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Published Aug. 28, 2005

Within 10 minutes, the phone in Jerry Lee Maxwell's modest home rang twice.

She didn't pick it up, and the callers left no messages on her answering machine.

"See what I'm talking about?" she said plaintively.

Early every morning creditors begin calling, she said. They don't stop until nighttime.

"Seven times one day. All day long. Saturday. Sunday," said Mrs. Maxwell, 72, who is the widow of a city of St. Petersburg sanitation worker.

Her troubles started when she needed new air conditioning for her paid-off home and wanted to eliminate her credit card debt as well. A neighbor knew an air conditioning salesman who knew a man who could get her some money.

Her life has been a shambles ever since. She is not alone.

Close to two dozen African-American residents of St. Petersburg _ mostly poor and elderly _ say a mortgage broker promised to help pay off debts and invest their money but failed to do so. Instead, they say, he pocketed much of it. Several live in Palmetto Park, a neighborhood in Midtown.

According to her loan documents, Mrs. Maxwell took out a mortgage with Michael Danish in May 2003 for $54,000. Mrs. Maxwell said Danish was supposed to use about $18,000 to pay off her credit cards with Capital One, Sears and Direct Merchants Bank.

She received a check from the loan for $26,000. Ray K. Freeman, the air conditioning salesman suggested by a neighbor, took her to Tampa to cash the check. She paid him $6,100 _ a cash payment acknowledged by a receipt _ for her new central heat and air system. She said she also gave Freeman $120 cash for the ride to Tampa and back.

In addition, Mrs. Maxwell said: "I gave Mike Danish $1,800 out of that money. He said he would invest it and I would have something coming in."

The credit cards were never paid off, she said. Danish "had a check to do it and I have a copy of the check, and he didn't pay it. It just hurt me so bad the way I was done.

"I only live on Social Security and a small pension. He got me so messed up, I can't even answer the phone."

The people who feel wronged tell the same story: Danish gave them only a portion of the money they borrowed, promising to invest the rest for a lifetime monthly income, said John Herbst, a lawyer with Gulfcoast Legal Services Inc., a nonprofit corporation that provides free legal assistance to the poor and elderly.

Some of the people who visited his downtown St. Petersburg law office also said their names had been forged on loan checks, Herbst said.

"I am of the belief that Mr. Danish may have forged checks, as the clients and creditors did not receive funds due to be disbursed," said Khrystal Hilton, a lawyer with the Alpert Elkin Law Firm in Tampa, which is representing 20 people in their claims against Danish.

There appear to have been other irregularities, she said.

"I have a mortgage that is notarized but does not have my client's signature," said Ms. Hilton, pointing out that a notary must be present under Florida law. "I've got affidavits from my clients saying no notary was present at the closing."

She said the mortgages were supposedly notarized by agents of Bay Pointe Title Inc., where Danish had been vice president for about three months in late 2002 and early 2003.

Donna Whitlock, owner of Bay Pointe Title, 1211 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa, said that notaries were always present, as required. "Most of his customers, a lot of them don't drive, so we go to their house," she said. "It was either me or my brother."

She herself was a victim, Ms. Whitlock said. "He stole money from me too, about $15,000," she said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Danish's attorney says he wants to make things right. His critics see little evidence of that.

Ms. Whitlock said she has known Danish for about 10 years and that he did business with several title companies. She said she did not know he was being dishonest.

Danish's attorney is Ralph E. Fernandez, who said he has advised his client not to comment. He added, though, that Danish wants to pay back those he has wronged.

"There's an effort under way to make these people whole," he said.

"Mr. Danish is doing everything he can to undo what has been done. . . . This is horrible. This has been a horrible stress on his family and his friends. . . . He's a good guy who made a big mistake."

Multiple attempts to reach Danish directly were unsuccessful. Calls to several numbers on his business card went unanswered, including two that are now disconnected.

Danish, who has no arrest record with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, has drawn the attention of several agencies.

The Florida Department of Financial Services is investigating Danish and his company, L&D Financial Services Inc., 4002 McLane Drive, Tampa, said Kevin Gonzalez, a financial crimes investigator with the agency. He said Florida laws forbid him from discussing details of the inquiry.

In March, Mrs. Maxwell filed a fraud report with St. Petersburg police. According to the police report, checks were deposited in Danish's accounts instead of being sent to his clients, credit card companies and businesses.

Adult protective investigators from the Florida Department of Children and Families interviewed Mrs. Maxwell and got her released from an unauthorized second mortgage she said Danish took out on her home. At the time, Mrs. Maxwell was being threatened with foreclosure.

Herbst, with Gulfcoast Legal Services, said that Danish apparently gained access to homes in Mrs. Maxwell's modest Palmetto Park neighborhood through Freeman, an air conditioning salesman for Best Services in Palm Harbor. During an interview, Freeman, who has known Danish since 1999, said he thought the broker was helping the elderly people.

"I knew nothing. Some of these people that Mike scammed were my church members. I'm going to testify 100 percent against him," he said, adding that about 15 to 20 of his customers have complained to him about Danish.

Dorothy Dixon, 67, who lives near Mrs. Maxwell, said Danish misled her. "He didn't give me any paperwork," Mrs. Dixon said of the loan she took out on her tiny home.

Wallace F. Warren, 77, another neighbor, also got a loan through Danish. He paid off his first mortgage but said he did not get most of the rest of the money due him.

Warren said Danish told him he would invest the remainder of the money for him. He said he received an initial check for $1,000 and about three monthly payments of $300 cash.

"The way he explained it, until the money began paying a dividend, he was going to be paying me in cash," Warren said.

When the money stopped coming, Warren phoned Danish.

"I called him on two different occasions and I couldn't get through to him. That's when I realized I wasn't going to see him again," Warren said.

In a June 23 letter to Warren, Ms. Whitlock of Bay Pointe Title asked the former city of St. Petersburg sanitation employee and his wife, Annie J. Warren, to sign an affidavit confirming that he did not endorse a $13,000 check made out to him and also did not receive any money from it. Ms. Whitlock stated that she planned to send copies of the affidavit and check to Wachovia Bank, "which is where Mr. Danish deposited" the money.

Ms. Hilton, Warren's attorney, said he did not endorse the check. The endorsement "does not match the other signatures for Mr. Warren," she said.

"I thought he was straight," said Warren, who said he had been referred to Danish by Mrs. Maxwell. "I thought Mrs. Maxwell knew the guy."

Fernandez, Danish's attorney, said Danish recently gave $500 each to three people, including Mrs. Maxwell. Mrs. Maxwell said she has received no money.

Fernandez said he feels particularly sorry about what has happened to Mrs. Maxwell.

"My heart goes out to her and I know that Mr. Danish feels horribly about this and this was not the intended outcome. And instead of walking away from it, he has assumed the responsibility to try to make things right," Fernandez said, calling Danish's actions "isolated."

"This is not an individual who had a prior record of activity. We're going to keep it his first and last," Fernandez said.

Restitution might not be enough, Ms. Hilton said.

"Every client has a higher interest rate in the mortgage that Mr. Danish obtained, compared with the mortgage previously held, with a larger principal balance on their loans and are responsible for paying their own taxes and insurance," Ms. Hilton said.

Mrs. Maxwell, who suffers from diabetes and hypertension and uses a walker to get around, said she met Danish through Freeman.

"He first came by himself," she said of Freeman.

"They seemed like such nice people. My house was paid for when they came here."

In December, Mrs. Maxwell said Freeman called her to say he could get her another $10,000. She declined, she said, because she suspected that a second mortgage had been taken out on her home. She said Freeman offered to look into it and asked for her Social Security number.

Freeman brought Danish to her home Dec. 8 and made him sign a statement _ handwritten by Freeman _ in which the broker promised to start repaying Mrs. Maxwell $4,000 in cash each month until $46,000 had been paid in full, she said.

"(Freeman) told me if I didn't sign it, I won't get any money. He was very nasty. I started to cry," Mrs. Maxwell said.

She decided to sign the statement, promising "to not pursue any legal matters against Mr. Danish provided he abide by the contract." Neighbor Wallace Warren signed the statement as a witness.

That day, Danish paid her $4,000 in cash, she said. Freeman asked for a "love offering" from the money and she gave him two $100 bills, Mrs. Maxwell said. Freeman denies that.

Mrs. Maxwell said that when Danish failed to live up to yet another promise, she went to the police.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.