COLUMBUS, Ohio - A widespread telemarketing fraud ring used video clips of bogus dinners in Las Vegas and other cities to convince elderly investors they could get rich selling worthless property to casino developers and other "interested buyers," according to an indictment made public by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine on Monday.
The dinner tapes, used to back up claims of a market for the vacant properties, weren't filmed along the Las Vegas strip, the indictment alleges, but at the Brukner Nature Center in Troy, Ohio, just north of Dayton. The actors in the videos were the scammers and their family members, according to the indictment. Rented limos and a band added to the lavish production.
The 18 people accused in the scam are suspected of preying on thousands of people in at least 41 states.
DeWine said 13 suspects have been taken into custody in Ohio, Florida, Indiana and New York, and he expects the remaining five will be apprehended shortly.
All face felony charges in Miami County, Ohio, for an elaborate scam that solicited fees from landowners with the promise their uninhabited vacant land - in some cases owned for generations - would be sold at prices 15 times its worth. The amount stolen is in the millions, DeWine said.
"This has to be one of the largest and biggest criminal cases that the attorney general of this state has ever dealt with," DeWine said. "Just the number of people - as a prosecutor you rarely get a case where there are 18 defendants."
The names of the five at-large suspects were redacted from the indictment, but the ringleader was identified as Theodore S. Thomas, who registered United Property Sales, LLC, in Troy, Ohio, in 2007 and was involved with the two other companies: Worldwide Land Marketing, LLC, and Nationwide Advertising and Marketing, LLC, in Florida.
The suspects in custody include Thomas' wife, Kara McCampbell Thomas, her sister Ashley Greene, Roger R. Vandoren III, Christopher A. Fregapane, Jessica A. Gutierrez, Colin G. Hansford, Michael D. Perry, Alton Kessler, Quincy Austin, Michael Northcutt and Allen Cannon.
The attorney general's office worked with Miami County Prosecutor Gary Nasal, the Clark County (Ohio) Sheriff, Huber Heights (Ohio) Police Department and Florida law enforcement to find and charge the suspects.
"Criminals should understand that they can't use Miami County, Ohio, as a base of operations for their crimes," Nasal said.
The suspects phoned owners of inexpensive, vacant land throughout the country, claiming they could sell the land to "interested buyers" for a fee, according to the indictment. DeWine said the scam targeted elderly citizens owning uninhabited land in desserts, swamps and other undesirable locales.
The properties were often appraised at less than $2,000, but scammers told victims the land was worth between $25,000 and $100,000.
When victims questioned the deal, the caller would say the land was planned for a fictitious development such as a casino, Olympic training center or wildlife sanctuary. The scammers said they worked on behalf of wealthy investors and they sold land to these investors during the extravagant dinners that were shown on the video clips.
Fees ranging from $500 to $16,000 were collected through credit cards and checks over the phone. In some cases, victims were told their properties could receive top billing at the dinner shows for an additional fee up to $2,500. The video clips were posted on websites.
DeWine said there's no evidence "interested buyers" existed.
One of the victims, who DeWine called "Anna," owned eight parcels of land worth $2,347. Anna, 86, had ovarian cancer and told the telemarketers she wanted to leave money for her family. The telemarketer offered her $290,000 once she paid $15,000 in "closing costs."
"They told them lies, they cheated them, they took their money and just kept going year after year," DeWine said.
The fraud ring originated in Troy but spread to locations in Dayton, Huber Heights, Vandalia in Ohio and the Tampa, Fla., area. Suspects face felony charges that include engaging in a pattern of corrupt activities, aggravated theft of $1.5 million or more, telecommunications fraud and money laundering.
If convicted, they could be sentenced to a maximum 37 years in prison.
The investigation was a one of the first undertaken by the Economic Crimes Division created by DeWine in March 2011. DeWine said future cases could be aided by a new law granting the attorney general's office subpoena power for criminal cases.
)2012 Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)
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