During the foreclosure crisis, thousands of Floridians turned to Mark Stopa for help in saving their homes.
The 41-year-old St. Petersburg lawyer became one of the state's best-known foreclosure defense experts, quoted in national publications and portraying himself as a bulwark against heartless and conniving lenders.
But even as Stopa helped many people hold on to their homes, he acquired millions of dollars worth of property from other clients through what authorities say was a years-long pattern of fraud and deception. The alleged scheme to defraud clients and mortgage lenders has had a ripple effect throughout Florida, leaving thousands of foreclosure cases in limbo and Stopa's former firm about to file for bankruptcy.
"It's like the Titanic going down," said Richard Mockler, a Tampa attorney who has tried unsuccessfully to salvage Stopa's law practice.
On Aug. 21, agents of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement raided Stopa's offices in downtown St. Petersburg. According to the search warrant, Stopa obtained title to distressed homes throughout Florida using shell corporations, many of them registered in New Mexico. The properties were then rented out while Stopa, under the guise of representing the original owners, continued to fight the foreclosure cases.
Agents subpoenaed Stopa's PayPal account and discovered deposits from individuals at approximately 20 properties controlled by his companies.
Between Jan. 1, 2011 and April 1, 2018 records showed, Stopa received a total of more than $4.8 million.
"Mark Stopa… is believed to be facilitating the crime of equity skimming,'' a state agent wrote. A felony punishable by up to five years in prison, skimming is defined in part as failing to make mortgage payments while collecting rent for personal use.
Among the cases that investigators cited:
• Stopa represented Paul Walton and his wife in the foreclosure proceedings on their Land O' Lakes home. Walton told state authorities that Stopa called him in 2016 and said he had an investor who would buy the house for about $8,000. Walton, thinking he would no longer be responsible for the mortgage, deeded the house to Stopa's Quest Systems LLC.
The house is currently leased to tenants who have been paying $2,000 a month to a Stopa website with a link to PayPal.
•While representing Beverly Mellow of Tarpon Springs, Stopa told her he could get an investor to buy her home for $2,500. She deeded it to Quest Systems in 2014.
Since early last year, a tenant has been paying $1,600 a month with checks sent to Quest Systems.
• Leanna Cappucci told investigators that a Realtor came to her Valrico home in 2014 and said an investor wanted to buy it. The Realtor also said she had an attorney who would delay the foreclosure. Cappucci deeded the house to Stopa's Jacaranda LLC in exchange for $2,000.
For the past four years, the house has been rented to the same tenant for $1,750 a month.
The search warrant application details similar transactions in Hudson, Bradenton and Cape Coral. In all, the application says, Stopa's companies acquired at least 90 residential properties statewide between mid-2011 and December 2017.
In July, the Florida Supreme Court indefinitely suspended Stopa from practicing law. He has not been charged with any crimes: He declined to comment for this story, referring a reporter to his attorney, Todd Foster.
"Equity skimming is subject to constructions which don't apply to this case," Foster said. "The people that engaged in these transactions with Stopa were by and large people who were interested in getting out of these properties, people whose homes had fallen into decay, people who had left the area. They were already indebted tremendously to their banks so this was not a predatory concept where people were targeted for this."
Foster said Stopa had helped thousands of other homeowners.
"They support him and continue to support him," Foster said.
Judging from the warrant, the state investigation is focused on the same properties cited in an unusual email sent to an Orange County judge in January and that is part of the public court record.
Judge Keith Carsten was presiding over a 2016 foreclosure case in which Stopa represented the homeowners even though they no longer had title to the house. In the email, the sender included a "dossier" on Stopa titled: "Oh, what a tangled we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
The dossier described in detail 16 cases in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Orange and Volusia counties in which Stopa allegedly engaged in "egregiously unethical and fraudulent behavior" with his own clients.
"Any attempt to question him or threaten to complain is met with vulgar threats of endless litigation for defamation," the email said. "Mark Stopa uses his law license as a bully club to unjustly enrich himself and threaten to destroy all those who challenge him or get in his way."
• • •
A graduate of the University of Florida law school, Stopa was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2002. Over the next several years, he handled the kind of bread-and-butter cases common in civil practice — injunctions, delinquent tenants, contract disputes.
Then came the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of the housing market.
Stopa soon established himself as one of Florida's leading foreclosure defense attorneys. In 2010, he was featured in a front-page New York Times story about several St. Petersburg residents in foreclosure.
Stopa told the Times he sent as many as 1,700 form letters a week to potential clients. "You may be able to keep living in your home for weeks, months or even years without paying your mortgage," the letter said.
At that point, Stopa had 350 foreclosure clients. The number would balloon to more than 7,000.
The foreclosure crisis presented lucrative opportunities for investors as people stopped paying not only their mortgages but also homeowner association dues. Bidders could get title to homes at association foreclosure auctions by paying enough to cover delinquent dues. The properties could then be rented out or used for other purposes until the bank foreclosed.
Stopa created a Florida company called Abpaymar, LLC that in 2012 acquired a Pasco County house for $6,900 at an association auction. That would lead to Stopa's first problems with the Florida Bar.
According to a Bar complaint, Abpaymar agreed to deed the house back to owner Justin Shuck if he paid $12,500 over eight months.
Shuck made his final payment in 2012, but Abpaymar refused to deliver the deed, claiming he owed $1,456 in HOA dues. Shuck wired that amount even though his written agreement with the company had said nothing about dues. Abpaymar got a writ of possession and a sheriff's deputy posted a 24-hour eviction notice.
Shuck had to hire a lawyer and file an emergency motion to keep his house. By failing to disclose the written agreement, a judge ruled, Abpaymar had misrepresented its right to seek possession.
Soon afterward, Stopa's name disappeared from Abpaymar's annual corporate filings and was replaced by that of his wife, Adrienne Federico. The company continued to acquire properties as Stopa set up seven companies in New Mexico.
In their application for a search warrant, Florida agents quoted from a website that explains why New Mexico is popular with incorporators:
"If your goal is to remain invisible, then New Mexico is the best state in which to form a limited liability company.''
New Mexico companies are not required to include the names of members. Nor are they required, unlike in Florida and most other states, to file annual reports showing changes in address and membership.
Investigators, however, obtained bank records showing that Stopa was the "owner/key individual" for three of the New Mexico companies. On deeds and other documents, all seven New Mexico companies have used the address 446 3rd Ave N, St. Petersburg ----the same as Stopa's offices.
• • •
As the economy improved, homeowners association foreclosure auctions began to dry up. Many investors went directly to homeowners and offered them a few thousand dollars to deed over their homes. According to the search warrant and public records, Stopa's companies acquired properties that way and rented them out while Stopa fought the bank foreclosures.
Tenants in some of the houses told authorities that they communicated with a property manager. Through information on Facebook, LinkedIn and Zillow, agents were able to determine that the woman was also a property manger for Stopa's law firm.
Agents subpoenaed the banks records of Stopa, his wife and four of his companies. Those showed transfers among the companies as well as transfers to Stopa.
Investigators "believe Mark Stopa is still operating the business out of the premises," an agent wrote on the application to search his offices.
Acting on the warrant, agents seized computers, cell phones, bank records, tax records, rental contracts, purchase agreements and other documents. They also took files on 16 individuals including a woman named Jayne Carusso.
In May 2013, one of Stopa's New Mexico companies, Inland Assets, had obtained title to Carusso's home for $17,100 at a homeowners association auction. Stopa and his family moved into the 5,000-square-foot house overlooking a golf course in the gated Bayou Club community in mid-Pinellas.
Although Carusso was then living in Pennsylvania and had not fought the Bank of America's foreclosure case, Stopa in June 2013 filed a notice of appearance on her behalf. His Inland Assets then sued Carusso and the bank to establish Inland's title to the house. The bank failed to respond, and in 2015 a judge declared Inland the "rightful and lawful" owner of the property.
Last year, Inland Assets and the bank reached a confidential settlement that ended the foreclosure case. In January, Inland Assets deeded the property to Stopa's wife. The family continues to live in the house, valued for tax purposes at $900,700.
• • •
In early July, Mockler, the Tampa attorney, took over Stopa's law practice and its 4,000 pending cases.
Stopa had not yet been suspended and it was not yet known, at least publicly, that he was under criminal investigation. Mockler said he didn't think the Florida Bar's most recent case against Stopa was all that serious — he had been found guilty of failing to tell some clients of bank settlement offers and had exhibited boorish behavior in and out of court.
"There was no reason to think it wasn't salvageable,'' Mockler said of Stopa's practice.
Then came the emergency suspension and the raid. Many attorneys and staffers quit, and there was no money to hire more. Since then, Mockler said, he, two lawyers and one other person have been working long hours without pay trying to notify clients that the law firm is on the verge of bankruptcy and that they need to find new attorneys.
"It's like trying to clean up the Exxon Valdez spill with this," Mocker said recently, picking up a small trash can.
The firm still has active cases in 24 Florida counties. Mockler said he personally is attorney of record on 1,000 cases, meaning he either has to represent those clients or formally move to withdraw so he doesn't face penalties himself.
"This is the worst thing that's ever happened to me," he said, his eyes welling up. "It's ruined my life."
Clients say their lives have been upended, too. Dozens have called or emailed the Tampa Bay Times to say they had paid the law firm their yearly retainer of up to $2,500 yet have no lawyer and no money to hire another one.
Stopa had been representing Michael Spangler in a foreclosure case on the small St. Petersburg house where he lived with his mother. Two weeks ago, Spangler went by the offices and asked for his files.
"They said they were busy," said Spangler, who owns a roofing company. "I showed up three days later, met with a woman, begged her for the files and they said they would send them. They didn't, and when I went back (the offices) were locked up tight."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate
Clarification: Stopa graduated from the University of Florida law school. An earlier version of this story named a different school.
The Tampa law firm of Stamatakis + Thalji + Bonanno has agreed to represent without charge former clients of Mark Stopa clients who paid their retainer after July 25, 2018. The firm will take on other clients for pay. (Stamatakis + Thalji + Bonanno can be reached at 813- 644-9151 or at firstname.lastname@example.org)