A grand jury in Yamhill County, Ore., last week handed down indictments of seven suspects accused of perpetrating one of the state’s worst real-estate scams.
Together, the seven face 39 counts of racketeering, theft, forgery, broker fraud and other charges. The suspects, all Latinos, are accused of bilking thousands of dollars from other Latinos who wanted to buy, refinance or sell homes in the area, about an hour southwest of Portland.
All the victims speak little to no English. Many lost their life savings or homes, and at least one family ended up in a homeless shelter after they lost their house. The alleged Oregon fraud is just one example of an ever-increasing crime that affects both borrowers and lenders across the country.
Deputy district attorney Alicia Eagan said it’s difficult to pin down exactly how much money was involved in the scheme or exactly how far it stretched.
Steve Corson, spokesman for Oregon’s Department of Consumer and Business Services, said the case is the largest such fraud anyone can remember, although he doesn’t yet know the total amount of money scammed. Each of the victims identified so far gave between $500 and $10,000 to the alleged suspects, he said.
The list of potential victims already has pushed past the 100 mark, and more are still coming forward. Of those, only about 20 have been looked into so far, Eagan said. Some of those 100 people are from three nearby counties, and Eagan expects more arrests to be made.
Eagan declined to discuss specific facts of the case, but he said the suspects allegedly set up loans fraudulently and included fraudulent information on the loan applications. The victims all spoke little to no English, so they relied on the suspects to translate the loan documents for them. The victims had no idea they were signing documents that included false information, Eagan said.
Arrested so far have been brothers Samuel Pleites, Douglas Pleitez and Guadalupe Pleitez; brothers Juan “Carlos” Morales and Eddy Morales; Cristobal Vilorio and Patricia Tellez.
Samuel Pleites and Douglas Pleitez were real estate agents who worked for RE/MAX Premier Associates in McMinnville, Ore. That office has since broken with the national RE/MAX organization, but is continuing as an independent operation.
Tellez worked as a real estate agent for Real Realty in Beaverton, Ore., and had a desk at the now-defunct City Lending in McMinnville, Ore.
Vilorio and Eddy and Juan Morales worked for City Lending.
Eagan said she’s unsure where Guadalupe Pleitez was working at the time of his arrest. All the suspects changed jobs and employers a lot, she said.
The alleged frauds first came to light in January when Olga Salas Sanchez and Agustin Espinoza Cisneros became concerned about the paperwork for the house on which they’d been making mortgage payments for a year.
They told their story to Ed Rosario, a detective in the sheriff’s office. He looked into it and discovered that “they hadn’t bought a house, they had been paying someone else’s mortgage for a year,” Eagan said.
The person whose mortgage they’d been paying had no idea what was happening, Eagan said. She would not discuss the couple’s case in more detail.
The couple’s situation eventually led Rosario to dozens of other alleged victims, although no one had any idea of the full reach of the scams when the couple first came forward, Eagan said. The grand jury has been hearing evidence that led to the indictments since early March.
The investigation is ongoing, but Eagan acknowledges it has been a difficult case. Rosario speaks Spanish, which has been essential, but many victims initially were reluctant to talk about their situation. They all trusted the suspects and ended up defrauded, which made it challenging for authorities to earn their trust, Eagan said. Additionally, many are undocumented workers.
She said many of the victims worked hard to pay their mortgages even as payments increased exponentially, and they didn’t question unexpected jumps in payments.
“The problem is what happened here could happen anywhere,” Eagan said.