The last conversation Philip Burns had with his father started off completely normal.
It was September 2020, and the then 15-year-old was telling his dad—a former youth pastor turned financial adviser and locally known Georgia radio host—about his upcoming job search. But his father, Chris Burns, ended the conversation cryptically.
“He said, ‘Just remember that I love you always,’” Philip told The Daily Beast, adding that his dad suddenly got emotional and sounded like he was crying. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, duh.’”
That was the last Philip saw of his father. The next day Philip said he found his mother kneeling in the driveway of their Atlanta home in shock. His father was gone.
Prosecutors allege that for years, Burns lived a double life, swindling approximately $10 million from dozens of investors in a years-long Ponzi scheme that spanned three states. Under the guise of a “peer-to-peer” lending program with high-interest promissory notes, Burns allegedly used the money to fund his lavish lifestyle—which included a beach house and numerous trips to Disney World.
But the day before Burns was scheduled to hand over documents related to his businesses as part of an ongoing civil investigation, the 40-year-old vanished without a trace. In his wake, Burns left behind a slew of angry investors out millions of dollars, unanswered questions, and a family left to pick up the pieces.
“I have [had] to rethink my entire life. He was my role model,” Philip said. “It hurts so much that he left that day. I believe he is still out there somewhere… but [he] is not a part of our family and our lives anymore.”
‘Fugitive hunting is an exercise in patience’
For almost three years, authorities have been peeling back the layers on Burns’ alleged years-long scheme.
In a federal indictment unsealed last week, prosecutors claim that Burns used several entities—including his own financial and investment advising companies—to promote low-risk investment promissory notes. Burns allegedly told clients that their money would be “loaned to businesses that needed financing with little to no risk”—either falsely saying that the investments were protected by collateral or that he would pool everyone’s money together to lend to startups and charities.
“Burns is charged for allegedly stealing millions of dollars from clients in an illegal investment fraud scheme. Financial crimes of this nature can cause significant disruptions to the lives of those who are victimized, and the FBI is dedicated to holding these criminals accountable,” Keri Farley, Special Agent in Charge of FBI Atlanta, said in a statement.
“The FBI is still seeking the public’s help in locating Burns and will continue to pursue him no matter how long he tries to evade the law.”
According to the SEC complaint, Burns told his clients that these businesses would repay the principal, as well as interest that could be as high as 20 percent. Burns even went as far as signing a “personal guarantee for each promissory note, in which he promised to repay 100% of any principal loss,” the complaint states.
The indictment also notes that Burns promised collateral that “either did not exist at all or was worth substantially less than he represented.” In all, the SEC complaint states, Burns sold at least 70 promissory notes to dozens of investors in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina.
Burns tried to jumpstart his brand in Atlanta—starting his own radio show that aired on Sundays called The Chris Burns Show.
But the alleged scheme started to fall apart in August 2020, when Burns was contacted by the Securities and Exchange Commission to inform him of their investigation into his businesses.
A month later, Burns vanished without a trace—leaving his car in a parking garage. Inside, prosecutors say, Burns “left copies of three cashier’s checks totaling more than $78,000.”
Burns’ apparent decision to go on the lam, however, did not stop legal filings from piling up for the former radio host. A federal arrest warrant was issued for Burns on Oct. 23, 2020, after he was charged with mail fraud. He was also placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, which details that he “has a tattoo on his left forearm of three black triangles interlaced.”
In addition to a $12 million default judgment stemming from the SEC’s complaint, Burns is named in a class action lawsuit. Last week, Burns was federally indicted on 10 charges in connection with the alleged Ponzi scheme.
“The cat-and-mouse game of fugitive hunting is an exercise in patience,” former veteran FBI special agent Terry Rankhorn told The Daily Beast. “Anyone can evade law enforcement, but only for a time. The only thing he is accomplishing is depleting his funds and making things harder on his family.”
And while the SEC complaint spurred a devastating domino effect for Burns, Rankhorn added that the latest indictment could put more pressure on the hunt for Burns. The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment and it is not immediately clear if Burns has a lawyer. Burns’ parents and brother declined to comment on this story.
“Once you’ve gotten yourself in the sights of the FBI, your days on the run are numbered,” Rankhorn said.
‘When I was younger, I was so enamored with him’
It’s hard for Meredith Burns to remember life without her former husband—because the pair met when they were in the 8th grade on a mission trip to North Carolina.
“It was through our church,” Meredith told The Daily Beast this week. “Throughout high school, we went through the same church and we just became really good friends, almost best friends, and then, my freshman year of college, he wanted to start dating.”
By that time, Meredith said, she had moved from their Atlanta suburban home to Indiana to attend Taylor University. She noted that while she was initially hesitant to date Burns, who was still in high school at the time, she eventually gave in.
Burns followed her to the evangelical Christian university and the pair married in 2002 when she was 20 years old.
“I got pregnant six months into being married and we were both in school,” Meredith said, adding that they were each working several jobs. Eventually, she said, Burns got a job as a youth pastor in Indianapolis—where the couple stayed for a few years before eventually going back to be with their family in Georgia.
Before relocating, Meredith said, Burns got a job at Perimeter Church—where his father had been a longtime pastor. A spokesperson for the church confirmed that Burns worked at the megachurch from December 2007 to August 2011, where served as a leader of the junior high ministry.
Philip said that during his childhood, his father was a “completely different person.”
“He got me into theater… and he would sword fight with me and my brother with our little Nerf swords,” the 19-year-old said. “We would have tickle monster fights. He helped us sell lemonade sometimes.”
“When I was younger, I was so enamored with him.”
“I got pregnant six months into being married and we were both in school,” Meredith said.
Around this time, Meredith said, Burns transitioned from his theology work to finance—firstly as a life insurance salesman before eventually joining a financial firm. Soon, the family moved into their first rental home.
“I think that Chris really wanted to show that he could stand on his own two feet and be successful, and having his own place was a big step for him,” Philip said.
Meredith stressed that this new responsibility ignited something in her former spouse, who soon became hyper-focused on success. He eventually transitioned into another job, this time as a financial adviser and planner.
But, Philip said, the first noticeable change in the man he now mostly refers to as “Chris” occurred during his parents’ first separation. The separation was short-lived, the family said, but it began a continuous pattern that would eventually cause Burns to become increasingly distant from his family, and instead turn his attention to his job.
“He wasn’t being himself,” Philip said, adding that his father “never got fully back to how he was before.”
‘He was obsessed with Disney’
By 2017, Burns tried to jumpstart his brand in Atlanta—starting his own radio show that aired on Sundays called The Chris Burns Show.
Powered by his company, Dynamic Money, the show’s description noted that Burns set out every episode to “unpack how this week’s headlines practically impact your life, wallet, and future.” Burns would also appear periodically on television, where he would discuss finances and politics.
“These public appearances by Burns—on radio, television, and the internet—allowed him to elevate his status as an investment adviser and to attract more clients, including some investors who purchased the notes at issue here,” the SEC complaint states.
Around this time, prosecutors allege, Burns’ scam flourished. And, according to this family, so did his spending.
“All of his clothes were handmade,” Meredith said.
Prosecutors and the SEC state that instead of putting his clients’ multi-millions into investment funds, Burns used the money to fund his lifestyle and continue to promote his business. The SEC complaint states that with the money, Burns bought a $1 million lake house, a boat, several cars, and “thousands of dollars of airtime for his local radio show” to “elevate his status as an investment adviser.”
Burns worked as a pastor before reinventing himself as a financial adviser and Georgia radio host.
Joseph Marshall Wood and Meredith Burns
Around this time, the family also began to take more trips to Disney. Philip noted that while the family had previously visited the Orlando theme parks when he was about 10 years old, the trips ballooned in the years before his father vanished.
In the end, the family visited at least twice a year, went on several Disney-themed cruises, and even had a timeshare. At one point, Meredith added, the Burns paid for their neighbors to join them on a trip. She said Chris was even paying for VIP tours that were upwards of $8,000 a day.
“He was obsessed with Disney,” Philip added. “He was a Disney adult.”
Now, Philip and Meredith added, the once joyous memories of Disney World are tainted by the idea that they were funded on someone else’s dime.
“Originally when I learned that, whenever I would think about it for months, I would become physically sick. I just felt so guilty and awful,” Philip said. “Just me fucking around at Magic Kingdom was [funded] by other people’s funds. I still feel awful.”
Among the people who may have contributed to Burns’ newly elaborate lifestyle, according to a class action lawsuit filed in 2020 against Burns, was Susan Zimmerman.
One Sunday morning in November 2017, her husband, Norman, was on his way to go hunting when he came across The Chris Burns Show and was “immediately impressed” by its investing expertise. The class action lawsuit states that at the time, Susan and her husband were in the market for a “trustworthy financial professor to help him plan for retirement” and were elated to find Burns.
“He was my role model,” his son Philip said. “It hurts so much that he left that day.”
The couple met with Burns on Nov. 29, 2019, and were so impressed by his knowledge that they hired him. A few months later, the lawsuit states, Burns recommended that Susan Zimmerman invest $200,000 in “a peer-to-peer lending investment opportunity” that would supposedly pay 8 percent interest annually until January 2023.
Over the years, the lawsuit states that Susan Zimmerman continued to invest with Burns, believing that he was “always acting in her best interest.” In September 2022, Burns encouraged Susan to use the “proceeds from a recent real estate sale” to invest in a third promissory note of $50,000. The lawsuit states that she agreed to the transaction on Sept. 21—three days before he vanished.
In a class-action lawsuit, several of Burns’ alleged victims describe how the “safe and conservative” investment opportunity swindled them out of millions.
The Zimmermans were among several investors that Burns allegedly bilked in the last month of his fraudulent scheme. A lawyer for the class action lawsuit told The Daily Beast that none of his clients wished to comment for this story.
“Investors in the fraudulent investing program have not received any payments from Burns or any other defendants since September 2020,” the SEC complaint states.
‘Why would he leave us if he loves us’
There were warning signs in the days leading up to Burns’ disappearance.
In the weeks prior, Burns had started to reveal to his wife that he was being investigated by authorities. At first, he simply stated he was being audited.
“Two weeks after that, he said it’s at the federal level because of COVID, the state level is too backed up so they are just moving things around,” Meredith said. “So I was like, that doesn’t even make sense, but I didn’t even know what the SEC was.”
Eventually, Burns admitted to his wife that it was an investigation by the SEC, but that it was “no big deal.” By that point, however, Meredith said she started getting suspicious because her husband was also simultaneously saying things about potentially losing his company and figuring out what to do with their house.
Behind the scenes, Burns was taking even more drastic steps to separate himself from his family.
The day before he went missing, on Sept. 24, Burns entered into a divorce agreement with Meredith. As part of the agreement, the SEC complaint states, many of their joint assets were transferred to her—including their boat and home.
“I had a pretty bad headache but he took me up to UPS and said, you know, I think that we should follow through with this [divorce] if this is happening with me, you know, with my business,” Meredith said. “I thought at the time that he was a little paranoid but I sort of just did what he wanted me to do so that he wouldn’t get angry. So that he wouldn’t fight with me.”
Around the same time, Burns also announced that he was going to take an overnight trip to North Carolina to visit his parents and inform them about the investigation. The trip seemed so logical and quick that Meredith said she even scheduled family pictures for that Sunday when Burns—who had taken her car because the weather was supposed to be bad—was set to return.
That day, Burns also took to Twitter, posting one of his BizTV interviews where he recommended people take a “holistic approach to savings” during these “uncertain financial times.” Hours later, Meredith said she received a text from Burns saying he loved her and asking her to pray for him. The request shocked her because by this point Burns “was saying he was an atheist.”
It wasn’t until the next day when she had not heard from Burns that she finally began to think something was wrong. Around noon on Sept. 25, she said she called his parents—where she learned that he never made it to North Carolina or even had plans to visit.
Prosecutors and the SEC state that instead of putting his clients’ multi-millions into investment funds, Burns used the money to fund his lavish lifestyle and continue to promote his business.
As the realization hit her, she fell to her knees in the driveway, where her teenage son found her and they decided to call the police.
“Honestly, I thought he had committed suicide,” Meredith said, and Philip immediately agreed.
“I thought so too,” the teenager added.
According to a Gwinnett County Police report, Meredith called on the evening of September 25 to report Burns was missing. In the call, she stated that she was able to track the car Burns was using via OnStar.
“Meredith stated that his vehicle was found in the parking lot at 8 Perimeter Center,” the report states. “She said inside the vehicle was a FedEx envelope. Inside the envelope were 3 copies of cashier checks totaling $78,272.10.”
After filing the missing person’s report, Meredith said, the investigation into the former financial adviser snowballed quickly. Soon the Georgia Bureau of Investigation became involved, and she was eventually interviewed by the FBI.
“I didn’t understand this at first, but it’s better for me to not be involved in knowing what’s going on because that’s how they build their case. And that was hard to comprehend at first,” Meredith said.
After that, Meredith said, it was a scramble to get the divorce paperwork through and maintain their life—even though it had been thrown upside down.
“I think he was trying to take care of us and leave but he really made it worse,” Meredith said. “It really implicated us more and that was really hard—to feel like why would he leave us if he loves us.”
Both Meredith and Philip agreed that it took months before they were able to wrap their heads around what Burns had allegedly done and the new reality they had to live in.
Philip described having panic attacks and hiding inside the house after sleeping for hours. His mother added that for about a year, the family didn’t open the blinds and existed in a state of grief that seemed to echo the mass tragedy of the country at large as it was grappling with the ongoing pandemic.
Eventually, Meredith and her children forged a new-found self-reliance and a deeper bond. And while Meredith stresses that it is a “blessing” how hard the family fought for each other, they are still grappling with the cloud of the investigation over their heads while Burns is still an apparent fugitive and the litigation is pending against him.
Now, she said, she just hopes that her former spouse turns himself in and takes responsibility for his actions to try to make amends to his alleged victims—some of whom she said have reached out to her online and offered support.
As for Philip, he only has one message for the father he says is no longer a part of their family: “Do what is best, not for yourself, for once. Think about everyone else.”