Who is Synthia Ippolito?
Is she, as prosecutors allege, a cunning con who bought the homes of 20 people under false pretenses, forcing victims to spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy their properties back or to lose their homes entirely?
Or is she, as her lawyer claims, a victim herself who was forced into shady real estate deals from St. Petersburg to Hudson by an ex-husband who coerced her with physical violence?
In May, a jury heard both descriptions of Ippolito, 38, during a six-day trial in Pinellas Circuit Court.
After three hours of deliberation, a jury came back with a verdict: Ippolito was guilty of felony counts of fraud and equity skimming, crimes that carry a sentence of up to 35 years in prison.
Ippolito, the mother of seven children all under the age of 14, is scheduled for sentencing today. The former Largo and Hudson resident has been held at the Pinellas County Jail awaiting her sentencing since the May 31 verdict.
Her ex-husband, Christopher Nickelson, 45, was convicted of the same crimes last year. He got 15 years.
"I hope she gets what (Nickelson) got," said June Brady, 72, who sold her New Port Richey home to Ippolito in 1999.
Owner says she was 'completely fooled'
Brady said Ippolito came to her door in 1999 and offered her $69,000 for her home, about $10,000 more than its market value.
Brady, a retiree from New Jersey, believed the sale would allow her to buy a nicer home.
Ippolito stopped paying her after a few installments.
"She was a good actress," said Brady. "She had me completely fooled."
Brady said she did not understand she could lose her house if Ippolito defaulted. She said Ippolito told her a lawyer would be at the closing to look out for her, but no lawyer showed up.
Brady, who owned her house free and clear when she sold it, had to pay $32,000 just to get it back.
"She ruined my life," said Brady. "I wound up going to a doctor and getting tranquilizers."
Ippolito's lawyer, Robert Tager, had hoped the jury would see Nickelson as the mastermind. He said Nickelson was involved in shady deals long before he met Ippolito.
Ippolito took the stand in her own defense at trial.
A stocky woman who stands under 5 feet tall, she spoke in a soft voice as she described meeting Nickelson at a closing in Tarpon Springs while she was working for her parents' real estate company in 1998. Ippolito at the time had just received her real estate license.
She also was a single mother who was looking for a husband, she testified.
Julie Holt, the president of the title company where Ippolito and Nickelson met, testified in May that she observed the two talking that day about buying properties with no money down.
Ippolito and Nickelson dated and married in December 1999.
Prosecutors said the scams began not long after the two met.
Lenders would get first claim to homes
In the purchase structure that Ippolito and Nickelson used, the first mortgage they needed was easy to get, Prosecutor Evan Brodsky told jurors.
The couple got it from regular people, investors attracted to the deal because the properties had a lot of equity.
The couple got a second mortgage from the sellers themselves, promising to pay monthly installments for a few years with final balloon payments.
In 2000, Ippolito bought Gussie Manning's home on Ninth Avenue S in St. Petersburg.
Manning, 79, said Ippolito asked her for a loan, but told her she was a lottery winner who could pay her back with that money.
Manning eventually had to pay more than $30,000 to get the house back.
"She's a crook, just like her husband," Manning said Friday.
The sellers were put in danger because Ippolito and Nickelson structured the deal so that if they stopped paying the lenders and sellers, the lenders had first claim over the properties.
Ippolito also told some sellers the deal included a "quitclaim deed" that would allow sellers to get their homes back if she defaulted, Brodsky said.
But even then, sellers had to pay off Ippolito's lenders.
Ippolito and Nickelson used some of the money from the lenders for closing costs and to make initial payments to lenders and sellers, Brodsky told jurors.
The couple made $70,000 from all the closings.
They committed equity skimming because they also rented the homes in default and used the proceeds for personal purposes, Brodsky said.
She says she was beaten while pregnant
But Tager painted a different picture of Ippolito.
He said Ippolito bought a few properties initially as honest investments.
But Nickelson took over finances and defaulted, then beat her so she would sign paperwork on some of the later transactions.
Ippolito testified that Nickelson beat her even while she was pregnant. She never called police.
"He slammed me against the wall," Ippolito testified. "A couple of days later I ended up having the baby premature."
But Brodsky reminded the jury that Ippolito bought and defaulted on 20 homes in just a two-year period.
"She tried to say he (Nickelson) made her do it and the jury rejected it," said Brady.
"I think she should be punished."
Synthia Ippolito, 38: Prosecutors said the mother of seven children persuaded about 20 homeowners into selling their houses to her, then defaulted on the loans, leaving the victims out of their homes and out of money. A jury found her guilty of two felony counts in May. She faces up to 35 years in prison.
Christopher Nickelson, 45: He met Ippolito at a closing in 1998. They married in December 1999. He was convicted last year of the same crimes as his now ex-wife. Ippolito claimed he was the mastermind of the scam. He is scheduled for release from prison in 2020.