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Former wife of Ponzi schemer: 'Our entire life had been based on a lie'

9:51 PM, Oct 28, 2010   |    comments
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It is Andrea Merriman's story.

The life she and her family had loved so much fell apart over the course of a one-minute conversation.

It was March 18, 2009. Her husband, 46-year-old Shawn Merriman, was finally ready to tell her the truth about his past, his business and their reality as the two sat across from each other at the kitchen table.

Our life is a lie, he told her.

"I thought he was joking. When he started crying, I realized it was real," she told 9NEWS.

Shawn's wealth - her wealth - was all the product of a $20 million Ponzi scheme.

"My first thought was, 'Oh my gosh. I have four children. What will we do? How will I feed them?'" she said.

At least the house is paid off, she remembers thinking.

"You don't understand," he then told her. "The house is gone... Everything is gone."

It was as if a bomb had gone off inside their Aurora home. She wanted to cry, but couldn't. It was too stunning. So she got in her car, turned it on, started to pull out of the driveway and fell apart.

Andrea Merriman wasn't the first one to learn the truth about her husband's 14-year lie.

"He went to his lawyer then they went to the federal government and handed them a case," she said.

His next stop was to talk to the leaders at the Church of Latter Day Saints, where he was a respected bishop. He confessed that the company he started 14 years earlier, Market Street Investors, was a fraud.

Then he came home and told his wife.

Shawn Merriman had accumulated a $4 million fine-art collection, classic cars, expensive boats and a luxury mobile home. He had paid off the families' million dollar house in Aurora. It had all been funded with money he stole from his clients. His mother was one of them.

On the advice of a therapist, Andrea Merriman told her husband he was going to have to tell the four children. Jake was 3, Matt, 10, Sarah, 13, and Andy, who was 15 at the time. Shawn Merriman had created this catastrophe. He would be the one to look the kids in the eye and explain it.

They gathered the children into our family room. Andrea remembers every detail.

"The kids and I were on the couch together facing Shawn. Shawn sat in a red chair across the room from us," she said.

Then he told them.

"He told us that our entire life had been based on a lie," Andy remembered. "He told us that he was going to go to prison and we were going to lose everything."

When he was done talking, their dad sat in his chair alone crying. They each got up and hugged him.

"I sat there alone on the couch watching them together crying," Andrea Merriman said.

Then Andrea Merriman cried for them.

Shawn Merriman got up and left the house. Andrea Merriman was in the living room with her four children.

"They were looking at me crying. Their world had been destroyed," she said

Matt was the child who wore business suits and carried a briefcase at age 2. He wanted to be just like his dad.

With tears streaming down his cheeks, he looked at his mom.

"Does this mean you are going to divorce Dad?'" Andrea Merriman said her son asked her. "Before I could answer one of my children said, 'Yes,' and at the same time, another one said 'No!'"

"I didn't know what I was going to do but I did know that I was going to do what was best for my children regardless of what anyone thought of me regardless of how hard it was," she said.

Federal authorities came and seized everything of value. Andrea Merriman was left with no home and no money.

Many of Shawn Merriman's victims lost everything as well. The kids remember some of those investors coming to the house.

"There was this one man who pounded on the door yelling," Sarah said.

Others called the house and sent e-mails. The money wasn't there to refund.

There had been so much loss and destruction to so many people.

"We read online how people would call my mom a witch and say she had to have known," Andy said. "He fooled everyone. He made it seem like he was the ultimate family man."

To those who insist she knew about the scam Andrea Merriman said, "I couldn't see what wasn't being shown me. I know in my heart I never suspected anything. I have had to let the rest go."

Andrea Merriman and her four children moved from Colorado to Utah the day her divorce was final: July 13, 2009.

She says an acquaintance rented her a small house for the family of five, since she had no down payment or credit. She got her first job in 20 years. She works at a marketing firm full time.

"I got anonymous gift cards to the grocery store in the mail. They helped me feed my children," Andrea Merriman said.

One card arrived in the mail when there was $3 left in her wallet.

The older kids stepped up without being asked to help with cooking and laundry and yard work. They help with the younger children.

"They were going through an unimaginable situation. I would just tell them, 'You can feel bad. You just can't wallow in your misery. If you wallow like a pig, you get stuck in the muck,'" she said.

She says she tried to teach them that adversity is an opportunity to be stronger.

On Sept. 14, Shawn Merriman was sentenced to more than 12 years in federal prison after he pleaded guilty in early December.

The family hasn't visited him yet. Andrea Merriman says they will do that one day, but only when all of the kids feel comfortable going together. She will go with them.

Shawn Merriman sends letters regularly. He asks about their new schools and new friends. Andy and Sarah expect they'll be married with kids by the time he is released. Jake is in pre-school now. He'll be close to high school graduation by then.

The family says their dad would like to call more often than he does.

"The collect calls turn out to be about $10 each," Andrea Merriman said. "I had to tell Shawn he couldn't call every week. We don't have an $40 extra in our monthly budget."

They settled on calls two times a month.

The kids are getting good grades and have made a lot of friends. They say they have forgiven their dad and are moving on.

Sarah talks about learning the lesson of forgiveness. They all love their dad. They don't like what he did.

"It takes too much energy to be angry. Sometimes something bad happens so you can experience something even better," she said.

"We've learned that life isn't about what happens to you but how you respond to it," Andy said.

He says it is a principle he has learned while watching his mom.

"She had everybody hating and criticizing her but she kept a good attitude and was always kind," he said.

The kids are quick to repeat what they've heard their mom say so often: "This is our life now and we are going to make the best of it."

There is a beautiful canyon about a five minutes drive from the Merrimans' new house. The family goes there to skip rocks across the stream. Jake loves to take his shoes off and run through the water.

"We laugh and have fun together and it doesn't cost a thing," Andrea Merriman said.

She says there are people who will hate to hear that she is happy now. She will not apologize for it.

There have been darker days than they could have ever imagined possible but she said, "We kept moving forward and one day we realized the smiles and laughs weren't forced any more. We're grateful."

When they first moved to Utah they tried to be anonymous.

"We tried not saying the 'P' word - prison," Andrea Merriman said.

She says she would sit on the bleachers alone at hockey practices or football games wondering if people were looking at her.

Finally, they family came to a decision.

"No more secrets. We are a totally open family now," she said.

They say it feels good. It is how they are choosing to be free of the past.

Andrea Merriman's co-workers insisted she set up a blog. She writes about what she's lost since the collapse of her family and what she and her children have gained: perspective.

"It doesn't cost anything to be a friend and smile, or to try your best at school," she said.

Happiness is a choice, she says, "happiness doesn't cost a thing."

"You learn what is really valuable when you don't have much," Andy said. "No one can steal that."

Andrea Merriman says unexpected things will happen to everyone and everyone has a choice when it does.

"For me, moving forward, forgiving and rising above our detractors is the only choice. I refuse to let this event be the sum of our lives," she said.

They say that they have learned a lot. They are closer as a family and stronger as individuals. All of that happened, they say, not in spite of the unexpected things in their lives, but because of them.

You can read Andrea Merriman's blog at http://andreamerriman.wordpress.com/.

(KUSA-TV © 2010 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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