BROOKSVILLE — Gaetano Antonelli promised to make dreams come true by selling foreclosed homes to buyers with bad credit.
The problem, prosecutors say: Antonelli didn't own the homes, and in some cases the buyers didn't realize that until after they had moved in and made renovations.
On Thursday, the 63-year-old pleaded no contest to fraud and selling real estate without a license. He was sentenced to 36 months in prison, with credit for time served since November.
As part of a plea agreement, Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr. ordered Antonelli to pay five victims a total of $40,667 in restitution. Payments owed to a sixth victim who recently died would have brought the total to nearly $50,000, Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson said.
If convicted at trial on both counts, Antonelli faced up to 20 years in prison.
Simpson said it's unclear if Antonelli has the money to pay restitution. During plea negotiations, however, Simpson offered to seek a more lenient sentence if Antonelli came up with money to repay the victims.
When he didn't, Simpson pushed for the prison term.
"This wasn't somebody who just found a bag of money that fell of a Wells Fargo truck and made a mistake," he said. "This is somebody who systematically went out and started doing this to folks knowing he had no right to do so."
Investigators say Antonelli found homeowners facing foreclosure, telling them he could relieve them of their mortgages by suing their mortgage company. He told them they could walk away and maybe even get money back if they signed their deeds over to him by a power of attorney agreement. Then he listed the houses for sale on Craigslist without the knowledge of the homeowners.
But Antonelli's scheme was based on a false premise: Once the foreclosure process begins, as it had in these cases, the owner has no legal right to sign over the deed. Antonelli later told Hernando Sheriff's detectives that he had the right to sue banks and mortgage companies because mortgages are not legally binding contracts.
Antonelli's lawyer, Charles Holloman, said after the hearing that his client's mental capacity has apparently deteriorated and that he was misled by people who convinced him what he was doing was legal.
"Quite frankly, he did not have the sophistication in the face of this onslaught not to get conned," Holloman said. "I think one of the reasons he was such a good salesman is he originally believed he could discharge these mortgages."
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.