The following is a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California:
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Three persons were arrested today on felony charges contained in a 42-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Sacramento on September 10, 2015, United States Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner announced.
The indictment, unsealed today, charges John Michael DiChiara, 57, of Nevada City; James C. Castle, 51, formerly of Santa Rosa; Remus A. Kirkpatrick, 58, formerly of Oceanside; George B. Larsen, 54, formerly of San Rafael; Laura Pezzi, 59, of Roseville; Larry Todt, 63, formerly of Malibu; and Michael Romano, 68, of Benicia, charging them with conspiracy, bank fraud, false making of documents, and money laundering. Tisha Trites, 49, and Todd Smith, 44, both of San Diego, pleaded guilty to related charges before U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. on September 4, 2015.
DiChiara was arrested today in Cool, and Pezzi and Romano were arrested at their homes. The other four defendants listed in the indictment have yet to be arrested.
According to the indictment, DiChiara held himself out as the Archbishop of a spiritual organization named Shon-te-East-a, Walks With Spirit, the mission of which was to help individuals spiritually by alleviating them of their home mortgages. DiChiara and Castle (along with Trites who pleaded guilty to a related charge) are alleged to have orchestrated a mortgage-elimination program that fraudulently altered the chain of title on residential properties, selling the properties, and receiving the sales proceeds. Kirkpatrick, Larsen, Todt, Romano, and others allegedly recruited homeowners into the program with the promise of relief from foreclosure and a share of the sales proceeds. DiChiara and others used Shon-te-East to control the sale of the properties.
The indictment alleges that, once the homeowners were enrolled in the program, Pezzi and others created fictitious deeds of trust, a falsely made deed of reconveyance, and, where necessary, a falsely made notice of rescission of notice of default. The fictitious deed of trust was recorded at the county recorder’s office, and gave the appearance that the homeowner had refinanced the mortgage with a new lender. Todd Smith (who pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy) or an entity controlled by the defendants was listed as the new lender, ensuring that when the properties were sold, the defendants would receive the sales proceeds. The defendants then caused to be recorded at the county recorder’s office a falsely made deed of reconveyance, indicating that the mortgage debt had been repaid to the financial institution holding the mortgage and reconveying title back to the homeowner. With these fraudulent documents on file at the county recorder’s office, a title search on the property would give the impression that the homeowner had refinanced, and no other debt was owing on the property. When the defendants caused the sale of these properties, they were able to divert the sale proceeds away from the lending institutions to their own benefit.
The defendants are alleged to have sold 37 properties through the mortgage elimination program, and attempted to sell at least an additional 97 properties, obtaining profits in excess of $8 million. They attempted to extinguish in excess of $60 million in legitimate mortgage loans.
This case is the product of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Assistant United States Attorney Audrey Hemesath is prosecuting the case.
If convicted of the conspiracy count, the defendants face a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The maximum penalty for bank fraud is 30 years and a $1 million fine. The maximum penalty for false making of documents is 10 years and a $250,000 fine. The maximum penalty for money laundering is 10 years and an additional fine. Any sentence, however, would be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables. The charges are only allegations; the defendants are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.