The headline was exciting yesterday when news of our long-time resident scam artists started to trickle out. The authors of a $142 million dollar ponzi scheme & investment fraud have been in jail awaiting this moment for the past 1 1/2 years and now start to look forward to doing the rest of their time.
Long-time readers will be familiar with the Stonewood case, wherein these perpetrators enticed hundreds of people to invest in real estate. But not just invest – they were talked into buying homes for $100,000 or more over asking price with that overage going to the third party – Stonewood. People who could barely qualify for a car loan were talked into buying multiple properties, most i the $500,000 and over range, with the promise that the deficit between rental payments and the mortgage payment would come out of an investment fund seeded by that ‘overage amount’.
In some cases deficit payments were made for a month or so but quickly vanished as the perpetrators lived large, driving fancy cars, boats and living in multi-million dollar homes themselves. Ultimately over 200 homes went onto foreclosure, many starting in 2006 – well before the foreclosure crisis started. This wave of dead lawns jump-started our local foreclosure fiasco as the 200 homes were dumped onto the market along with dozens more from people who had bought in neighborhoods where the fraudulent purchases has driven up the comps.
Our local real estate association started noticing these transactions in late 2004 and by mid-2005 had compiled an extensive dossier on the scheme. At that time it involved about 60 homes and maybe $30 – $40 million dollars. We tried in vain to get local law enforcement, our District Attorney, our Dept. of Real Estate, the FBI – ANYBODY – to take an interest. To no avail.
Finally in late 2007 the SEC got involved not from the real estate side but from the investment fraud angle. This prompted the DRE to yank the brokers license from the principles but by then the damage had largely been done. Finally in 2008, the Justice Department, FBI and our DA got involved and brought the scanm to a screeching halt. Of course by then it had ballooned from 60 homes and $30 million to over 200 homes and $140+ million. Our DA was all puffed up taking credit for this great bust when, for years we had not even been able to get a meeting with him to discuss it. He was the first incumbent DA in our county to be voted out of office in over a century when voters rejected him this past November.
Two local reporters, Leslie Berkman of the Press Enterprise, and Chris Bagley or the Californian, were instrumental in keeping this in the public eye. Dozens of the victims banded together in a class action lawsuit. That helped. Our own Real estate Fraud Task Force was born out of this scandal and remains active and vigilant to this day.
So while many of the victims say a 18 year prison sentence is not nearly long enough for the ringleader, it’s at least a start. No punishment can ever rebuild the damage done to our community and no jury award will ever compensate for the retirement savings lost and the lives ruined by these people.
Maybe the lesson to be learned is – if the deal sounds too good to be true…
Of course as we all know, there’s a sucker born every minute and two grifters to fleece him out of his cash.
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