Thursday, December 14, 2017
Public safety

People needing legal help trusted wrong man, St. Petersburg police say

ST. PETERSBURG — The deal sounded pretty good.

For a little money, Steve Cruz could get an attorney on his brother's case, maybe even get him home from prison.

Cruz and his family just had to hand $1,500 to the smooth talker in the business suit, who seemed to have high-powered lawyers on speed dial.

"It sounded great," said Cruz, 58, whose brother is serving a life sentence for robbery. "The red flag went up, but I didn't do anything about it. … I gave him the check, got a receipt. He said we would be hearing from him in about two weeks."

•••

Anthony Dexter Moragne is not a federal investigator. He never worked for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. He's not a professor at Stetson University College of Law. He doesn't have an FBI badge. And his employer wasn't the U.S. Marshals Service.

But he told people that, police said. And many believed him.

He said he had connections to judges and could get prison sentences slashed or eliminated. Police said his victims, who handed over nearly $10,000 in the past year, thought he was legitimate — partly because he pretended he had the backing of the NAACP, where he volunteered.

A few months ago, after hearing from several people who said they had given Moragne money for legal help, the NAACP called St. Petersburg police, said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the organization.

Moragne, 43, was arrested Oct. 31 on a charge of scheme to defraud.

During their investigation, police learned that Moragne, in fact, worked at Walmart.

"When my victims found out he worked out at Walmart, they were quite shocked," said St. Petersburg police Sgt. Kevin Smith. "He told them he was working undercover for the government."

•••

Moragne, who is out of jail on bail, did not return calls for comment.

Records show he has spent about 10 years in prison since his arrest history began in 1989. That year, he was charged with robbing three convenience stores in Pasco and Hernando counties in one week. About 10 years later, authorities in Palm Beach County said he stole a $62,000 Mercedes-benz from a sales lot. The car was found in St. Petersburg.

He was released from prison in 2003. It's unclear what he did to support himself between then and about a year ago, when he got a job at the new Walmart in the Kenwood neighborhood.

He impressed his bosses, those who know him said, moving from sales associate to shift manager.

Sharee Hogan, 22, met him when she worked in grocery.

"He used to come into Walmart dressed in a suit," Hogan said. "He would say he had just come from court."

Moragne, she said, made it known that Walmart wasn't his "real job" and was actually a cover assignment for his job as a federal agent. Earlier this year, he told her he could get high-powered lawyers from New York to take a look at the case of her children's father. Anthony Peterson, 25, is serving a 30-year prison sentence for vehicular homicide.

Moragne told Hogan, she said, that he could make that sentence shrink — for $2,000. The mother of three scraped together the cash.

She got suspicious when Moragne started making excuses.

About the same time, Cruz, a former manager who's now disabled, called places Moragne said he worked.

They had never heard of him.

•••

Smith said it was "very unusual" how far Moragne went: He sent people texts and emails with updates on cases. He showed them motions he supposedly filed. He also pressured his victims for cash.

Moragne, Smith said, seemed confident when he came in for an interview with detectives. He said he was just the middle man, that the real scammers were the New York lawyers. But he couldn't prove the lawyers were real.

"His version of the events just does not line up with the facts that have been discovered," Smith said.

•••

Sykes said the NAACP was caught off guard by the victims' allegations and was particularly stunned to learn some money had been exchanged at the branch office.

Moragne volunteered with the NAACP's legal redress board, but bylaws state the organization will not give legal advice or take money. Instead, Sykes said, the NAACP investigates claims, advocates when necessary and refers people to the Florida Bar.

"He went through that training," Sykes said. "He went more than once."

He said the NAACP doesn't have the resources to run background checks on every volunteer and called this experience "difficult." After learning of the allegations, the NAACP told Moragne he couldn't volunteer anymore.

"We're going to have to develop some type of protocol to investigate people," Sykes said. "We can't run the risk of this sort of thing happening in the future."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.

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