Thursday, May 14, 2009
It looked fishy to Monterey County Assessor Steve Vagnini.
Eleven houses in Soledad and Gonzales were deeded to Antonio Gomez for prices ranging from about $4,000 to $20,000 each over a six-week period from mid-March to late April.
Even stranger, several of the houses aren’t even owned by the individuals who signed the deeds transferring ownership to Gomez; they’ve been foreclosed on and are owned by the bank. At least two of the grantors showed up at the Recorder’s office with qualms about the transactions, Vagnini adds. Odd transfers – such as homes being swapped between owners for little or no money, over the span of just a few weeks – compound the mystery.
“They have some motive for doing this; who knows what it is,” Vagnini says.
He turned the deeds over to the District Attorney’s office, which is beginning an investigation.
Asked why she sold two homes to Gomez for less than $8,000 each, Martha Ramirez alleges in Spanish, “We didn’t sell them. He robbed us.”
When she and husband Jose Macias fell behind on their mortgage payments on a home in Gonzales, she says, they hoped to negotiate a short sale in which the bank would accept a selling price less than the amount of their loan. Then Gomez showed up, she says, claiming the bank sent him to begin the short sale process. The couple deeded the house to him and gave him $50,000, Ramirez says, with the understanding that he’d help them get out of debt.
“We signed the papers because he said he’d work with the bank to do a short sale,” she says. “But the bank said they don’t know him.”
When Gomez didn’t return as promised, Ramirez complained to the county Recorder’s Office and filed a report with the Soledad Police. She and Macias are now looking to hire an attorney, she says.
According to Soledad Police Lt. Jaime Fernandez, the couple’s April 24 report alleges they signed two houses and a car over to Gomez because he said he’d refinance and sell them back to the couple at a lower price.
The department has assigned an investigator to the case, Fernandez says.
Gomez could not be reached for comment. The person who answers his Soledad phone number says he does not live there.
In addition to Ramirez and Macias’ home, 10 others were recently deeded to Gomez. Ramirez says half the former homeowners are her friends or relatives.
Gomez’s residence in Soledad went through its own series of odd transactions. The previous homeowner, Raymundo Diaz Leal, lost the house in foreclosure last summer. Yet the house had been deeded to Gomez in 2005, according to the Recorder’s records. It was deeded to Gomez and his wife, Susana Alvizo, several more times between September and November, twice by Jose Luis Alvizo.
Records show that since last summer’s foreclosure, the house has been owned by the Bank of New York. Yet it’s still listed as Gomez’s mailing address in the recent deeds transferred to him.
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The bank had already repossessed Soledad doctor Jaime Giron’s home when, he says, a former co-worker, Virginia Diaz, told him Gomez had helped her get her own house back. “She knew that I was also having problems with my house,” he says.
Giron says he agreed to deed the house to Gomez, with the understanding that Gomez would sell the house back to him at the lower, foreclosed value. According to county records, Giron sold the house to Gomez and Julio Chavez (Diaz’s husband) on April 27 for about $18,000.
But Giron says he never received any money; in fact, he says, he gave Gomez $300 for the paperwork. The house wasn’t his to sell anyway – it’s owned by Wilmington Trust. Within a few days, Giron was reconsidering the transaction.
“My gut feeling is like, ‘Uh-oh,’” Giron says. “This sounds to good to be true. It was, ‘Sign these forms and I’ll get you your house.’ How can I reverse that? I have to get hold of a lawyer or something, because I gave him power of attorney.”
Giron says he recommended Gomez’s services to a co-worker, whose home was deeded to Gomez the day after Giron’s.
Chavez and Diaz still live in the Soledad home they deeded to Gomez in mid-March. Chavez could not be reached, and Diaz would not comment on the allegations. “I don’t know anything,” she said in Spanish. “My name isn’t listed on any deed.”
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Deputy District Attorney John Hubanks won’t comment on the Gomez case in particular, but he says the transfer of multiple homes in default, far below market value, can be a red flag indicating foreclosure fraud. “It warrants scrutiny,” he says.
Homeowners facing foreclosure are particularly vulnerable to scam artists offering to negotiate deals with the bank, he says. Sometimes they ask their victims to deed over their homes, promising to refinance and sell them back at lower prices.
That’s illegal under state law, but not uncommon. “We’re seeing a lot of that right now,” Hubanks says. “The hot area is foreclosure rescue fraud: You’ve got licensed or unlicensed individuals reaching out to distressed homeowners, and sometimes taking the money and running.”
A pending local case, People v. Maria Ponce, involves an alleged foreclosure rescue scheme in the Gonzales area in which three defendants are charged with stealing more than $100,000 from up to 75 victims, primarily Latino homeowners who say they paid the defendants to refinance their homes, but no services were rendered. The preliminary hearing is scheduled for May.
“The Hispanic population seems to be vulnerable,” Hubanks says. “A lot of the businesses that are targeting these people like to advertise on Spanish radio and TV.”
A legitimate loan modification is negotiated by a real estate agent licensed to accept advance fees and using state-approved marketing materials and contracts. The market rate for such a service is usually a small percentage of the loan principal, or several thousand dollars.
The state Department of Real Estate has not licensed an Antonio Gomez in Central California.