Two brothers have been busted in a widespread real estate fraud ring, including 40 properties in San Diego County, according to San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
David Zepeda, 57, and John Zepeda, 59, both from San Bernadino, have each been charged by Dumanis' office with more than 100 separate felonies, including identity theft, forgery, grand theft, rent skimming and conspiracy.
On Tuesday afternoon, a San Diego Superior Court Judge set bond for John Zepeda at $5 million -- $2 million higher than prosecutors had requested.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Valerie Tanney said Zepeda is a risk to flee, and that investigators had discovered $800,000 in bank deposits over the past three weeks, plus weapons at the San Bernadino home he shares with his brother.
Zepeda, in custody and represented for the time being by a public defender, occasionally shook his head in disagreement with the prosecutors remarks, and at one point looked as though he was suppressing laughter.
The Zepedas apparently had a fondness for financially distressed properties in Chula Vista, an epicenter of foreclosure activity.
"They never moved in or whatever; they just rented the place," said Ed Urbano, a Realtor who lives on the same street on which the Zepedas acquired two homes from his neighbors. "And I didn't see any sales price -- how much they bought them for. So I knew there was a scam going on," Urbano added.
At a press conference on Tuesday morning, The San Diego County District Attorney's office said the brothers allegedly created false or faulty quit-claim deeds on several properties in California and Nevada. The Zepedas allegedly rented out these foreclosed homes to unsuspecting renters pocketing the rent money for themselves.
“First the defendant identified a property in foreclosure, then they would acquire the property, they did this illegally either by forging a quit-claim deed or convincing home owners to transfer the property to them by promising that homeowner they would help them avoid foreclosure,” said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. “Once they had acquired the title, the Zepedas would rent out the property, in order to forestall the foreclosure process and to extend the period over which they collected rent, the brothers also filed bankruptcy petitions.”
Investigators said they found more than 300 victims in both states, including homeowners and mortgage banks. Tanney estimates the brothers stole more than $1.5 million. The office says it is continuing to search for more of the brothers’ bank accounts, including ones that may be offshore.
The District Attorney’s office has seen several cases of foreclosure fraud scams across the county.
"These guys are targeting the people in the most desperation, which makes the crime even more despicable," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Groch, chief of the D.A.'s Economic Crimes Unit. "But unfortunately, people who are facing foreclosure are great targets for scammers like this, because they're quite desperate," Groch continued. And they look for anything that will give them hope under pressure."
The Zepeda brothers found some of their victims by holding foreclosure seminars to teach people how to avoid foreclosure, Tanney said.
She added people are vulnerable and will try to do anything in their power to keep their homes.
"You are dealing with people are very vulnerable, when their homes are facing foreclosure and they have a chance to get out of the foreclosure, they believe,” Tanney said.
Some of their victims who willingly turned over their property paid the Zepedas a monthly fee.
"It wasn't just turning over the property to them, again they were paying a program fee and they were paying a monthly amount to these people," Tanney said.
Tanney and her colleagues suspect there are more victims out there.
"We believe there are additional victims in this case,” Dumanis said. “If someone believes they have dealt with the Zepeda brothers and feel they have been scammed they should contact our office."
Investigators said they served a search warrant at the brothers' residence and seized $335,000 in un-cashed checks; a gold Geneva watch; a gold Rolex watch; diamond bracelets and rings; $33,000 cash; more than 8,000 silver coins; gold troy ounces; boxes of rolled half-dollar coins; and a Bentley automobile.
John Zepeda will be arraigned in a San Diego Courtroom on Tuesday. David Zepeda is currently hospitalized, but will be arraigned in San Diego as soon as possible.
Dumanis says she suspects prosecutors from other counties in California and Nevada will file more charges against the brothers.
If convicted both brother faces up to 72 years in prison.