemes. What Anderson did was stupid, Crane says, but he maintains that Anderson did it because he believed that McKee had legitimate projects going and that he was just stalling for time while McKee was battling an illness.
Anderson had already paid $25,000 to Olsen before his sentencing, which under the terms of his plea deal allowed the former county commissioner to avoid jail time. In total, he was ordered to pay $162,606 in restitution. During his sentencing hearing, Judge Vernice Trease, of Utah’s Third Judicial District, ordered Anderson to make restitution payments of $1,000 a month and questioned how much Anderson would be able to pay without a job.
“Anderson needs to find a job. Or two jobs. Or three jobs,” Trease said in the courtroom. “Someone is out of a lot of money, and Anderson — especially given his background — knows better.”
Some of Anderson’s children who were at the sentencing hearing, including Sarah Schultz, offered to make up the difference should Anderson be unable to afford his monthly payment.
“Up to that point, I just wanted to die. I just wanted to die. I just wanted to be gone. I just wanted to be gone from existence,” Anderson says. “Then my family brought me back.”
The plea deal Anderson accepted was unique, and it stems from a desire to get financial restitution for the victims. If both men were in prison, Crane says, there would be no restitution payments at all. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Anderson was also required to resign from the Utah State Bar and surrender his law license.
Both Anderson and McKee now appear on Utah’s White Collar Crime Offender Registry. In February of 2016, Utah became the first state in the nation to have such a registry, which displays perpetrators’ photos alongside details of their state-level felony convictions. When the registry launched, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said that he hoped it would encourage perpetrators in the state to complete their court-ordered restitution payments. If a convicted fraudster pays his court-ordered restitution, he is removed from the registry.
For Anderson, being placed on the registry does not impact him nearly as much as the repercussions he has faced at church. Although he’s still able to attend services at his ward and is still considered a member of the LDS Church, the fact that he has a felony on his record means he is “disfellowshipped” and unable to participate in church activities like leading prayer during services. If Anderson is able to complete his court-ordered restitution payments, the church will fully reinstate him.
Anderson often thinks about where his legacy stands in the wake of the incident. He says that he feels like he’s no longer the commissioner who brought jobs into the county, or the defense attorney who would often work for free when clients couldn’t afford representation. Instead, he says, he’s the crook — the guy who stole a bunch of money.
“Life is not over,” Anderson says. “But boy it’s changed.”
Chet Olsen’s hands, covered with worn-out work gloves, vibrate as he drives a pastel orange water truck toward his herd of sheep. The only sound on this misty January morning in 2018 is the rumbling of the diesel engine as the truck makes its way along rough dirt roads that divide large fields filled with the remnants of last season’s alfalfa harvest. As 14 large troughs come into view in the foreground, Olsen spots thousands of dark specks in the distance. He sits casually in the truck, on a seat with torn-up blue upholstery that leaves the padding underneath almost completely visible, watching in the side-view mirror as each trough fills up with water.
Olsen’s thoughts are often consumed by the $755,740 loss he suffered at McKee’s hands, and there are reminders of McKee all around him. A short distance east is the site of the industrial development and railroad that McKee was supposedly selected to help build. To the west are the remnants of railroad tracks that McKee claimed to own and, in another one of his fraudulent schemes, was selling to local recycling companies. Just beyond those torn-up tracks is the Tintic Mining District, where McKee brought investors and pitched them on his plans to resurrect it.
In the years since his former friend and Anderson were sentenced, Olsen has often wondered whether he is to blame for his loss. It’s hard to trust people now, he says, and his family is in serious debt. Gary Anderson’s restitution payments don’t even cover the interest on the $755,740 loan that Olsen took out for the equipment. Olsen, along with his wife, Karen, frequently think about how they are going to make ends meet.
“It’s a good thing we did put some away so that the roof over our head is paid for,” Olsen says. “But still, our lifestyle and the things we planned for the future [are] not there.”
Eventually Olsen gets out of the water truck and makes his way over to where the sheep are gathered. Slowly and steadily, he walks the perimeter, leading the skittish sheep toward the water troughs. When the herd arrives, Olsen gets back into the truck and prepares to refill the troughs as they are drained.
There is little chance that Olsen will ever be fully repaid for what McKee stole. “Meanwhile he’s sitting down there getting three meals a day that you and I are paying for,” Olsen says. “He’s got it made. He needs to be out dragging a chain around somewhere, picking up garbage off the freeway or something.”
Once the troughs are refilled and Olsen is through inspecting the sheep, he navigates the water truck back down the dirt road. Past the troughs, crows pick at the body of a dead lamb. Although Olsen can’t say for sure how the lamb died, he notes that some of the main predators in the area are coyotes, which are often depicted in Native American mythology as tricksters that use clever and cunning to deceive others.
Sometimes, in those legends, the coyotes take the shape of men.