BALTIMORE – More than 1,000 people were defrauded out of about $70 million by a group advertising the dream of homeownership in what turned out to be a nightmare Ponzi scheme, federal and Maryland officials said Monday.
Five officers for Laurel, Md.-based Metro Dream Homes company are accused of tricking homeowners into pouring money into the business with the promise that the revenue would be used to pay off their mortgages. The scheme ran from 2005 until October 2007, authorities said.
Newly confirmed Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny Breuer said the charges should send a message to those engaging in mortgage fraud.
"Our resolve as a group is great," he said at a news conference in Washington. "We will find you. We will prosecute you, and we're going to put you in prison."
The indictment names company founder Andrew Hamilton Williams Jr., 58, of Hollywood, Fla.; financial officer Michael Anthony Hickson, 46, of Commack, N.Y.; president Isaac Jerome Smith, 46, of Spotsylvania, Va.; and vice president Alvita Karen Gunn, 31, of Hanover, Md. They had 48 hours to turn themselves in.
Gunn had an initial appearance Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md. Her attorney, Elita C. Amato, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Other attorneys in the case also could not be reached for comment.
A fifth person, Carole Nelson, 50, of Washington, D.C., was named in a document normally filed as part of a plea deal.
"Some people hope to get rich quickly just by dreaming, without the hard work," said Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland. "Usually, people can achieve that only by breaking the rules."
Prosecutors say the company marketed the mortgage program in seminars at luxury hotels in Maryland, Washington and Beverly Hills, Calif. An investor had to put up a minimum of $50,000 for each home. The company was then supposed to pay off their mortgages within five to seven years.
More than half the victims were from the Washington suburbs of Prince George's County in Maryland, said John McLane, a Maryland assistant attorney general. Other victims were in California, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, New York, North Carolina and Virginia.
Investors were told they were investing in ATM machines, television advertising and calling card kiosks that would raise money for the mortgage payments. But prosecutors say those businesses never made any money.
Instead, prosecutors say the investments were used to pay company salaries of up to $200,000 and maintain a fleet of luxury cars and a staff of 10 chauffeurs. And company officials allegedly traveled to the Super Bowl and the NBA all-star game with investor money.
"The name Dream Homes was truly a nightmare for so many people in the state of Maryland," said Douglas F. Gansler, the state's attorney general.
Authorities say the conspirators operated under several corporate names, including Metro Dream Homes, Metropolitan Grapevine LLC and POS Dream Homes.
Investigators said the scheme was elaborate — early investors whose monthly mortgage payments had been paid by money provided by later investors assured potential recruits that the program worked. Investors were told the company made as much as $10 million a month.
Dream Home representatives also encouraged investors to enroll more than one home in the program, with an additional $50,000 investment fee required for each home. Investors who put $100,000 or more into the program were told they would receive a seat on a "Junior Board of Directors."