TAMPA — Three Tampa Bay men have been indicted in a $1.84 million mortgage fraud involving 10 properties purchased without a penny down.
The indictment unsealed Tuesday stems from a 2006 St. Petersburg Times story detailing a mysterious real estate spending spree by a single mother with few assets.
But federal prosecutors say the single mother was a "straw buyer" and that William Ondra Joel II, 31, of Wesley Chapel was actually behind the purchases.
Joel, president of Investor's Outlet Inc. in Tampa, is charged with mail fraud, conspiracy and making false statements to a financial institution.
Also indicted on identical charges are the company's vice president, Maurice Vernon, 32, of Tampa, and Elton Lassiter, 44, of Odessa, a loan processor for an unidentified lender.
All could get 30 years in prison if convicted.
Family members of the three men declined comment at the first appearance in court Tuesday.
The straw buyer, Jill Taylor, 35, of St. Petersburg, is cooperating with prosecutors. Known as Jill Jackson at the time she signed to buy the 10 properties, Taylor pleaded guilty in November 2009 to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and faces up to five years in prison.
Prosecutors say Joel's company was involved in the real estate investment business. Some sellers said they thought Joel was buying properties, but Taylor instead showed up at closings.
The indictment says the men induced lenders to fund inflated mortgage loans with fraudulent representations on loan applications and created the "illusion" that Taylor had enough money to buy the properties.
The indictment also says they created fake construction or renovation invoices so lenders would pay additional funds.
By 2007, all 10 of the properties were in foreclosure. Taylor told the Times she had been foolish to fall for the get-rich-quick scheme pitched by Joel, a church acquaintance.
Taylor also said she simply followed instructions to buy 10 Tampa properties she had never seen. She paid $700,000 more than the county property appraiser said they were worth.
"They arranged everything," Taylor told the Times. "They picked out the properties. They selected the lenders. I was just told to go to closings, and that's what I did."
But Taylor said, "I didn't know what I was doing. I don't have any background in real estate."
The indictment is largely silent on the actual mechanics of the transactions and how Joel and the others may have pocketed sales proceeds.
But prosecutors say they are seeking at least $800,000 in illegal proceeds from the sales.
Joel has been arrested numerous times on drug charges, though none in the last 10 years. He served four months at a Georgia boot camp in 2002 for cocaine possession.
A U.S. magistrate judge Tuesday agreed to release Joel on $50,000 bail and said he could continue work as a real estate agent as long as he does not conduct any financial transactions.
"No flipping houses," Judge Elizabeth Jenkins said. "No helping people with their business transactions."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. William R. Levesque can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3432.