September 11, 2013

Modesto real estate agent pleads no contest in fraud case

A Modesto real estate agent on Wednesday pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of making false or misleading statements to a family trying to buy a home in Newman.

A Modesto real estate agent on Wednesday pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of making false or misleading statements to a family trying to buy a home in Newman.

Authorities said defendant Erica Burdg took money from Carlos Gonzales and his family, who believed they were buying a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Newman. Instead, Burdg’s husband bought the home and kept the money as rental payments.

To avoid a trial scheduled to start this week, Burdg agreed to a plea deal and was sentenced to three years of probation. The judge also ordered Burdg to pay restitution to the victims.

In exchange for the no contest plea, prosecutors dropped felony charges of grand theft, forgery and attempted perjury. The victims opposed the plea deal, and Gonzales said in court that he would have instead liked to see the case conclude with a jury’s verdict.

“(Burdg) has said nothing but lies,” Gonzales told the judge before Burdg was sentenced Wednesday. “They falsified my signature seven times, and yet they still tried to call me a liar.”

In the courthouse hallway, Burdg called the allegations against her “lies.” She would not comment further.

Deputy District Attorney W.R. McKenzie, who prosecuted the case, said the punishment for Burdg likely would have been the same had she been convicted of the felony charges. A felony conviction for Burdg would have resulted in a county jail sentence, not prison. The change in sentencing for certain crimes is based on the state’s prison realignment plan.

“We believe this is in the best interest of this case and in the best interest of justice to settle this case,” McKenzie told the judge.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Linda McFadden said in court that Burdg likely would not have spent any additional time in jail. She said the Stanislaus County Jail is overcrowded with violent offenders because of prison realignment.

Had Burdg been sentenced to more jail time, sheriff’s officials could have asked her to apply for an alternative work program and allowed her to serve her punishment out of custody.

The Gonzales family has been entangled in a civil lawsuit, fighting to stay in the Newman home it thought it was buying. A confidential conditional agreement has been reached, but it’s still uncertain whether the family will be able to stay in the home.

Attorney Michael Linn has represented the Gonzales family in civil court. He said Wednesday the conditional agreement could be finalized by December and the Gonzaleses could learn then whether they get to keep the home and whether they owe mortgage.

After Wednesday’s hearing, Linn said, “We’re deeply disappointed with the criminal justice system.”

In the courtroom, Linn told the judge that Burdg made two fake contracts to commit mortgage loan fraud and ultimately created about $200,000 in losses for the Gonzales family. Linn also alleged that Burdg forged Gonzales’ signature on documents, including purchase and rental agreements.

Linn told the judge Burdg did not deserve any leniency because she took all the money the Gonzales family had.

A second trial for the defendant was scheduled to start this week. Her first trial ended with a hung jury in August 2011.

Testimony in the trial indicated Gonzales and his wife, Ernestina Valladarez, thought they owned the house on Orchard Creek Drive and had made a $22,000 down payment and $1,200 monthly mortgage payments.

In his closing arguments in the trial, McKenzie told the jury that Burdg’s real intentions were to buy the home for her husband using Gonzales’ $22,000 down payment and his $1,200 monthly payments to pay off the mortgage.

Burdg testified that Gonzales’ bad credit and lack of employment collapsed the deal to purchase the home. The defendant said she instead talked her husband into buying the house as an investment and then rented the house to the Gonzaleses.

The defendant also testified that she accepted the $22,000 check from Gonzales because he wanted to help her speed up the escrow process. She said Gonzales wanted to move into the home as a renter and the money never was intended to be his down payment.

Various delays stalled the start of the second trial, including Burdg’s failure to appear for court hearings. Authorities found her in Oregon and took her into custody before the defendant was brought back to Stanislaus County and released on bail.

Burdg’s sentence on the misdemeanor charge included time she has already spent in jail from the few weeks she was in custody after being apprehended in Oregon.

McFadden told Burdg she can return to Oregon, where the defendant plans to move, as long as she complies with her probation. The judge advised Burdg that her misdemeanor conviction could prevent her from working as a real estate agent in this state and others.

Linn told the judge it’s possible Burdg would work in real estate in Oregon and victimize someone else as she did the Gonzales family.

The attorney called Oregon real estate regulators, who told him it’s possible she can work again even with a misdemeanor conviction. Linn said in court that those with a misdemeanor conviction seeking to work as real estate agents are reviewed in Oregon on a case-by-case basis.

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