Seventeen people have been rounded up in connection with an alleged $20 million mortgage fraud scheme in Nassau County—the largest in its history—which authorities say ripped off homeowners, banks and county taxpayers.
Two Westbury men accused of being the ringleaders in the five-year scheme are facing more than 108 charges along with 15 other suspects after they duped homeowners whose houses were for sale or in foreclosure, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Members of the “Sweet Deal” Ring—mortgage brokers, real estate brokers, bank employees, attorneys, an appraiser, a financial consultant and a United States Postal Service worker—face charges including enterprise corruption, larceny, money laundering, identity theft and conspiracy.
“We have all seen the financial devastation caused by the collapse of the housing bubble,” District Attorney Kathleen Rice said at a news conference in Mineola. “We have seen families put out on the street, houses boarded-up and entire neighborhoods reduced to virtual ghost towns.
“And if those struggles aren’t bad enough, here are two men James Robert Sweet and Dwayne Benjamin, doing whatever is necessary to destroy even more lives purely for their own financial benefit.”
Sweet, 43, and Benjamin, 44—the alleged ringleaders—negotiated with sellers to purchase properties at a higher price than the seller was asking for, Rice said. They would then arrange to keep the difference between what the bank lent and the seller’s price.
In one case, the ring purchased the same house twice in three weeks, taking out two $390,000 mortgages. They kept the proceeds from the second mortgage, walking away with more than $361,000 in total, Rice said.
“They realized they can make more money,” Rice said and that’s when the ring began stealing identities to sell and buy homes.
“Sweet Deal” members would impersonate the seller, buyer and legal representatives and set up fake closings, using fake identities to secure mortgages and sell homes. They allegedly kept the proceeds and let the house go into foreclosure.
The ring, Rice said, made millions of dollars in mortgage proceeds from the sale of at least six Westbury homes.
“Those who had their identity stolen,” Rice said, “found that their homes had been stolen out from under them, or saw their credit rating ruined by foreclosure on a home they didn’t know they owned.”
Sweet and his alleged co-conspirators also stole $80,000 from taxpayers in a scheme involving Nassau County’s Section 18 Housing Program, Rice said.
Sweet and Benjamin both face up to 25 years if convicted.
Two bank employees, Sonia Panameno, 29, who works for Washington Mutual and Roxanna Calero, 33, of Bank of America, allegedly provided fake documents, and face up to four years if convicted.
Other members charged in connection with the alleged fraud ring include: Attorneys Larinzo Clayton, 45, of Westbury, and Ethan Serlin, 40, of Dix Hills; Alleged straw buyers James Grant, 35, of Brooklyn, and Allen Woods, 35, of Hempstead; Mortgage originators John DiCanio, 37, of Islip Terrace, Carlos Irizarry, 34, of Long Beach, and Sophia Welsh, 43, of West Babylon; An appraiser, Radamex Velasquez, 34, of Valley Stream; A tax preparer Lyshaan Hall, 33, of Brooklyn; A real estate broker, Stephanie Watkins, 36, of Amityville; A high-end car dealer, Alfred Gray, 44, New Jersey; Yves Mathieu, 45, of Elmont, who allegedly provided fake documents for identity theft; and Vertus Vielot, 35, of Baldwin, who allegedly impersonated a seller.