PTA moms charged with running Ponzi scheme

Jul 6 2011 - 3:45pm

LOS ANGELES -- Three former Diamond Bar elementary school PTA members were charged Wednesday with nearly two dozen criminal counts in connection with an alleged Ponzi scheme that defrauded more than 40 people out of $1 million.

Maricela Barajas, 41, Juliana Celeste Menefee, 50, and Eva Perez, 51, face 22 felony counts each of grand theft of personal property and securities fraud, said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

If convicted on all counts, each defendant faces a maximum sentence of up to 13 years in state prison, Robison said.

L.A. County sheriff's investigators allege the women coaxed their victims into handing over their life savings or taking equity out of their homes for "investments" while working at school events and functions as members of the Armstrong Elementary School PTA.

The women told investors they would be buying into established names, such as Alta Dena Dairy, a firm they insisted would get high rates of return because they had exclusive rights to distribute the company's products at Disneyland, Disney Hotels and to small retailers, authorities said.

Victims, who came from all over Southern California and as far away as Salt Lake City, were told they would receive returns of up to 100 percent, authorities said. They were assured that even if they did not get the promised return on their principle, their cash investment would be guaranteed.

One person invested $208,000 in cash, said Sheriff's Capt. Mike Parker. He described the victims as "good, hard-working people" who didn't want to miss out "on the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families."

The suspects racked up investors and cash between 2008 and 2010. But eventually people began to ask questions and began demanding payment. The suspects called meetings and attempted to "pacify investors by explaining the delays in payment were a result of an internal audit of the business," Parker said.

Barajas, 41, and Menefee, 50, both of Diamond Bar, were arrested Tuesday at their homes. Perez, 51, is already serving an 11-year state prison sentence after pleading guilty in San Bernardino County court last year to multiple felony counts of grand theft in connection with the same scheme.

(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.

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