MODESTO — Several industry insiders charged in real estate scams have reached plea deals in recent weeks with prosecutors who say the spate of convictions is coincidence.
Most will produce jail or prison sentences, rare for white collar crime in this area.
"There is an emphasis on real estate professionals because of higher standards and the trust people place in them," said Jeff Mangar, a prosecutor with the Stanislaus County district attorney's real estate fraud unit.
Chronologically, working backward:
Phil Sotelo agreed Tuesday to a six-month jail sentence for filing phony documents with the county recorder's office in an effort to avoid foreclosure on his north Modesto home. He had owned Realty Executives Sotelo & Associates when arrested two years ago and had worked with other Modesto firms since 1989.
Documents indicate he owed $1.4 million on his Papillon Drive home in a gated community and posed as a representative of his lender while deeding the property to a corporation he owned.
On Monday, a Los Angeles woman pleaded guilty to bankruptcy fraud in a foreclosure rescue scheme first detected four years ago in Modesto.
Jewel Hinkles, also known as Cydney Sanchez, 63, and others preyed on people desperate to keep from losing their homes in foreclosure and collected about $5 million from more than 1,000 victims while doing nothing to help them, authorities say.
Brent Medearis, 46, of Modesto entered an identical plea two weeks ago along with Jesse Wheeler, 36, of Roseville. The three defendants face five-year terms in federal prison and $250,000 fines when sentenced in September; another defendant, Cynthia Corn, 60, of Oakland, is scheduled for trial Aug. 6.
The scheme was uncovered when the local clerk- recorder's office detected suspicious filings in June 2009 and tipped off investigators. They initially found 30 victims in this county, and a subsequent probe involving the FBI and other agencies uncovered hundreds more in other areas.
Victims were lured by promises that investors would purchase their mortgages at a discounted price or reduce monthly payments by negotiating a reduction with the lender. Defendants collected fees and transferred property interests to a phony company but did nothing else to save the victims from public auction, authorities say.
Medearis once was listed as chief executive officer of Modesto-based VIP Financial Services, an affiliate of Hinkles' company.
On July 2, Gerald Jeffery, 39, who has lived in Modesto and Oakdale, admitted to changing locks on a vacant home, advertising it for rent on Craigslist, showing the home to victims and collecting rent and a first month's deposit in June 2012.
The renter got wise when the real owner showed up. Authorities set up a sting and nabbed Jeffery when he returned to collect more rent, Mangar said.
His plea deal encompassed unrelated charges of vehicle theft and drug possession, and with a prior felony strike conviction, Jeffery was sentenced to six years in prison.
On June 25, Mark Redding, 49, of Modesto pleaded to a misdemeanor charge of operating a property management company without a state license. He was fined $1,000 and must reimburse clients as determined by probation authorities.
A client of Redding Property Management Co. complained in January, saying that poor service cost her $40,000, an arrest warrant affidavit says. The company was not insured as required by the California Bureau of Real Estate, leaving the property owner no recourse for recouping her loss, the document says.
Gabriel Albor, who once owned Fidelity First Mortgage in Escalon, pleaded May 15 to a felony count of filing a bogus document to postpone losing his wife's property. He is expected to receive a six-month term when sentenced Aug. 7.
Meanwhile, two other former Modesto real estate agents await trial in unrelated cases.
Federal prosecutors say Tony Huy Havens ran a scheme designed to fraudulently obtain more than $14 million in loans that caused California lenders to lose $7.2 million. He previously was convicted in 2008 in Stanislaus County of swindling $208,000 from victims in another fraud scheme.
A federal trial for Jim Lankford, former owner of Century 21 Apollo in Modesto, is scheduled for Nov. 5. He and roommate Jon McDade are accused of bilking $10 million from lenders and elderly homeowners in Modesto and Hughson over 11 years.
Authorities say the men gained the trust of elderly homeowners and enriched themselves with multiple loans obtained with forgeries and lies. They recently moved to Oklahoma, court documents say.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.