Feb 29, 2024 - News

A '90s teen tech whiz-turned-exec is accused of elder abuse amid Ponzi allegations

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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Joseph Firmage, a '90s teen tech prodigy who became known as "the Fox Mulder of Silicon Valley," is accused of taking money from an 80-year-old woman he moved in with, cutting off access to her family and leaving her in a squalid Salt Lake City home without water or electricity.

  • That's on top of a federal lawsuit alleging he defrauded investors out of $25 million since 2022 in a Ponzi scheme promising government contracts for his cutting-edge aerospace technology.

Catch up fast: Firmage rose to fame after founding a software company from his bedroom in Salt Lake City when he was a teenager, later selling it for $24 million to Novell and founding the digital design company USWeb in 1995.

The latest: A judge this month ordered Firmage to stand trial on charges of financially exploiting and abusing a vulnerable adult.

  • The woman he lived with said he promised $3,000 monthly rent but never paid, charging documents state. Instead, he allegedly took control of the woman's finances as her "caretaker" and failed to pay her bills, detectives wrote.
  • A social worker asked police for help last June because the woman had lost substantial weight and said Firmage had canceled her phone service, police wrote.
  • Meanwhile, her social security checks weren't being deposited, her bank account was empty and her utilities were shut off, police wrote. She hadn't had running water for months, and during an October visit, they found there was no food in her house.

Firmage also claimed in an August interview with police that he had "several business endeavors and expected to receive $200 million from the federal government," investigators wrote.

The intrigue: That week, a group of investors sued Firmage, alleging he and his partners falsely claimed to have secured $200 million in government contracts for his "new and radical form of propulsion technology," the complaint states.

  • "In reality, the … project had been at a dead-end since at least 2019, and Firmage's concept for a new form of propulsion technology had been discredited by multiple scientists," the lawsuit states.
  • The investors allege they were recruited by Firmage's earlier investors, who also lost money but were promised kickbacks if they secured new financing.

Zoom in: The plaintiffs accuse Firmage of using their shared interest in the metatheories of consciousness and knowledge developed by the writer Ken Wilber to gain trust.

  • Wilber is one of Firmage's business partners, the lawsuit states, and is named as one of the defendants.

Zoom out: Utah has more Ponzi schemes per capita than any other state, a distinction tied to a pattern of affinity fraud targeting members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  • While Firmage has linked his own beliefs about interplanetary knowledge and travel to his Mormon upbringing, he left the church as a teen and the plaintiffs don't cite religious affinity in their fraud allegations.

The other side: Firmage's attorney could not be reached for comment, and Firmage remains jailed in Salt Lake County.

Flashback: Firmage announced in 2022 that he planned to run for U.S. President this year.

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