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Fugitive vanishes once again

The man, wanted in a Tampa mortgage fraud scheme, and a female partner are suspected in more frauds in an Atlanta suburb.

Published August 12, 2004

TAMPA - Matthew B. Cox, the alleged mastermind of a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud involving Tampa heights real estate, disappeared last December as the FBI and Tampa police were forming a task force to investigate the scheme.

One business associate suggested Cox, 35, a former University of South Florida art student and owner of a mortgage brokerage business, had fled to France.

Cox's own notes offered the possibility that he had stuffed a fortune into a canvas bag and boarded a cruise ship to the Cayman Islands, where he could retire in luxury.

But, according to a criminal complaint unsealed in a federal courthouse in Georgia on Wednesday, Cox never left the country and definitely did not retire.

The 15-page complaint, filed by the U.S. Secret Service, says Cox fled to the Atlanta area in December and used stolen identities, forged documents and phony ID's to defraud mortgage lenders, credit card companies and a car dealer.

The take: more than $800,000. The allegations: mortgage fraud, identity theft, credit card fraud, vehicle loan fraud, money laundering and conspiracy.

Cox carried out an elaborate hoax into late July with a female accomplice named Rebecca M. Hauck, according to the court papers. The two pocketed the cash from fraudulent mortgages, used phony documents to finance the purchase of a Honda Element automobile and paid $12,000 so Hauck - using the stolen identity of a woman named Grace E. Hudson - could have plastic surgery to change her appearance.

Then, the couple dropped out of sight again.

Secret Service agents, fearful that more fraud may lie ahead, have issued wanted posters showing two recent photographs of Cox and Hauck, as well as a Secret Service phone number, (404) 331-6111.

"We hope someone will recognize them and prevent others from becoming victims," said Andrea Peacock, the Secret Service agent who led the investigation against Cox and Hauck. "We hope to prevent them from pulling off this kind of fraud again."

In Tampa, Cox was head of acquisitions for Urban Equity, a Tampa Heights real estate investment company. He was also on probation for mortgage fraud and grand theft involving identity theft.

According to his partners at Urban Equity, it was Cox who dreamed up the plan to invent fictional characters with their own phony credit histories to apply for a series of fraudulent loans. For instance, someone pretending to be a CPA named Brandon Green signed for five mortgage loans in Tampa totaling $858,000. All five loans went into foreclosure. None of the lenders could locate Green to serve him the foreclosure papers.

Urban Equity is now bankrupt, and more than 90 properties are being sold to pay off creditors who made loans to Green and other nonexistent borrowers.

Hauck is a divorced mother who was having money problems early last year, when she filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Las Vegas. She had been working as a $36,900-a-year legal secretary and owned a two-bedroom loft condo in Salt Lake City, records show. But her Saab convertible had been repossessed, her homeowners group was suing her for nonpayment of dues and a number of her bills had been turned over to collection agencies.

After her debts were liquidated in bankruptcy, Hauck moved to the Tampa Bay area and met Cox. According to those who knew her, she disappeared last December, about the same time Tampa probation officials declared Cox a fugitive for failing to report to probation officers.

The couple surfaced in Marietta, Ga., on Dec. 15, according to federal investigators, where Cox used a counterfeit Florida driver's license in the name of David Freeman to rent a mail drop to be used as an address on later mortgage applications.

Here is what investigators say happened next:

The couple rented a home in Alpharetta, Ga., belonging to a man named Michael Shanahan, filed a forged document that purported the mortgage on the home had been paid off, then used Shanahan's name and fake documents to apply for mortgage loans from three different lenders totaling $329,000.

In January, Cox used a counterfeit Alabama driver's license in the name of Gerald S. Cugno to apply for and obtain $15,039 in financing to buy a Honda Element. Investigators later determined that Cugno is the name of an actual Florida resident whose identity was adopted by Cox. Agents looked at the photo on copies of the Cugno license and the license for Freeman: the man pictured was the same, and that man turned out to be Cox.

"The faces were left on documents at various loan closings, and by networking with law enforcement in Florida, we were able to identify this as Matthew Cox," said Peacock. "Hauck was a known associate of Cox, so we were able to make that connection."

Authorities say that in March, Hauck visited a medical clinic in the Atlanta area, posing as Grace E. Hudson, and paid $12,000 for plastic surgery. The patient returned to the clinic a number of times for followups, always arriving in a Honda Elment and often accompanied by a boyfriend named David Freeman.

In late June, Shanahan discovered that his identity had been stolen to obtain fraudulent mortgage loans on his Alpharetta rental home. He checked the house, but the couple with the Honda Element had gone, leaving behind mail addressed to a variety of aliases. Shanahan went to the Coweta County Sheriff's Office, but by the time deputies checked, the couple had vanished.

"We really don't know where they are," said Peacock. "We're not even sure there aren't more victims here."

Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422

[Last modified August 12, 2004, 01:50:26]

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