Former Utahn who became a billionaire with his e-truck startup resigns following accusations of fraud and sexual assault

(Courtesy of nikolamotor.com) Nikola founder Trevor Milton (far left) resigned as the company's chairman following accusations of fraud.

The founder of Nikola, a hydrogen and electric vehicle startup, recently considered as valuable as the Ford motor company, abruptly resigned as executive chairman and has gone underground this week. The stunning turn for Trevor Milton, a 38-year-old billionaire with deep Utah ties, came as business foes alleged fraud and a family member accused him of sexual assault.

Before the accusations, Milton ran a promising business valued at nearly $29 billion that sought to revolutionize transportation and clean energy. It was founded in Utah before he moved it to Arizona in 2018. Milton was the company’s face and he had an outsized personality online, especially when battling reporters who questioned whether Nikola could deliver on its sky-high promises. He also made a splash in real estate circles last year when he purchased a $32.5 million ranch in Oakley, Utah.

Things came crashing down Sept. 10 when Hindenburg Research, a short seller standing to profit from a decline in Nikola share prices, published a lengthy report accusing Milton of deception, misleading partners and “staging an elaborate ruse” in demonstrating one of his semitrucks. Essentially, Hindenburg says the Nikola One semi seen in a video cruising along wasn’t powered by the proprietary batteries, it was simply coasting down a hill.

Although Nikola denied the accusations, the company’s stock price hit record lows this week, tumbling from a high near $80 per share in June to $40 at the beginning of September to half that this week. Nikola closed at about $19 on Thursday.

Milton stepped down from Nikola on Sunday and made his Twitter profile private. Then as allegations of sexual harassment, assault and betrayal of a friend began to swirl on the social platform, Milton deleted his account.

One of the first people accusing Milton of assault was his cousin, who came to visit for their grandfather’s funeral when Milton was 17 years old and still lived in Utah. She was 15.

Accusation of assault

“When it happened, I was so sheltered. I was a Molly Mormon. I’d never held anyone’s hand, never kissed anyone, nothing,” said the cousin, Aubrey Ferrin Smith, who also told her story to The Wall Street Journal. “I was raised to trust people who were authority figures. I was raised to trust my family. It never occurred to me that something like this would happen.”

Smith first alluded to the assault in a November 2017 Facebook post, noting that she had been assaulted and gaslighted by a cousin. She then shared the full story on Twitter the day after Milton announced he was stepping down from Nikola.

She claims that after her grandfather’s funeral in September 1999, Milton offered to give her a back rub.

“In his nonchalant … way, he told me that he was taking a massage class in school,” Smith wrote on Twitter. “Everyone in class would take their shirt off during massages. It was what masseuses had their clients do. Everyone did it. Basically, I would be a dumb, paranoid prude if I didn’t do it, too.”

Smith says she took off her shirt, then Milton undid her bra and groped her.

“I felt like I was crazy,” Smith told The Tribune in an interview. “It was my grandpa’s funeral. I was grieving. I was very naïve. He knows how to pick people to hurt.”

When she returned home to Illinois, Smith said she told a friend about the assault during a sleepover. The friend, contacted Thursday by The Tribune, corroborated Smith’s story. She encouraged Smith to tell the bishop at her Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward, which Smith said she did.

The bishop advised Smith to tell her parents and Milton’s parents, she said.

“Their answer was, ‘He is going to repent, you need to forgive him and move on’,” Smith said. “I didn’t get support.”

The alleged assault left Smith with intense feelings of guilt and shame, she said.

Coming forward has driven a wedge between Smith and her mother, she added, but she wishes someone would have contacted the police. The statute of limitations in her case expired in 2005.

Through a spokesperson, Milton told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday that he denies Smith’s allegations.

Utah deals

Milton in 2003 attended Utah Valley University (then called Utah Valley State College) but dropped out after one semester. In the mid-2000s, the aspiring entrepreneur founded Upillar.com, a classifieds website, and a company called Lexon. In 2010, he registered another company called dHybrid.

A complaint filed in Utah’s 4th District Court claimed that in March 2010, Milton duped an investor into giving him $40,000 for 8,000 shares of stock in the companies. He allegedly told the investor he had a “very successful track record as a businessman” and that the $40,000 would be paid back in two years and the investment would double.

The investor never received proof of his stock ownership. Milton became difficult to reach in the years that followed, according to the complaint, and in September 2015, the investor went to court to recover his $40,000. The following month, the investor withdrew the suit.

Milton registered his new company, Salt Lake City-based Nikola Motor Co., in 2016 as a limited liability corporation. He later moved it to Phoenix and the company became a behemoth. In negotiating his exit, Milton gave up $166 million in restricted stock, though he was able to leave with stock worth more than $3.1 billion.

Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this story.