2 plead guilty to swindling homeowners

Two men who swindled homes from vulnerable families by posing as Christian do-gooders avoided trial and state prison with a plea deal Wednesday, and agreed to make restitution to some victims.

Lonni Ashlock, 56, of Waterford and Ronald Buhler, 26, of Riverbank entered no contest pleas to six felony counts and were sentenced to one year in Stanislaus County Jail. They may be eligible for alternate work programs, Judge Hurl Johnson said.

The plea bargain negated most of the 50 felony counts they would have faced at a trial scheduled to begin next month. Those counts stemmed from cases involving 12 families.

A Bee review showed Ashlock and Buhler acquired at least 142 properties from owners facing foreclosure in four counties. They were charged only in Stanislaus County.

Some former clients decried the one-year jail terms. "You're joking," said victim Russell Jones when informed of the sen- tences. "Steal millions, get a year."

Sue Walls, 59, of Ceres, a former notary public who recorded some transactions, pleaded no contest to a single misdemeanor count of negligent bookkeeping. She faces no more time behind bars or restitution.

The men gained the trust of owners about to lose their homes at public auction, sometimes by praying with them, then duped them into signing over deeds, witnesses said at their preliminary hearing last fall. Several continued paying rent but eventually were evicted.

Those who say they were victims include an 86-year-old woman with dementia, a 66-year-old schizophrenic, a woman with brain lesions and several other disabled people, according to court documents and testi-mony.

"They took away people's dignity. How are they going to get that back? There is no amount of money," said John "J.J." Martin, one of 28 former clients who sued Ashlock and Buhler.

Restitution due to 20 families

Though the men formally admitted to swindling six families, they agreed in the plea deal to make restitution to 20. Some are among those with active civil lawsuits against Ashlock and Buhler; Martin is not.

Both defendants are liable in 19 cases, while Buhler is solely responsible for another family, according to the plea agreements.

Jones is on the list of 20 to receive something but has no idea what it could be. Under orders from the judge, Ashlock's and Buhler's civil and criminal attorneys will continue trying to hammer out a deal with prosecutors.

Some of the families have long since moved on and prefer a return of some of the money they lost, attorneys said.

Jones' companion, Brenda Hines, died of cancer after they testified last year. He wants the return of the home they had shared, not cash.

"I once spent four years fixing it up," Jones said. "I could do it again."

Deal may help residents

Of the 20 to receive restitution, 12 no longer live in the homes they lost to the men. The remaining eight were not evicted, but all face foreclosure, attorneys said.

The plea bargain improves their chances at keeping the homes, Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira said, because a lengthy trial might not have ended before default proceedings.

She also noted that none of the three has a criminal history.

And, "If you send someone to state prison, the opportunity for restitution goes downhill," Ferreira said.

Buhler's attorney, Bob Chase, said, "The known is always bet- ter than the unknown, which is what you get when you go to trial."

He also was satisfied that his client will not serve time in state prison.

Ashlock specifically pleaded no contest to violations of the Home Equity Sales Act, which protects homeowners from deceiving pitches.

Buhler pleaded no contest to two identical counts plus four counts of theft by false pretenses.

Ron Garcia said he lost the home his parents had hoped would stay in the family forever. He since has suffered two heart attacks, brought on by stress, he said.

"All I know is, it shook my faith a lot," Garcia said.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.