Five years ago, Marsha Warner was approached about an investment opportunity.
The deal involved Warner pulling $114,000 from her retirement account. She said she was told by real estate agent Michael Schaffer and lawyer Andre Keith Sanders that she would be repaid, with interest, within a year.
But when the year was up, she got bad news: Her money had been lost.
Or had it?
The money was supposed to help a buyer who needed downpayment assistance to purchase a townhouse in Tierra Verde. Instead, Warner's "investment" paid off the mortgage on the townhouse, which had belonged to one of Sanders' clients. It was then sold to Schaffer's roommate/business partner, who flipped it — for a $163,000 profit.
Warner's lawyer, Dianne Griffith, was so concerned about the men's activities that she sent a letter to the FBI. What "these criminals" did, she wrote, was "a perfectly executed con."
The Tierra Verde townhouse is not the only property that has changed hands under questionable circumstances involving the real estate firm Schaffer works for, Realty Resources of St. Pete Beach. In at least two other cases, people directly connected with the firm acquired homes for far less than they were worth.
Troubling, too, are the backgrounds of Schaffer and Sanders.
Schaffer, 52, has a felony record. Many of his listings have been for houses belonging to former clients of Sanders. He was disbarred three years ago after being hit with a $23.8 million judgment for what Federal Trade Commission said were schemes to defraud consumers in debt.
Although Sanders, 58, is banned from practicing law, he and Schaffer continue to work together — records show they recently formed a web services company.
Schaffer did not respond to emailed questions. Sanders could not be reached for comment.
Schaffer moved to Florida in the late 1990s and obtained his real estate license in 2001. A year later, he was indicted on five felony counts in Illinois.
The indictment charged that between 1996 and 1999, Schaffer stole nearly $40,000 from Jos. A. Bank Clothiers in Quincy, Ill. He also was accused of forging signatures on $1,300 worth of checks drawn on the company's account.
Prosecutors dropped the forgery charges but Schaffer pleaded guilty to two felony counts and was sentenced to 30 months probation.
Real estate agents must report all convictions and guilty pleas to the Florida Real Estate Commission, which can revoke or suspend a license for crimes involving dishonest dealings. There is no evidence Schaffer ever disclosed his crimes, according to a spokesperson for the state agency that oversees the commission.
Since 2002, Schaffer has shared a house in Gulfport with Donald Dale Woosley; the names of both men are on the deed. They set up a short-sale company, and Woosley formed Realty Resources, with both companies at 6702 Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach. Also working at that address was Sanders, who represented clients in bankruptcy and foreclosure.
Within two years of the 2008 housing crash, using Sanders as their attorney, Woosley and Schaffer declared personal bankruptcy. But their short-sale company bounced back, thanks in part to Sanders' other clients.
Among them was Vincent Ranuro.
In 2012, after a judge denied a motion to dismiss his foreclosure case, Ranuro put his Tierra Verde townhouse on the market as a short sale. Schaffer was the listing agent.
Even with a short sale, Realtors typically like to wait to see if they can get the highest price possible, both to increase their commission and to reduce the taxes the seller might have to pay if the bank forgives any of the debt.
In this case, though, the townhouse went under contract almost immediately — to Woosley, Schaffer's roommate.
At that point in 2012, Woosley had been out of bankruptcy for only three years and out of foreclosure proceedings for just a year. It would have been hard to get a mortgage loan.
Schaffer and Sanders approached Warner, a retired teacher whom Sanders had represented in a bankruptcy case.
"He knew how much money I had," she said.
Under federal law, retirement funds do not have to be used to pay creditors in a bankruptcy. Sanders and Schaffer suggested Warner use her retirement money instead to make a real estate investment that would earn good interest. She deposited $114,000 into Sanders' trust account, understanding a client needed it for the downpayment on a townhouse.
"I thought they were earnest and honest people," she said of Sanders and Schaffer.
Over the following year, as Warner was diagnosed with cancer and underwent multiple surgeries, Sanders dropped off monthly interests checks of $700. Then the payments stopped in early 2015.
She asked Schaffer to help.
"He said, 'Look, Marsha, you need to realize you made an investment and it didn't work,'" Warner recalled. "I said, 'You know, this is not a rich person but an old lady. I trusted you people.'"
Unbeknownst to her, Schaffer's roommate, Woosley, had bought the townhouse for $234,000. Eighteen months later, he sold it for $397,000.
(Woosley, an assistant bank manager, did not return calls for comment.)
In 2015, Warner received a letter from the IRS demanding she pay more than $42,000 in back taxes, penalties and interest on the money she withdrew. She took the letter to Schaffer and Sanders. They insisted, she says, that their accountant prepare an amended return showing the funds had been rolled over into a "self-directed" individual retirement account and therefore were not taxable.
The IRS rejected that explanation. This summer, it began seizing $298 a month from Warner's Social Security.
"I'm probably not going to get anything back,'' Warner said, "but I want to stop (Schaffer and Sanders) from doing this to anybody else."
There have been other unusual transactions involving Realty Resources:
• In 2009, a woman deeded her late mother's mortgage-free house in St. Petersburg to Richard O. Johnson, then a Realty Resources agent. The property never went on the market and no transfer taxes were paid, indicating no money changed hands. Johnson lived in the waterfront house for several years — he failed to pay property taxes from 2009 to 2013 --- sold it in 2015 for $590,000.
Johnson, whom records show is now living North Carolina, could not be reached for comment.
• Last year, Schaffer told potential buyers that he was taking bids on a villa he had listed in Seminole. One bidder, Samuel Buck, submitted a cash of offer of $128,700. Yet the villa sold for $100,000 to an agent in Realty Resources, Brian Dahlberg. He deeded it the same day to a Tampa company, which put it back on the market five days later for $174,900. It quickly went under contract for $150,000.
The transactions were "kind of strange and funny,'' Buck recently told the Tampa Bay Times.
In April, Schaffer and Sanders formed another company, Webservices4you, Corp. It has the same St. Pete Beach address as the real estate office.
Last year, Sanders sent Warner a letter. He offered to give her $200 a month in what he called a "good faith" effort to repay the $114,000 borrowed for the Tierra Verde townhouse.
In return, "Ms. Warner agrees to refrain from making any remarks concerning this loan or this agreement or any other matters concerning Andre Keith Sanders and/or Michael Schaffer or any companies related to either person," the proposed agreement said.
Warner declined the offer.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate