What Is 'Gifting Table,' The Pyramid Scheme Featured In 'Murder On Middle Beach'?

As Madison Hamburg investigates his mother Barbara Hamburg's 2010 murder in the docuseries "Murder on Middle Beach," he discovers she was heavily involved in an organization later exposed as an illegal cash grab.

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Did a pyramid scheme have anything to do with a Connecticut mother’s mysterious murder?

Barbara Hamburg was bludgeoned to death outside her home on Middle Beach Road in Madison, Connecticut in 2010. Nobody has ever been charged in connection with her murder, leaving the case open to speculation. Several theories have circulated, causing rifts and splits within her once-close family. Her ex-husband Jeffrey Hamburg, for example, was once sought for questioning in the case and several of Barbara's relatives have expressed their suspicions about him.

Barbara's son Madison has dedicated the last eight years of his life to investigating his mother’s murder, which has culminated in the four-part HBO Max docuseries called “Murder on Middle Beach.” One of the theories he investigates is his mother’s connection to “Gifting Table.” 

“Gifting Table” — sometimes referred to as "the tables" — was a women’s group that existed primarily in Connecticut beginning in 2008 until it was exposed as a pyramid scheme in 2011. The group positioned itself as a female-empowering sisterhood, with members helping each other through the recession, the Hartford Courant reported in 2013.

Barbara Hamburg Hbo

Each "table" was structured as a four-level pyramid, styled after the courses of a meal.

There were "eight participants assigned to the bottom row, four participants assigned to the third row, two participants assigned to the second row, and one participant assigned to the top row," the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Connecticut described in a 2013 press release. "The top row participant is referred to as the 'Dessert,' the two participants on the second row as 'Entrees,' the four participants on the third row as 'Soup and Salads,' and the eight participants on the bottom row as 'Appetizers.'"

Each of the eight members on the "Appetizers" level were required to "gift" $5,000 to the leader of the table, or the "Dessert." Members were told that if they recruited more women to join, they'd move up in the ranks of their "table," finally reaching the "Dessert" level, where they'd be the ones raking in $40,000. Then they could simply move to a new table and start the process all over again. 

Members held fancy luncheons and dinner parties where they'd attempt to recruit new participants. The invitation-only nature of the group lent it an air of exclusivity and fulfilled a need for social connection — some tables used some of the funds for charitable donations — in an uncertain time, according to a 2010 report in the ShoreLine Times.

In the docuseries, "Gifting Table" leader Donna Bello told Madison that she still thinks the group was good for both the women involved and the charities it donated to. The Department of Justice, on the other hand, concluded that all the payments were “fraudulently characterized” as gifts, making the group a tax-dodging scheme for its top dogs to rake in thousands under the table. Several of the participants later testified that they didn't make the money they were promised and one claimed that even though she reached the highest level in two tables, she made nothing, the ShoreLine Times reported.  

Murder On Middle Beach Hbo 1

Barbara not only participated in the tables, but she had become a top member and recruiter, in charge of her own network, according to the docuseries. But she was also the subject of controversy as she was recruiting members from the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings she attended. This caused a rift between her and some other prominent table members. Jill Platt, Barbara's aunt and one of the leaders of the "Gifting Table" (who was ultimately convicted for her role in the scheme), told Madison that there was a lot of “badmouthing” going on about Barbara for “preying” on women in AA.

Then, four months before Barbara's murder, someone in Barbara's network called the office of Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to complain about predatory behavior within the organization. Blumenthal, now a senator, noted in the docuseries that he felt the tables abused women's trust, so his office put out a warning to the public about them being an illegal Ponzi scheme. Platt told Madison that many in the group were angry at Barbara after this negative attention fell on the operation. 

Was anyone mad at her enough to kill her?

Jeffrey told his son that there was some belief that she was murdered because of her involvement in general. He theorized that alcoholics, “drug people” or husbands angry at their wives over drained bank accounts could have something to do with her murder.

"Somebody was threatening your mom," he told his son.

Shelley Kwalek, Jill's niece revealed to Madison that Barbara felt like she was being watched around that time and had expressed safety concerns

"Your mom was in the receiving position when she was murdered so she was a 'dessert,'" Kwalek said.

Platt and fellow Bello were convicted in 2013 of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to defraud the IRS, multiple counts of wire fraud, and filing false tax returns. Bello was sentenced to six years behind bars and Platt was sentenced to four and a half years.

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