I-Team: 3 Convicted in Mortgage Fraud Scheme

By Steve Kanigher

Published 12/15 2011 05:43PM

Updated 12/15 2011 05:43PM

LAS VEGAS -- A former Las Vegas real estate broker, her husband, and a third woman who worked in the Nevada real estate industry were convicted by a federal jury today of conspiracy and fraud charges for their involvement in a mortgage fraud scheme that caused more than $24 million in losses to federally-insured banks.

Eve Mazzarella, 34, of San Diego, Steven Grimm, 48, of Las Vegas, and Melissa Beecroft, 32, of Las Vegas, were convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud, mail fraud, and wire fraud, seven counts of bank fraud, five counts of mail fraud, and two counts of wire fraud., the Nevada U.S. Attorney's office said. Mazzarella and Grimm were first charged in March 2008 and four other defendants, including Beecroft, were added to the indictment in June 2008.

They face up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million on each count. Sentencing is scheduled for March 23, 2012, before U.S. District Judge Roger Hunt.

Fellow defendants Christina R. Thompson, Amy R. Ortiz, and Jyothi Panikkar pleaded guilty before trial. Five other defendants, Daicy Vargas, Benjamin Labee, Shauna Labee, Craig Christians and Robert Samora, were also charged in the scheme and pleaded guilty.

"The U.S. Attorney's office has made the prosecution of mortgage fraud crime a priority, and continues to work closely with its partners on the Southern Nevada Mortgage Fraud Task Force to aggressively investigate and prosecute these cases," Nevada's U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden said. "Since our mortgage fraud program started in the spring of 2008, we have charged approximately190 persons with mortgage fraud crimes."

Kevin Favreau, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Las Vegas Division, also said: "Today's verdict should send a clear message to all real estate and mortgage professionals who engage in these types of schemes that they will be held responsible for their actions."

The evidence presented by the government at trial indicated that Mazzarella and husband Grimm controlled and operated numerous Nevada limited-liability companies that conducted business in Las Vegas. Beecroft was resident agent and manager of Secured Mortgage Services, also registered in Nevada.

The object of the conspiracy was to obtain money and property by causing false information to be placed in the mortgage loan applications of straw buyers. A straw buyer is an individual who allows residential real estate to be purchased in his or her name. It is alleged that the straw buyers were paid to participate in the conspiracy. After the mortgage loans were funded, Grimm and Mazzarella caused title and escrow companies to disperse a portion of each loan to one of their limited liability companies, and caused mortgage brokers, loan officers and others to remit a portion of their commissions and fees to Grimm and Mazzarella.

Once Grimm and Mazarrella obtained control over a property, they re-sold the property to another straw buyer at an inflated price. Grimm and Mazzarella also concealed receipt of the money they obtained through this scheme by causing disbursements to be made to shell companies under their control and by moving money between multiple accounts. Beecroft assisted in the scheme as a mortgage broker, loan officer and loan processor on the majority of the fraudulent mortgage loan transactions.

Grimm and Mazarrella engaged in roughly 432 straw buyer transactions involving an estimated 227 properties with a total purchase price of more than $107 million. They defaulted on mortgage payments on many of the loans, which caused the properties to go into foreclosure. At least 143 of the properties are in default, causing more than $24 million in losses to banks.

The investigation was conducted by the FBI with assistance from the Southern Nevada Mortgage Fraud Task Force, which includes Metro Police, the Nevada Attorney General's office, Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration, Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the United States Secret Service. The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brian Pugh and Sarah Griswold.

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