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In his wake, Cox left the deceived

In a storybook ending, Matthew B. Cox might have abandoned his criminal ways, married the girlfriend he met in Nashville and settled into a business offering hope to underprivileged home buyers.

Instead, Cox reverted to the form that sparked an FBI investigation in Tampa and put him atop the U.S. Secret Service's most-wanted list for a trail of mortgage frauds across the South.

In Nashville, using the alias Joseph M. Carter, Cox deceived investors, lenders and tenants. He shielded his identity from Amanda Gardner, a 25-year-old divorced mother who became his girlfriend and business partner in a home rehab company called Nashville Restoration Project.

Investigators in Tennessee think Cox borrowed from a technique fine-tuned in Tampa, creating a fictional Florida investor - this time the name was Walter A. Holcomb - to sign for mortgage loans.

A St. Petersburg Times examination of documents recorded in Nashville shows the fictional names Carter and Holcomb were used to acquire 23 properties and to sign for 15 fraudulent mortgage loans totaling more than $1.47-million. The Times also found forged property records.

With Cox already facing a 42-count federal indictment in Atlanta and possible charges in Tampa, the Secret Service is investigating his Tennessee activities.

For 17 months in Nashville, Cox masqueraded as Carter, a 39-year-old developer who wore hair plugs and a diamond earring. He impressed investors with an ambitious vision for the Napier neighborhood, an area of dilapidated, shotgun-style homes built from 1900 to 1920.

"He had big dreams about developing the 'hood, and after I saw the renovation of his place, I said, 'Wow, this guy's very talented,' " said Omar Melo, a developer who sold three properties to Carter.

"He cracked the whip on the contractors, and he brought this artistic background and a level of meticulousness to the job that made it look like a real attractive business venture."

Kline Preston, a Nashville lawyer representing Gardner, said the Secret Service interviewed him about her involvement with the man she knew as Carter.

"She was essentially a victim," Preston said. "This guy hijacked her business. He traded on her vulnerability. She got caught up in this whirlwind after she fell in love with the guy."

In the wake of Cox's arrest, Preston said he and Gardner are trying to salvage what they can out of her Nashville investments while protecting the interests of lenders.

As for Cox, Preston said, "Oh, they're going to indict him. What he's looking at is being behind bars from now on."

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Joseph M. Carter's signature first appears in Nashville in the Davidson County Register of Deeds in June 2005, not long after Cox split up with his fiancee and accomplice, Rebecca Hauck, in Texas.

She and Cox, a former University of South Florida art student and mortgage broker stripped of his license after a fraud conviction, fled Tampa in December 2003 as the Times prepared to publish stories about his involvement in questionable property deals in Tampa Heights.

According to an indictment in August 2004, the couple embarked on a multistate mortgage fraud crime spree after leaving Florida, using stolen identities and forgery to steal millions, then spending it on luxury cars, jewelry and plastic surgery.

Hauck was captured in Houston. She pleaded guilty to reduced charges and agreed to testify against Cox if agents captured him. On Nov. 15, she was sentenced to 70 months in prison and ordered to pay $1.19-million restitution.

A day later, Secret Service agents arrested Cox at his and Gardner's remodeled home at 79 Donelson St. in Nashville. Agents had been tipped off by a 60-year-old retiree and occasional babysitter. She said she became suspicious of Carter and matched him with a picture of Cox she found on the Secret Service's Web site.

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The list of those duped in Nashville runs the gamut, from notaries to bankers to poor people who thought they were buying homes from Carter.

Among them was Rosie Lee Harris, a 77-year-old widow who uses a walker. She signed an agreement for a deed with Carter last year to buy the 105-year-old frame home at 113 Claiborne St., a property the county assessor says is worth $62,800. Carter paid $179,000 for it, signing for two mortgages totaling $186,750.

Harris said she put $1,200 down, moved her family in, then paid $600 a month toward the purchase, even though portable heaters had to be brought in when the gas heat didn't work.

After Carter's arrest, Harris learned her contract is worthless. She was told that her family will be forced to find new quarters.

"The Secret Service told me, 'Don't pay your rent to nobody, because right now, nobody owns this place but the bank,' " Harris said. "I pray every night about it and ask God what's going to happen to us."

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Carter's Nashville acquisitions mirror many made while Cox was an executive at Urban Equity, an Ybor City real estate firm. There, buyers paid inflated prices for run-down properties, obtained exorbitant mortgages, collected rent for a period, then disappeared.

Many Tampa purchases were made by buyers Cox invented, according to court records. The nonexistent Brandon Green and James Redd were among the phony names used to obtain $2.77-million in mortgage loans to buy 21 properties.

In Nashville, the phantom investor who popped up after Cox came to town was Walter A. Holcomb.

"Holcomb was supposed to be a businessman out of Tampa who ran a company called Manufacturer's Funding Group," said Preston, Gardner's attorney. "But we believe he was just an alter ego for Carter."

There is no corporate listing for Manufacturer's Funding Group in Florida or Tennessee. The Social Security number shown for Holcomb was issued only last year.

The Holcomb name was used for three purchases, including one from Gardner, which Preston said was done at Carter's behest. He says she never saw the supposed investor, at a closing or elsewhere.

Dennis and Letina Rouse, who rented a $775-a-month home from Holcomb, never laid eyes on him either.

Letina Rouse said she wanted to speak to the landlord because the roof leaks, and there is no electricity in one bedroom and no heat in the bathroom.

"I never saw him, I never talked to him, I don't even have a phone number for him," Letina Rouse said of Holcomb.

"But he had more mail coming here than we did: mortgage statements, bank statements, credit card statements. I sent it all back. It was very fishy, all his mail coming here like that."

The Rouses paid their rent to Andrew Hereford, the same man who collected rents for Carter. Records show the Holcomb tax bill for the Rouse rental was sent to 79 Donelson St., the house where Carter lived.

At least two documents in the Holcomb transactions are forged.

One was the deed for the sale of a 734-square-foot home for $175,000 from Carter to Holcomb, a sale from a nonexistent seller to a nonexistent buyer. Holcomb's signature was notarized by John Gleaves, manager of a Nashville title company.

But Gleaves said he never notarized the document.

"There's no doubt, that's not my signature," Gleaves said. He said he handled several closings for Carter, but "had no clue" about any forgery.

Another document, called a release of lien, was filed to show a $122,500 loan to Holcomb had been paid. It was purportedly filed by an official of Homecomings Financial Network named David L. Stone Jr. in Charlotte, N.C., in Jefferson County. It was notarized by Robert S. Thomas.

But there is no David L. Stone at Homecoming's Charlotte office. There is no notary named Robert S. Thomas in Charlotte. And there is no Jefferson County in North Carolina.

Fooled by the forgery into believing the loan against Holcomb's property had been paid off, another lender, SunTrust Mortgage, made a new $122,500 loan to Holcomb.

If there is a lesson to be learned, said Preston, it's that there is "zero authentication" of documents when deeds are transferred and mortgages and other instruments are recorded. That opens the door to fraud.

"If I filed a deed for the moon, they'd accept it, it would be recorded and it would show I owned the moon," Preston said.

"Mr. Cox saw the weakness in the system. He figured it all out."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at testerman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3422.

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