A former Layton man has pleaded guilty to felony mail fraud in a $3.4 million real estate investment scheme.
Federal prosecutors in Santa Ana, California, said Shawn Patrick Watkins, 48, claimed to be a real estate expert with a background in law enforcement when he conducted seminars in Orange County. The Ponzi scheme defrauded about 50 investors, prosecutors said. Watkins claimed to be a former police officer, using that experience to lend credibility to the operation, the indictment said.
Lt. Mark Stichter of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said in previous Standard-Examiner coverage that Watkins was a volunteer reserve deputy in 1993-95.
“That is something completely different” than full-time peace officer work, Stichter said.
Watkins, who now lives in Branson, Missouri, pleaded guilty Monday to one count of mail fraud before U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney. A co-conspirator, Angel Bronsgeest, 55, earlier pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud. Both are scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 19.
In a Ponzi scheme, investors put up funds with promises of high returns. Initial investors sometimes are rewarded with decent returns, but those returns are paid for not via investment income but by the money of subsequent investors. The Ponzi operators typically pocket a lot of the investors’ money.
The indictment said Watkins presented seminars under the auspices of The Equity Growth Group Inc. That entity is listed as a Utah corporation with headquarters at 3607 Washington Blvd., Ogden. The state’s website said the corporation’s registration expired Nov. 25, 2015.
In a news release Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Santa Ana said Watkins admitted in his plea agreement that he conducted monthly seminars in which he offered investments in his company from 2007 to October 2013. Victims were told their money would be used to acquire or repair properties. Some investors were asked to provide “bridge loans” to allow the company to acquire properties when money from another investor had not been received.
Investors were falsely advised that the company controlled hundreds of properties that generated rental income and that it would continue its growth by acquiring new properties, according to the indictment. Investors were led to believe they would receive substantial interest payments and their money would be secured by collateral through the filing of deeds of trust on properties.
In reality, the company was not acquiring new properties and had a negative cash flow. Some investor funds were used to pay mortgages on three homes Watkins bought and were being occupied by Watkins, his parents and his estranged wife and children.
At sentencing, Watkins could face up to 20 years in federal prison.
Watkins and his company were defendants in at least two Northern Utah civil cases in which investors said they were defrauded.
In June 2011, Judge Glen R. Dawson of 2nd District Court in Farmington granted a default judgment of $151,517 against Watkins in favor of Pensco Trust Co. of New Hampshire.
Pensco loaned Watkins $100,000, backed by a trust deed on his single-family home in Syracuse, the fraud complaint said. Watkins never provided a recorded copy of the deed and never repaid any of the loan, the complaint said.
In 2013, Watkins, Equity Growth Group and Bronsgeest were sued in Ogden 2nd District Court by Clear Day Capital Inc. The plaintiff alleged it was defrauded of more than $300,000 in a series of real estate deals for properties in Weber County from 2008 to 2012.
The case ground to a halt after Bronsgeest filed for bankruptcy in 2014 and the suit was dismissed in March 2016 by Judge Noel Hyde.