Woman indicted for allegedly stealing money from surfer

Marzo

A Makawao woman was indicted last week on 13 counts of wire fraud after allegedly embezzling more than $400,000 over 6-1/2 years from Maui surfing prodigy Clay Marzo and his mother while working as their bookkeeper, according to court documents.

Felicidad Rivera, 51, pleaded not guilty during her arraignment Monday in U.S. District Court in Honolulu. Her bail was set at $50,000.

Marzo, 27, lost his home and his life savings and was left $30,000 in debt, his mother, Jill Marzo Clark, said in a phone interview Tuesday. Clark said that she also lost a significant amount of money.

“It’s been a year of trying to get to this point,” Clark said Tuesday. “It’s bittersweet; it’s awful that she did what she did because she was like a family member. She was close with us and worked with me for a long time.

“I hope that it all goes the right way, but it still doesn’t feel good. I’ve been sick to my stomach since Friday when she was arrested.”

West Maui surfer Clay Marzo catches air on a wave last week ADAM KLEVIN photo

According to the federal indictment, Rivera wrote herself 193 checks from January 2010 to October 2015 totaling more than $330,000 from the accounts of Marzo and his mother. Rivera also paid more than $75,000 of her own Chase credit card charges from Marzo’s account in 87 transactions from May 2010 to September 2015.

Rivera concealed her transactions through phony entries in QuickBooks ledgers that she was maintaining, court documents said. Clark and her son had difficulties monitoring Rivera’s activities due to disabilities from which they both suffer.

Marzo has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, and his mother has severe dyslexia.

A jury trial was set for Dec. 28 before Judge Susan Oki Mollway, but it is expected to be continued, attorneys said. Marzo has a separate lawsuit against Rivera in U.S. Bankruptcy Court that is set for June.

A call to Rivera’s court-appointed attorney in the criminal case was not returned Tuesday.

“It’s really impacted Clay greatly so I’m trying my best to get him squared away,” Clark said. “I’m hoping somehow we get some money back, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen.”

According to the complaint in the bankruptcy suit, the family first hired Rivera in 2008 to handle the bookkeeping for Marzo’s company, CMarzo Inc. She was later hired by Clark to do the bookkeeping for her property management business, The Mothership LLC.

In 2015, Clark discovered charges to her Macy’s card for designer bags and items she had not purchased, the complaint said. She learned the purchases were shipped to Rivera’s address. That led her to go to the police.

“I leaned heavily — apparently too heavily — on her and part of me feels pretty stupid because how could this go on for so long?” she said. “But when you don’t understand numbers and hire someone to do numbers, how do you know? It looked to me like it started off little and then she figured out she could do it and it became more and more until she got sloppy.”

Clark said that Rivera attended her son’s high school graduation, was alongside him when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s and attended his book signing for his biography “Just Add Water.” She said her son thought Rivera was a “rock star” and someone “really special” to him.

“I told him . . . she took pretty much all of your money and put you in debt and took a lot of my money,” Clark said. “Most people would’ve been outraged and yelling, but he looked at me and he said, ‘Well, she must have needed it.’ ”

Growing up in Lahaina, Marzo learned to surf at age 3 and won his first National Scholastic Surfing Association national title at age 10. He was the outstanding surfer at the NSSA nationals when he was 15 and is still the only surfer ever to get two perfect 10-point rides in an NSSA final.

Kim Ball, owner of Hi-Tech and organizer of many keiki surfing competitions on the island, has known Marzo since he was in elementary school. He knew from an early age that Marzo would be great.

“He blows people’s minds free surfing,” Ball said.

At 16, Marzo went on an exclusive surfing trip with famed surfer Kelly Slater, who called him “one of the best surfers in the world.” Marzo has traveled the world surfing the best waves in Indonesia, Fiji, Tahiti, South Africa, Australia and Europe.

While many surfers make a living off competitions and sponsorships, Marzo was almost exclusively paid by sponsors, including retail giant Quiksilver, Ball said. He said that the industry was booming around the 2000s with surf apparel companies “growing like crazy, and the big ones became public so they had all this free money.”

Clark said that her son was “riding in the prime of surfing” with a group of talented Maui surfers, such as Dusty Payne and Ian Walsh. She said her son was paid monthly by sponsors, and it was a “highly paid sport.”

“I don’t know if the kind of money that was being thrown around in that sport has ever happened before,” she said.

The industry began to collapse in the late 2000s and companies began to close, Ball said. He said even the biggest companies had to cut back their budgets severely, which led to Quiksilver dropping Marzo.

Clark said that her son is not making anywhere near the money he was making previously, and competing has become difficult due to his condition. Asperger’s is a developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to effectively communicate with others, according to the Mayo Clinic. People with Asperger’s exhibit social awkwardness and all-absorbing interest in specific topics.

Clark said that her son is selective in the contests he competes in and makes decisions based on his comfort level with the other surfers. Marzo competed in his first competition in two years in Bali two months ago. She said he took fourth place and won some money.

“The sponsors were really happy. He actually has some hope,” she said.

A film crew plans to follow Marzo for a year to document his surfing exploits in “some of the most secret” surf spots on the planet. They are hoping for a release in 2018, Clark said.

Friends and family hope Marzo can keep earning a living surfing, though the average career for surfers is less than 10 years.

“With the state of the surf industry now, if you can make a living for 10 years you’ve done well,” Ball said.

Clark said that she and her son had been living with her mother during the alleged period of embezzlement but moved to Kahana recently after she got married. She said her son is living in one of her husband’s apartments, and they are slowly training him to live on his own.

“We’ve only been at it a month, but so far so good,” she said. “We’re in the baby-step stages, but he seems pretty darn comfortable over there.”

Clark said her son “doesn’t know who to trust” anymore, but she is hoping he can “bounce back.” She said she is proud of everything he has been able to overcome, including his disorder.

“He is the epitome of a soul surfer,” she said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.