3 PTA moms in custody after defruading 40+ victims in Ponzi scheme
JULY 5, 2011
Two women were arrested at their Diamond Bar homes Tuesday for allegedly operating a scheme that defrauded their victims out of millions of dollars.
41-year old Maricela Barajas (a.k.a. Maricela Torres) was arrested at her home on Hopi Street, and 50-year old Juliana Menefee was arrested at her home on Beaverhead Drive in Diamond Bar.
The arrests came after a six month fraud investigation by detectives from the Commercial Crimes Bureau of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
A third suspect, 51-year old Eva Perez, was previously arrested by the Chino Police Department on fraud charges and is currently incarcerated in the Central California Women’s Facility, California State Prison. She is now facing additionally charges from this case.
Suspects Perez, Barajas and Menefee are accused of stealing millions of dollars from more than 40 victims who thought they were investing their money in a legitimate business venture.
Suspects Perez, Barajas and Menefee claimed to have the exclusive right to sell AltaDena Dairy products at Disneyland, Disney Hotels and to small retailers. They told investors they needed funds to grow the business and offered lucrative rates of return of up to 100%.
They assured investors their original investment was safe and guaranteed, even if they did not earn the promised rates of return.
They required all investments to be made in cash.
Approximately $14 million was collected during the scheme. About $10 million was returned to investors to keep new money coming in, while approximately $4 million was retained by the suspects. Over $1.5 million has been proven as actual losses to the victims, through the extensive investigation by Sheriff’s Commercial Crime Bureau detectives. About $2.5 million has not been directly accounted for, and it is speculated that the suspects used the money for lavish vacations, expensive hotels, new cars, and casinos in California and Nevada.
This fraudulent investment scheme began to unravel when they were pressed for payment by their investors and they were unable to perform. Perez, Barajas and Menefee organized informational meetings, and attempted to pacify investors by explaining the delays in payment were a result of an internal audit of the business.
Meanwhile, one of the victims reported the scheme to deputies with the Walnut/Diamond Bar Sheriff’s Station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Departmemt.
The majority of the fraudulent investment transactions took place at Perez’s residences in the city of Chino, and on Wagon Trail Drive in the city of Diamond Bar between 2008-2010.
In order to get money, many of the victims took out second mortgages on their homes, maxed out their credit cards and “invested” their life savings. All transactions were done in cash and the victims losses ranged from the lowest amount of $5,000.00 to as much as $208,000.00. The victims were given serialized receipts commonly available in stationary stores.
Investment transactions also occurred at the residences of Barajas and Menefee in Diamond Bar. All three women had been actively involved in the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) at Armstrong Elementary School in the city of Diamond Bar. They were successful in gaining the friendship and trust of investors during organized school events and social functions.
The known victims reside in Chino, Diamond Bar, Gardena, Granada Hills, Lawndale, Los Angeles, North Hollywood, Norwalk, Pacoima, Pico Rivera, Pomona, Rancho Cucamonga, Redondo Beach, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Fe Springs, South Gate, Torrance, Whittier, Wilmington, and Salt Lake City, Utah.
The victims are mostly typical, hard-working people. When they were interviewed by sheriff’s detectives, their main reaction was to emotionally describe their embarrassment that they fell for this scheme. They said they saw others making a lot of money and didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families. They are in hopes that people who hear about what happened to them, will look for the warning signs that they ignored, and not have this happen to them. They also made the mistake of investing in people they thought they could trust.
None of the money has been recovered. It is believed that the suspects used it or lost it all through purchases and other ventures.
This fraud is typical of a “Ponzi” (or Pyramid) type scheme where a fraudulent investment operation promises to pay large returns to separate investors. Payments, if made, are not from actual profit earned by the organization or business, but from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors. The scheme typically collapses when the promoters start having problems paying the promised returns, as in the case of this fraud scheme.
This type of scheme is named after “Charles Ponzi” who became notorious for using the technique to defraud victims in the early 1920's. It is also known as a Pyramid scheme. The bottom line is, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is not true.”
Perez pled guilty in San Bernardino County court last year to multiple felony counts of grand theft, where she orchestrated and conducted the same investment fraud scheme. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison and ordered to pay restitution to the victims.
Suspects Perez, Barajas and Menefee could face up to 20 years each in California State Prison if convicted on the 22 felony charges, including seven counts of Grand Theft and 15 counts of Securities Fraud.
Suspects Barajas and Menefee are being held in the Los Angeles County Jail and will be arraigned at the Pomona Superior Court on Thursday, July 7, 2011.
Contact Commercial Crimes Bureau, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, (562) 946-7217 for any further questions or information.
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For more on fraud prevention, visit the website of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department at http://www.lasd.org including the CRIME INFORMATION & PREVENTION page:
To receive detailed, up-to-date information directly from the LASD via e-mail, register for "Nixle" alerts at www.Nixle.com and register for "LASD-HQ Newsroom (SHB), Los Angeles County Sheriff" and also register for your local LASD station area. Or, text your zip code to 888777 to receive text alerts only. Standard text messaging rates may apply, depending on your calling plan
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