Saturday, November 18, 2017
Public safety

Ohio investigation snares 18 in four states, including Florida, for alleged land sale scam

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DUNEDIN — Helene Peters and her neighbors harbored suspicions about what went on inside 2045 Ridgecrest Drive.

Peters, 37, and her husband, Curt, 36, moved into the quiet neighborhood in May 2011. They soon noticed odd activity around the tan house across the street.

There were always several cars parked outside the home, Peters said. A man spent hours each day walking in front of the house, always on the phone, writing things down. At times a car would pull up and a man would get out, grab a package left by the door, then leave.

Curt thought the neighbors ran a day care center. Helene thought they sold drugs.

Her suspicions solidified one day in June 2011. She was eating lunch, she said, when she looked out her kitchen window and saw the man who lived in 2045 emerge with a briefcase in his hand.

The briefcase fell open. Stacks of cash tumbled onto the driveway. Bills fluttered into the street. The man scrambled to stuff the money back into the briefcase. Then he drove off.

Helene and Curt's theories were wrong. And as they found out later, they weren't the only ones watching 2045 Ridgecrest.

The man with the money-filled briefcase, according to a search warrant, was Ted Thomas, 32. The Ohio Attorney General's Office says Ted and his wife, Kara, 29, ran a multistate telemarketing scheme from their Dunedin home that bilked thousands of elderly people across the country out of millions of dollars.

The Thomases ran companies that called owners of vacant desert land, authorities said, and convinced them they could sell the land for 10 to 15 times its value in exchange for an upfront fee. They called people like Martha Copeland, 73, of Lakeland.

Copeland owns 16 undeveloped parcels of virtually worthless land near El Paso, Texas. She inherited them from her parents. In 2007, Copeland said, she got a series of phone calls from salesmen with United Property Sales.

They told her they could sell her land for $420,000, Copeland said. United Property Sales ran dinner shows in Las Vegas and Reno, the salesmen told her, where investors were snapping up land. United just needed $1,067 up front in "marketing fees."

She paid the fees, but her land never sold. United Property Sales stopped taking her calls years ago.

"I really thought they would do a good job," she said. "I was brought up to believe people."

United Property Sales, authorities say, was run by Ted and Kara Thomas. They started the company in Ohio in 2007, then moved it to Dunedin in 2010, according to the Ohio Attorney General's Office. Thomas had a team of telemarketers that dialed out of 21 phone lines at 2045 Ridgecrest Drive, a search warrant states.

Thomas also had telemarketers working in two homes in nearby Ozona and back in Ohio, according to a search warrant. Investigators' analysis of bank records showed that from 2007 through 2011, the Thomases and their partners split $2 million to $4 million.

On June 25, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced indictments against the Thomases and 16 others, the culmination of a yearlong investigation involving agencies in Ohio and Florida.

All 18 defendants face felony charges in Ohio, some with potential prison sentences of up to 37 years. One of them — Jessica L. Gutierrez, 26, of Troy, Ohio — reached a plea deal for a four-year prison sentence, with the possibility of release after two years, pending a judge's approval.

The other defendants — many of whom face more severe charges than Gutierrez did — will be tried separately. The first trial is scheduled for October.

Ted and Kara Thomas are represented separately by lawyers from Dayton, Ohio. Both maintain their innocence.

"My client's story is very different from what I read in the indictment," said Shawn Hooks, Ted Thomas' attorney. "It was a legitimate business that he used to market and advertise properties, and there's nothing illegal about that."

Ted Thomas also disputes claims that he was the ringleader of a multicompany telemarketing ring. United Property Sales was Thomas' only company, Hooks said, and it went out of business several years ago.

The Ohio Attorney General's Office says otherwise. Thomas ran several companies, the office says, and they all used similar sales tactics to convince people their land was suddenly in high demand. An Olympic training center is planned near your land, some were told, or a wind energy farm, or a nuclear power plant.

Copeland was one of several who said they were told their land would be sold at a dinner show. One of the companies' websites featured a video of a Las Vegas dinner show, authorities said. Willie Nelson's song On The Road Again played as Las Vegas landmarks splashed across the screen, then faded to show a skinny man in a suit holding a microphone.

"The best time to invest is right now," he told the audience.

The video, according to Ohio Attorney General DeWine, was staged. It was filmed in 2009 at an Ohio nature center, and those in the audience were United Property Sales employees.

•••

The descriptions of United Property Sales' tactics sound almost identical to timeshare resale fraud, the subject of a March Tampa Bay Times investigative report. Thousands of timeshare owners accuse Florida telemarketers of guaranteeing to sell their timeshares for an upfront fee, then never delivering.

Several of the people indicted along with the Thomases used to work for Tampa Bay timeshare resale companies, according to state licensing records.

Florida telemarketing companies accused of fraudulent sales tactics rarely face criminal charges. The Florida Attorney General's Office primarily pursues them through civil lawsuits.

The Ohio Attorney General's Office once had a similar policy. When DeWine took office in 2011, he told his attorneys to build criminal cases against companies accused of fraud. The United Property Sales case is one of the first.

"They targeted individuals who were elderly, they told them lies, they cheated them, they took their money and just kept going. Year after year," DeWine said. "It's a despicable act. . . . Anybody who does that needs to go to prison."

By the time DeWine announced the indictments, most of the defendants had been arrested. Only one remains at large: Michael Sweigart, 55, of St. Petersburg.

If not for a curious Pinellas Park police officer, Ted Thomas might still be out there too.

•••

Just after 4 a.m. on July 8, Pinellas Park police Officer Robert Schmidt stopped next to an ambulance at the La Mark Charles Motel. It was a slow night, and Schmidt wanted to see if the paramedics needed help. They had been called, Schmidt said, because the guy in room 136 was having an anxiety attack.

Schmidt sized him up. He was skinny, had short hair and used bigger words than Schmidt was accustomed to hearing from La Mark Charles guests. He gave Schmidt his name: Theodore Sebastian Thomas.

Schmidt ran the name through FCIC, a Florida crime database. Thomas has a criminal record — he served six months in prison in 2004 for convictions including burglary and fraudulent use of a personal ID — but there were no Florida warrants out for his arrest.

Schmidt also would have run Thomas' name through NCIC, a national database, but it was down for maintenance. He told the paramedics their patient didn't have a history of violence and he left.

About 15 minutes later, Schmidt got a message to call Special Agent Ellen Wilcox of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The FDLE, which had assisted Ohio investigators, had been alerted when Schmidt ran Thomas' name through FCIC. Agent Wilcox asked Schmidt to arrest Thomas.

Schmidt couldn't until he confirmed the Ohio warrant, though. For the next 75 minutes, he repeatedly refreshed NCIC. About 5:45 a.m., NCIC came back online. Schmidt drove to Northside Hospital and found Thomas sitting on a hospital bed.

Thomas looked at the officer and smiled. He told Schmidt he was "tired of running." He had been living at the La Mark Charles under an assumed name, authorities said. Thomas handed Schmidt a fake ID and fake Social Security card for "Derrick Dwayne Coffey," the officer said.

While they waited for the FDLE agent, Thomas told Schmidt his line of work: insurance underwriting.

Thomas said he was "really good at talking people into opening accounts," Schmidt remembered.

"He said he was the best at what he did," Schmidt said.

Times researcher Natalie Watson and staff writer Stephanie Bolling contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected]

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