Matt Onofrio made $35 million helping everyday people invest in real estate. Then he was indicted. Was it all a scam?

Matt Onofrio had a remarkable story. Around 2020, fed up with his career as a nurse anesthetist, the now 32-year-old Wisconsin native quit his job to start investing full time in commercial real estate. 

He had no experience in the industry, yet in a few short years he’d raked in tens of millions of dollars. He was the everyman who’d made it big — and he made it sound simple.

Handsome, with close-cropped hair and manicured sideburns, Onofrio became a regular in the investing podcast circuit, peppering his speech with self-help tropes and suggestions that “mindset,” “massive action,” and setting a “vivid vision” were as important as business know-how. His pitch reached everyone from doctors in California to wannabe entrepreneurs in the Midwest. 

Even celebrities were dazzled. The mixed-martial-arts star Michael Chandler set up a video call with Onofrio in 2021. The 37-year-old, who has a wife and two kids, knew he couldn’t stay in the ring forever and wanted to replicate Onofrio’s success for himself.

In the meeting, Onofrio went out of his way to impress Chandler. He mentioned a book deal with the investing media company BiggerPockets and at one point held up his phone to show that his bank account contained about $35 million. By the end of the year, Chandler was sitting at a closing table in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota, where Onofrio had persuaded him to buy a $16 million commercial property that housed a rehab facility. 

The MMA fighter Michael Chandler, pictured with his wife, Brie Willett, bought a $16 million property from Matt Onofrio in 2021.

Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT

But as Chandler scrutinized the paperwork, he realized the deal was more complicated than Onofrio had let on. Onofrio had arranged to buy the property himself months earlier for $12 million. Now he was transferring the contract to Chandler, charging him a $4 million markup. “Michael didn’t expect Matt was setting up this deal out of the goodness of his heart,” Chandler’s attorney, Brendan Johnson, said. “But he certainly didn’t appreciate that there would be a $4 million swing.”

The property’s rental income was just enough to cover its debt and produce modest proceeds, so Chandler put aside his misgivings and signed. Then, in November 2022, federal prosecutors indicted Onofrio on charges involving three deals he’d arranged in Minnesota the year before. It’s common practice in real estate to buy a property and flip it to a buyer for a higher price. But the indictment accuses Onofrio of going further. Onofrio, it states, created fake purchase agreements to make his inflated prices seem legitimate to banks, temporarily wired his clients money to dupe banks into lending to them, and lent his clients part of the properties’ purchase prices — that they paid him back with interest — without telling the banks.

All of this, the indictment states, amounted to bank fraud. As part of the case, the government froze Onofrio’s bank account. No trial date has been set, and Onofrio has yet to enter a plea. Onofrio’s attorneys said they “preferred not to comment at this time.”

Chandler was shocked to learn that Onofrio, whom he called one of the most “unassuming” people he’d ever met, was an accused fraudster. Onofrio seemed so benign, so completely ordinary, that Chandler had never thought to question him. 

The months of shame, uncertainty, and regret have been “the most horrific thing I’ve ever had to go through in my entire life,” said Chandler, who’s worried the property will end up being a financial drain. “And I’ve gone through a lot of tough stuff.”

The federal complaint doesn’t involve the property Onofrio sold to Chandler. Yet there are striking similarities between Chandler’s deal and those described in the indictment, as well as other transactions Onofrio arranged, more than 60 of which are detailed in a spreadsheet given to Insider by a former employee at Onofrio’s company, Wild Moose Ventures. That employee, who worked with Onofrio in 2021 and 2022, said he was speaking with law enforcement about Onofrio’s conduct and didn’t want to be identified. He estimated that Onofrio had set up about $400 million in deals in the two years preceding the charges against him. Finance & Commerce reported that one property was sold three times in four months by Onofrio or entities he controlled, netting Onofrio nearly $4 million in the process.

The unfolding situation has the potential to cast Onofrio as a real-estate confidence man for the influencer age. People have always sought out sources of passive income — ways to make money with minimal work. But the COVID-19 pandemic made the concept irresistible to anyone unemployed or worried about losing their job. Many of these people turned to DIY investing forums, podcasts, and YouTubers for advice. And there was Onofrio, confident and savvy, promising to help average people buy commercial buildings with no money down and no experience — an unheard-of proposition. 

Matthew Hermann, a 36-year-old radiologist who bought a warehouse from Onofrio for $6.3 million in 2020, said Onofrio positioned himself as a mentor and safety net, telling him, “I always would look out for you, and if ever push came to shove, I would help you get out of this deal.” Hermann said Onofrio wound up overcharging him by $1.5 million and downplaying tens of thousands of dollars in property expenses that Hermann later had to pay. The radiologist estimated he’s lost $200,000 so far.

“Matt checked all the right boxes,” said a real-estate investor who hosted Onofrio on his podcast in April 2021. “It’s easy to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If you present yourself the right way, how are most people supposed to know?” 

Onofrio’s self-assurance was key to his pitch; he made everything seem straightforward. He specialized in triple-net-lease assets: offices, warehouses, and retail buildings where the tenant — not the landlord — took on all the work and costs of operating a property, including maintenance, taxes, and insurance.

He aggressively sourced both properties to buy and clients to purchase them. In an April 2022 podcast, Onofrio said his firm sent out 25,000 mailers a month to property owners soliciting them to sell. A residential broker in California said that after signing up for emails from Wild Moose Ventures in 2021, he was blanketed with weekly messages advertising properties around the country.

It’s easy to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If you present yourself the right way, how are most people supposed to know?

Onofrio would usually offer the buyer a property he’d already tied up in contract for the seller’s asking price, according to the former Wild Moose Ventures employee and the spreadsheet shared with Insider. He would then quote the buyer a significantly higher price. If the buyer accepted, Onofrio would create a purchase agreement and help them secure a mortgage based on the higher price. 

In Hermann’s deal, for instance, Onofrio drew up a purchase agreement and arranged a mortgage based on the $6.3 million he’d convinced Hermann to pay for his warehouse. Unbeknownst to Hermann, Onofrio had already tied up the warehouse in contract for $4.75 million. Because commercial real-estate loans can cover up to 80% of a purchase, the mortgage gave Onofrio enough to cover the $4.75 million he’d agreed to pay the seller. In doing this, Onofrio was effectively duping the bank into lending out 100% of the true purchase price — something most major financial institutions have refused to do since the 2008 financial crisis.

Then came the moneymaking part of Onofrio’s scheme. He knew many of his buyers didn’t have the money for a down payment. So he offered to front the cost, as long as the buyer agreed to repay him in monthly installments, plus interest, through a promissory note.

The promissory note typically amounted to the difference between the purchase price Onofrio had agreed on with the seller, and the one he’d named for his buyer. In Hermann’s deal, the note was for $1.5 million. Hermann ended up paying Onofrio $5,243.33 a month on top of his mortgage payments — an extra debt that neither he nor Onofrio disclosed to the bank. 

“It was the greater-fool investing theory,” said Anthony Vicino, a Minneapolis real-estate investor who met Onofrio in 2019. “You can agree to pay an arm and a leg for a property because you’re banking on finding that greater fool who will pay even more.”

Hermann told Insider the extra payments didn’t bother him at first because Onofrio had promised he’d net about $9,000 a month from the property. But Hermann soon realized that wasn’t true. Hermann said he’d flagged potential liabilities to Onofrio before closing, including the installation of a $70,000 “vapor mitigation system” and a $100,000 credit to the tenant, a packaging company, if it renewed its lease early. Onofrio had brushed off Hermann’s concerns, but sure enough, Hermann had to foot both costs. On top of that, he learned he had to pay a roughly $50,000 leasing commission to the tenant’s broker and about $30,000 a year in city fees.

Hermann said Onofrio seemed unmoved when he called to confront him about the extra charges. “I don’t think he can empathize with other people’s feelings,” Hermann said. “All he cared about was that I was paying his note.”

Hermann said he began to work as many as seven days a week, 12 hours a day, to earn enough to cover the building’s ballooning costs. He said he stopped paying Onofrio’s promissory note to unburden himself from what he felt was an unsustainable expense. Onofrio sued him in federal court for breach of contract, and Hermann countersued, alleging, among other things, that the contract was null to begin with. Both cases are ongoing.

Chandler’s deal also left him indebted to Onofrio in the amount of $2.6 million — a promissory note that required him to send Onofrio about $8,700 monthly. Chandler’s attorney said that since Onofrio’s indictment, he had advised Chandler to cease making those payments. 

Hermann believes Onofrio knew perfectly well that what he was doing was dubious. At one point, Hermann called the bank that had loaned him the money for his warehouse to discuss doing another deal, and he mentioned the structure of his transaction with Onofrio.

Shortly thereafter, Hermann got a call from Onofrio, who he said told him, “Let’s not let the bank know about this.”

In interviews, Onofrio speaks in such consistent sound bites that it can seem as if he’s reading from a script. His parents were Christian missionaries who homeschooled him, and he spent some of his youth living in Mexico City. He struggled to find direction in his early adulthood. “I was a nurse, paramedic, firefighter, I was getting a degree in youth ministry at one point, camp counselor, I mean, I have done automotive repair,” Onofrio said on a podcast in early 2022.

Eventually Onofrio attended the Mayo Clinic, where his grandfather, who died in 2022, was a renowned neurosurgeon. He became a nurse anesthetist in 2019. His new profession was lucrative, he said, earning him about $300,000 a year, but he described feeling uninspired and constrained by the work. “A lot of people would have traded spots with me,” Onofrio said on the April 2022 podcast. “I was making anywhere from $150 to $200 an hour, but I was still trading my time for money.” 

Nick Stageberg, who worked in the Mayo Clinic’s technology department, met Onofrio at a small after-hours gathering for employees interested in real-estate investing. “He had such voracious energy — you just felt energized being around him,” said Stageberg, who now invests full time. “You would get a message from Matt at midnight and realize he’d been working on real estate for the past five hours after punching out.” 

Onofrio has said in various podcast interviews that he bought his first property, a 14-unit apartment building, for about $800,000 in 2019. (He said he convinced an investor he knew to front the roughly 20% down payment.) He installed coin-operated laundry machines and charged for parking to boost the property’s cash flow. A few months later, Onofrio said, he sold the building for a $500,000 profit and received a $61,000 cut. He was hooked.

You would get a message from Matt at midnight and realize he’d been working on real estate for the past five hours after punching out.

Vicino, the Minneapolis real-estate investor who met Onofrio in 2019, remembered him as friendly but “derpy.”

“He has a disarming demeanor,” Vicino said. “You’re like, I want to help this lost puppy.” He helped Onofrio set up the Wild Moose Ventures website and brand the nascent company, named after Onofrio’s self-described “spirit animal.”

Vicino said he couldn’t reconcile the math Onofrio used to describe his business. “Matt showed me the underwriting on the back of a napkin,” Vicino said. “His plan was to buy a property for X and sell it for Y and increase his net worth by however many millions of dollars was between the two numbers. But what he couldn’t explain to me was how he was going to consistently sell so quickly at these kinds of profits.” Vicino, who wasn’t himself involved in Wild Moose Ventures, said he felt it wasn’t his place to press Onofrio for a clearer explanation.

Onofrio’s stature grew dramatically in November 2020, when he appeared on “The Real Estate Podcast” for BiggerPockets, a Denver-based company considered the epicenter of the DIY real-estate investing scene. Zacari Pennington, a gym owner in Nashville, was commuting when he heard Onofrio describe his rise in the industry to hosts Brandon Turner and David Greene. He was so captivated by Onofrio’s story that he played the episode again when he got home. By August, Pennington had wired Wild Moose Ventures a total of $106,000 in two installments to find him a deal on a triple-net-leased property. 

Onofrio’s “No. 1 driver of traffic” was his BiggerPockets podcast appearance, the former Wild Moose Ventures employee said. “We had more investors beating down our door than we could source deals for.” 

Onofrio appeared on several more popular podcasts, including Brad Lea’s “Dropping Bombs” and Ryan Pineda’s “The Wealthy Way.” “I’m going to see my business as a separate entity almost, like it has its own life, and I’m going to talk to it,” Onofrio said on the podcast “Be the Leader.” “Wild Moose Ventures, what do you—? Oh, you want to grow? OK, well, I guess we better hire.”

The shows turned Onofrio into a minor celebrity in the DIY-investing community. Alec McElhinny, 26, a friend of Onofrio’s who attended River Valley Church in Minneapolis with him before he was indicted, recalled that at church functions and services, “10 guys would be asking him questions” about real estate.

Onofrio had no hang-ups about doing business with his friends and professional associates. Greene, the BiggerPockets host, purchased a property in Golden Valley, Minnesota, from Onofrio for $15.5 million in 2021, according to the spreadsheet shared with Insider. The deal required him to pay Onofrio monthly installments of $3,400. (Greene did not respond to requests for comment.)

Onofrio asked the motivational speaker Ed Mylett for advice on splitting up with his girlfriend. “We prayed,” Mylett said. “He was crying.”

Lily Ro

Onofrio tried to persuade Lea, the “Dropping Bombs” host who described himself as “a little naive” when it came to real-estate investing, to buy a shopping center in the Midwest. Eventually, the talks fizzled out. “Something didn’t fully add up,” Lea said. “Who knows — maybe it was my guardian angels.”

Ed Mylett, a motivational speaker with 2.6 million Instagram followers, said he had four video-coaching sessions with Onofrio in mid-2022 in exchange for Onofrio purchasing a bulk order of his book, “The Power of One More.” In the sessions, Onofrio focused on their shared Christian faith, seeking Mylett’s advice on splitting up with his girlfriend, the real-estate investor and influencer Brittany Arnason, because she wasn’t Christian. “We prayed,” Mylett said. “He was crying.”

Soon after, Onofrio pitched Mylett on two retail stores in Macon, Georgia. Mylett purchased the properties late last year. After closing, he learned Onofrio had bought the properties himself and flipped them for what Mylett said was about a $3 million profit. Mylett said he had expected Onofrio to take a cut from the deal but the $3 million struck him as “abusive.” 

He called Onofrio, who said he “would look into it.” But when Mylett followed up, Onofrio texted: “Talk to my lawyer.”

Since Onofrio’s indictment, virtually all of the dozen or so Wild Moose Ventures employees have left the company, according to the former employee and a review of LinkedIn. BiggerPockets removed the podcast episode with Onofrio when it learned of his indictment and canceled its book deal with him.

Some bystanders were taken aback by the seemingly wholesome young executive’s fall. “It was a shock,” said Cameron Cropsey, a Minneapolis broker who spoke with Onofrio briefly around 2019 but never did a deal with him. Others were less surprised. “We thought he was building a house of cards,” said a Minnesota broker who sold Onofrio a building.

Vicino expressed frustration with the ecosystem that propped Onofrio up, including the various podcasters who’d hosted him. Of the BiggerPockets episode that brought Onofrio his initial fame, Vicino said, “Why didn’t they ask him, ‘Can you walk me through the math on all of that?'” referring to the lavish returns Onofrio claimed to have made in so short a time. Scott Trench, BiggerPockets’ CEO, told Insider that he should have taken a closer look at Onofrio’s credentials.

Despite the indictment, Onofrio seems to still be operating his business in some capacity. Pennington, the gym owner, said that in January he texted Onofrio about an office building he’d learned Wild Moose Ventures was marketing for sale. Pennington said he had no real interest in the property; his text was a ruse to get back in touch with Onofrio, who had ghosted him, and recoup his $106,000. 

Pennington said neither Onofrio nor Nicholas Perrone, Wild Moose’s former chief operating officer, mentioned the indictment. Shortly after chatting with Perrone, Pennington said, he was finally refunded $100,000.

Stageberg, the investor who got to know Onofrio at the Mayo Clinic, wondered whether investors’ complaints about Onofrio were ultimately motivated by buyer’s remorse. “Matt was finding a deal for $4 million and selling it for $5 million,” Stageberg said. In theory, investors were at least partly responsible for seeing through the hype.

Was Onofrio a serial predator, or an overeager salesman who took foolish risks out of a mix of ignorance and ambition? Vicino said he’s struggled with that question. 

“Is Matt a bad person deep down? I don’t think he’s malicious or evil,” Vicino said. “He made bad decisions, some of them intentional. But if I had been that successful at that age, I probably would have done some stupid stuff, too.”