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January 27, 2014

Modesto broker gets 10 years in real estate fraud

A judge mostly refused to go easy on former Modesto real estate broker James Lee Lankford on Monday, sentencing the 75-year-old to 10 years in federal prison for swindling nearly $10 million from lenders and elderly homeowners.

A judge mostly refused to go easy on former Modesto real estate broker James Lee Lankford on Monday, sentencing the 75-year-old to 10 years in federal prison for swindling nearly $10 million from lenders and elderly homeowners.

His husband, Jon, 49, was sentenced to five years of probation and will care for their four adopted, special-needs children under a deal worked out with U.S. attorneys.

About two dozen of their victims made the trip from Modesto, some telling Judge Anthony Ishii how James Lankford had gained their trust, then swiped their homes or retirement savings and ruined their health.

“(James Lankford) will die in prison; I’m happy with that,” said John Rivera outside the courtroom. His parents, Mike and Pat, were among the victims.

Lankford, who owned Century 21 Apollo, “lied, cheated and defrauded” Paul Triller, duping him into signing a bogus document before he died in 2010, said Triller’s daughter, Carol Rogers. “He suffered so much stress and anxiety and we all believe that shortened his life,” she said.

“He not only (defrauded) people he doesn’t know, he’s done that to his friends and family, too,” said Patrick Wright. “He’s a liar, a thief and a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

James Lankford, wearing a suit coat and open-collared shirt, apologized to victims, saying he did not intend to wreck their lives. His face showed no emotion throughout the hourlong proceeding, while Jon Lankford, clad in blue jeans and tennis shoes, periodically sobbed.

“I would like to say to each and every damaged party how deeply remorseful and sorry I am,” James Lankford said. “My intent was never for anybody to lose money.”

In a pre-sentencing hearing, James Lankford asked for mercy because of his age, declining health and family needs. He asked for a 10-year sentence rather than the 121/2 to 151/2 recommended by probation officers. But on Monday, Lankford went further, asking for a sentence of probation only. His attorney said he would have made good on all obligations if not for the collapse of the real estate market a few years ago.

Ishii was not impressed.

The judge acknowledged that children of crooks sometimes are left parentless, and said in this case, James Lankford “has only himself to blame.”

Far weightier, the judge said, is the destruction caused by his crimes.

“Probation is absolutely unjustified,” Ishii said. “I doubt any court in the country would impose probation for this conduct.”

The judge chastised federal defender Peggy Sasso for suggesting that her client be allowed to spend his sentence on home detention and perform community service because of health problems. The family recently relocated to Oklahoma.

“It sounds like you couldn’t do a day of community service,” the judge said. “Your medical condition is so serious that you can’t handle prison, but you can provide for four (challenging) children?”

From 1999 to 2010, the Lankfords enriched themselves by obtaining multiple fraudulent loans on more than 50 properties. They forged signatures and lied on loan applications, in one case recording a document supposedly signed by a man but dated four months after he died.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Baker, saying that “this crime is nothing less than horrific,” asked Ishii to impose a 121/2-year prison term, but the judge opted for 10 years.

The sentence might have been shorter, but Lankford received extra time because he used special knowledge and skills in the real estate field to swindle vulnerable, trusting people, and in trying to cover his tracks, the judge reasoned.

Four elderly victims died without seeing justice, said Jorene Moratto.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t feel bad for him at all,” said Edna King after slowly making her way to a speaker’s rostrum with the help of a cane. “When we were watching our pennies, he was out there having a grand time.”

Ishii also ordered the men to repay $1.4 million, to be distributed among victims, but they might receive only pennies on the dollar. The men declared bankruptcy and have been deemed indigent, receiving a taxpayer-funded legal defense and trips from Oklahoma to federal court in Fresno.

Authorities recently learned that the men continue to receive rental income from two homes in Modesto, including one on Melrose Avenue. Ishii included that land on a list of assets for the government to seize, and in some cases sell, with proceeds going to victims.

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