PLANT CITY — Millicent Antun was in trouble.
She was behind on mortgage payments, and her house was in foreclosure. She feared she would wind up on the street with her goats, turkeys and chickens.
Then she heard the radio ad: A company called 4 Solutions was offering a way out.
"Stop foreclosure!" the person said. "4 Solutions is your answer!"
When Antun called the company's Tampa office, an employee said 4 Solutions could pay the mortgage insurance and taxes for a year if she sent them $500 a month, half her monthly salary as a nurse's assistant.
Antun, 60, signed the papers last year.
With that, Antun joined dozens of Floridians — most of whom are Hispanic — who unwittingly sold their houses and lost tens of thousands of dollars in deals set up by 4 Solutions. Hundreds of other homeowners entered into deals with the company and millions in profits are involved, attorneys and Hispanic advocates say.
The U.S. Secret Service is investigating what appears to be yet more fallout from the housing and subprime lending boom.
Some desperate homeowners have filed lawsuits to get back their properties and recoup lost equity. Lawyers say they probably won't have much luck. The directors of 4 Solutions vanished, possibly to Peru.
"I don't know where I'm going to go," Antun said in January, after she discovered she doesn't own the house. "I still have my animals, and I'll have to find homes for them."
This is how the transactions worked, according to homeowners, attorneys and court documents:
Meetings were arranged at 4 Solutions' Tampa office or in clients' homes. Sometimes, employees promised refinancing. Other times, 4 Solutions promised to take over the mortgage for a year or two. Homeowners were told they would get their houses back.
Instead, the houses were sold to investors – "straw buyers" who were told that 4 Solutions would pay the mortgage. The company didn't, and houses went into foreclosure. When people tried to buy back their houses, they found that the properties were saddled with large mortgages.
Some homeowners say 4 Solutions slipped sale documents into their paperwork. Other times, employees forged signatures or falsely notarized documents, homeowners and attorneys say.
They accuse 4 Solutions and its mortgage brokerage partner, Frontier Capital, of squeezing equity out of hundreds of Florida homes and sometimes taking thousands of dollars from homeowners during the sales.
"A lot of people did not understand the significance of what they were signing," said Thomas Gallo, a Valrico lawyer who represents a 4 Solutions client. "It appears that they targeted Spanish-speaking individuals and that they created a level of trust in the relationship. People basically believed what they were being told."
• • •
Antun's mother died in 2001, leaving her enough for a deposit on the gray-blue house with a screened front porch. Fruit trees she planted seven years ago now shade the yard where turkeys, chickens, quail and goats roam.
When Antun heard 4 Solutions' offer to take over the mortgage for a year, she was relieved. As she signed the paperwork, everything was fine. Then she saw a document with the words "buyer" and "seller." She wasn't selling her house, was she?
That wording would allow them to pay the mortgage, employees assured her. They promised she would get her house back in a year. She signed, and the title went to Luis Vargas — someone Antun isn't sure she ever met.
She became suspicious when her checks started coming back uncashed last summer. By then, 4 Solutions' Falkenburg Road office was empty. The company had skipped town, a property manager told her.
In November, Antun was served foreclosure papers. Her home was temporarily saved when Vargas took the title, but it was being foreclosed again because no one had paid her mortgage.
Antun's house, valued at about $80,000, sold for $144,000 when she signed the papers in March 2007, according to public records and her closing papers. That's about $40,000 more than the mortgage company said she owed. Normally, most of that would go to the seller. She didn't see any of it.
Instead, almost $30,000 went to 4 Solutions' Coral Gables law firm, Scaglione & Quesada, closing documents show. Todd Mackey, an attorney for several homeowners who entered into deals with 4 Solutions, said he has seen other closing documents with that same instruction that gives tens of thousands of dollars to the law firm.
He's not sure who got that money. It could be a legitimate transaction that went through the law firm's trust fund, he said, but the closing documents are vague. Lydia Quesada, the attorney who represented 4 Solutions and its directors, did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment.
• • •
Things started unraveling when Tampa police got a tip about 4 Solutions last summer. In August, they arrested Carmen Oliveri, the wife of 4 Solutions director Jose Oliveri, after she accepted a check from a 4 Solutions client at his Tampa home.
Carmen and Jose Oliveri entered into a scheme to defraud the homeowner by presenting loan terms without disclosing that he was signing over his Tampa home, an arrest report states. Carmen Oliveri is facing grand theft and fraud charges. Her attorney, Frances Perrone, declined to comment.
Jose Oliveri and Mario Quiroz, the director of Frontier Capital, have been harder to track down. They stopped replying to lawsuits early last year and summonses served to their Seffner homes came back.
They're probably in Peru, attorneys and homeowners say. Ruth DeSoto, who unwittingly sold her Orlando home, said she sat in on a conference call between Jose Oliveri and an advocate for the Hispanic community. He was on house arrest in Lima, Peru, during that conversation last fall, DeSoto said.
Jose Oliveri, a tabloid newspaper owner, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2005 for taking between $3,000 and $5,000 a week from Peru's intelligence agency in exchange for articles defaming President Alberto Fujimori's opponents, according to La Republica and LatinNews Daily.
DeSoto said Oliveri told the group that the company wasn't created to commit fraud. He said there were some things he wasn't told about, and he said his wife wasn't involved.
DeSoto didn't believe him.
"How's he not going to know?" she said. "There was a lot of money."
• • •
Federal agents are investigating potential bank and wire fraud because the lenders aren't receiving loan payments. Meanwhile, the homeowners' plight is playing out in civil cases.
The lawsuits often name Mario Quiroz and Jose Oliveri as defendants, but the homeowners are also seeking damages from others who may have played a part in the transaction.
One complaint, filed in March in Miami-Dade County, alleges that Wachovia Bank assistant vice president Ruben Luna got kickbacks from 4 Solutions for monitoring the money that was put into accounts set up for straw buyers and verifying its legitimacy if lenders asked.
Luna didn't return calls seeking comment, and Wachovia officials declined to comment.
In some cases, the title companies Frontier Capital used — Synergy Title Services, Angel Title, and Residential Title Services —are named as defendants. Residential Title Services' employees declined to comment and Synergy Title Services' managers did not return calls.
Carl Roberts, owner of Angel Title, said he followed every instruction he received from the parties involved in the sale. It's unusual, but not unheard of, to have thousands of dollars from a seller's settlement money transferred to another source, he said.
Secret Service agents came to his office last summer and took copies of documents related to 4 Solutions, but he insists he's not worried.
"There were no kickbacks," he said. "There was no financial involvement with us. We just followed the instructions."
• • •
Blas and Lourdes Monje of Valrico thought they were refinancing their home. They had owned it for six years, and had equity they wanted to tap.
Mario Quiroz, a licensed mortgage broker and director of Frontier Capital, came to their house at dinner time on a Friday in October 2004. He spread papers across the table and assured them they were refinancing their house, court records state.
Months later, Lourdes Monje came home to find appraisers at her house. They told her a man named Antonio Cruz was selling the home to Magda Revolledo, Quiroz's wife.
The Monjes later discovered with each sale — the first to Cruz and the second to Revolledo —the buyers were able to get new appraisals and larger loans. The mortgage payments skyrocketed, and the home's equity disappeared.
After about two years in court, the Monjes got their house back and won a $100,000 judgment against Quiroz, Revolledo, Cruz, 4 Solutions and Frontier Capital. But it's now in foreclosure because the mortgage wasn't paid. Their attorney, Thomas Gallo, says he doesn't expect they'll get any money.
Homeowners weren't the only people hurt in the transactions. The straw buyers were, too.
Frontier Capital solicited people with good credit — but not necessarily a lot of money — who wanted to profit from the housing market. They promised the buyers thousands of dollars for each closing and said they wouldn't have to do anything.
Frontier Capital used the straw buyers' credit to apply for multiple loans with different subprime lenders. Sometimes they would have the straw buyer seek loans on up to a dozen homes — something they never should have qualified for, attorney Todd Mackey said.
One of the investors, Jose Miguel Pro-Landazuri, has four properties in his name, from Lutz to Orlando. He doesn't want them. They've ruined his credit.
Pro-Landazuri didn't know the owners didn't want to sell, according to court records. Mackey, his attorney, plans to ask a judge to decide if the properties should go to Pro-Landazuri or be returned to their original owners.
"It's a mess," Mackey said.
Meanwhile, Millicent Antun remains in her Plant City home, uncertain if she'll be forced out. She brings home boxes from work and slowly packs her belongings. She'll be able to move her ceramic figurines, glass birds and antique jars — but not her menagerie. She'll have to find new homes for them.
That's a last resort, she says while stroking Charlie, the green Quaker parrot.
"They're my sanity," she said.
Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.