Fraud by the book: Novelist becomes his own hero
The spelling may be sloppy, but The Associates is a page-turner for agents on the trail of its author.
By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published December 19, 2004
TAMPA - Matthew B. Cox had made the transition from a dead-end insurance sales job to a promising career in the mortgage brokerage business some years ago when he penned a crime novel titled The Associates.
Cox billed the novel as fiction, but it has proved to be much closer to autobiography.
According to evidence uncovered by federal agents, the 317-page, unpublished manuscript was apparently a blueprint for a multimillion-dollar series of white-collar crimes that so far has spread across two states.
The fictional protagonist in Cox's book, former University of South Florida student Christian Locke, leaves a $26,000-a-year insurance sales job to make it big in the mortgage business, finds himself in hot water with the FBI and executes an elaborate plan to defraud lenders of millions before making his getaway.
Cox, 35, himself a former USF art student, started his own mortgage company, was charged with fraud in Tampa, then, according to court records, masterminded a scheme to use phony identities and falsified records to make a fortune with fraudulent loans on dilapidated properties in Tampa Heights. He is now a fugitive.
In The Associates, Locke uses various fraudulent means to acquire $2.7-million in real estate. In reality, Cox's associates say he dreamed up a series of phony buyers - Brandon Green and James Redd, among others - to sign for a series of fraudulent loans.
His take: $2.77-million, according to an examination of property records by the St. Petersburg Times.
Now, Cox's The Associates has become late-night reading for federal agents on Cox's trail. They hope his thinly disguised yarn provides insights into his psyche and, more important, clues to his whereabouts.
"It is a fascinating element of him, for sure," said Secret Service Agent Andrea Peacock, who has been tracking Cox for several months. The Secret Service is involved because the agency investigates white-collar crime, particularly when it involves identity theft.
In the conclusion to The Associates, Locke packs a suitcase with cash, leaves his silver Audi TT in a parking lot and boards a cruise liner in Tampa to make a rendezvous with his girlfriend on a Caribbean island.
A year ago, Cox left his leased, silver Audi TT in a secluded parking lot and dropped out of sight. He surfaced this summer in suburban Atlanta where, federal agents say, he and a female accomplice used identity theft and forged records to make off with $800,000.
"It's kind of creepy he'd put it all down in a book," said Gerald Scott Cugno, 31, a Hillsborough County mortgage broker who did business with Cox for several years and read parts of The Associates as Cox wrote it.
To Cugno, a strong similarity exists between Cox and the character portrayed by Leonard DiCaprio in the movie Catch Me If You Can. DiCaprio portrayed Frank Abagnale Jr., a con man who impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer while passing $6-million in bad checks around the world before he was finally nabbed by the FBI.
"It's a game to him," Cugno said. "He wants to see if he can pull it off. And so far, he has."
Having spun his own reality out of the threads in The Associates, Cox this summer apparently borrowed from the real to create new fictional characters in Atlanta.
After disappearing from Tampa in December 2003, Cox showed up in an Atlanta suburb in August, and federal investigators say he used stolen identities to defraud mortgage lenders, credit card companies and a car dealer. He even paid $12,000 for plastic surgery to change the appearance of his female companion, according to a 15-count complaint filed by the U.S. Secret Service.
The name of one of the stolen identities in the Atlanta crimes: Gerald Scott Cugno.
Cugno said he had no idea his name had been forged on loan documents until Secret Service agents knocked on his door this summer and showed him a picture of the man who had been impersonating him.
Cugno was amazed. It was his old business associate, Matt Cox.
"I knew he was a pretty creative individual," Cugno said. "But I didn't know he was doing this kind of thing."
Cox's friends say he showed them The Associates as a work in progress, seeking critiques, probing for holes in the schemes outlined in the book. Most never believed Cox was writing a primer he would follow.
"He sent it to a lot of people to see if they thought it worked," said Aimee Tamargo, a local businesswoman who has known Cox for more than a decade. "But the things he's been doing since have shocked a lot of people."
The book provides a number of parallels between fictional characters and real people who were part of Cox's life. Eerily, some take on the roles Cox foretold in the book.
In The Associates, Tony Tamargo is a character portrayed as a crooked Tampa Heights real estate investor.
In real life, Eric Tamargo - Aimee Tamargo's ex-husband - was recruited by Cox to use a phony ID and impersonate a fake investor named James Redd to sign for $381,000 in mortgage loans in 2003, according to court records. Eric Tamargo has been charged with bank fraud.
In a historical reference, Cox's book paints Greta Beck as Christian Locke's boss and mentor in a company called Capital Funding. Greta is investigated for mortgage fraud in The Associates, then murdered by a mob figure who fears she will expose him to a grand jury.
Greta appears to have been modeled after Gretchen Zayas, Cox's boss at a company called Creative Mortgage Brokers. In a 1999 federal case, Zayas pleaded guilty to fraud, was sentenced to a one-month prison term and later declared bankruptcy.
Perhaps the most eye-catching aspects of The Associates are the sections that serve as tutorials for fraud.
Locke, preparing to use forged documents to refinance a series of loans, uses 220-grade sandpaper to sand off names and addresses on duplicate Florida ID cards, then utilizes a computer to print new names and addresses. Finally, he visits a Kinko's to make a transparency to paste on the new ID.
Locke obtained the Social Security numbers of others, usually children, by ordering copies of birth certificates from the county health department, then requesting a duplicate card from the Social Security Administration.
The real-life charges against Eric Tamargo stem from his use of a phony Florida ID card and a Social Security number that actually belonged to a 4-year-old child.
In The Associates, Locke found it even simpler to order fake notary stamps. And "because of the prankster in him," the book says, "Christian couldn't help but add a flair to the forgeries" by using real names as notaries and witnesses on documents.
A number of mortgage records handled by Cox in Hillsborough County bear the phony notary stamp of Ed Ringer. There is no notary license issued to an Ed Ringer. But Ed Ringer is the name of an appraiser who once did business with Cox.
Once he makes the decision to "take the money and run" in The Associates, Locke creates a series of forged loan payoff documents, or mortgage satisfactions, to give the illusion that no money is owed on his investment properties. Locke is then able to take out new loans on the properties, cash the checks and abscond.
Cox, according to property records, apparently did the same thing with a three-unit, Mediterranean-style apartment building he owned on 403 E Amelia Ave. in Tampa Heights. By using forged satisfactions, Cox signed for eight mortgages totaling $994,750 on a building valued at about $210,000.
Now, several lenders stung in the deals are battling in bankruptcy court for possession of the apartment building.
For those with a penchant for armchair psychoanalysis, The Associates is a bonanza, particularly with regard to Christian Locke's rationalization of his own crimes.
The banks cut corners, Locke says. The prosecutor trying to indict him cheats on her taxes. The FBI agent investigating him lied on his financial aid form to get a student loan, then, years later, helped convict a college student who did the same thing.
No one is really harmed by mortgage fraud, Locke thinks, and everybody else is corrupt anyway.
When Locke boards the cruise ship to embark for the Caymans, he has $4.5-million in cash, the company of his girlfriend and the firm knowledge he is about to begin "a new adventure, a new life in a new country."
The truth is grittier. Cox left behind aging parents, a tearful wife and a young son. He is now on the run from federal charges that could put him behind bars for years.
There is another, lighter criticism of The Associates. Though it was proofread by friends, the spelling is occasionally atrocious. Serial killer comes across as "cereal" killer. Chalking up is "chocking" up.
It's the kind of flaw that hits a novelist hard, and sometimes nicks con men, too.
Such inattention to detail helped raise flags in March 2001, when Cox was arrested and charged with mortgage fraud in Tampa. A phony appraisal that needed updating was inadvertently sent to the actual appraiser, who noticed that his name and a number of other words were misspelled.
The real appraiser turned out to be a retired Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent and sheriff's deputy. Suspecting fraud, he called authorities. Investigators concluded that Cox had used the fake appraisal in an attempt to get multiple mortgages on a home owned by someone else.
It's that kind of sloppiness the FBI and the Secret Service figure will ultimately cross up Cox and lead to his capture.
Said Agent Peacock, "It's just a matter of time."
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or firstname.lastname@example.orgTHE "ASSOCIATES,' OR MATTHEW B. COX?
Matthew B. Cox's unpublished book, "The Associates," closely parallels his life and borrows liberally from real people as it describes an elaborate fraud scheme pulled off by protagonist Christian Locke:
Christian Locke, former USF student and insurance salesman; 5-feet-7, blue eyes, brown hair.
Mortgage broker at Capital Funding.
Drove silver Audi TT.
Accused by FBI of illegally acquiring $2.7-million in Tampa real estate.
Greta Beck, Locke's boss, charged with mortgage fraud, later murdered.
Joey Ferrara, used by Locke as straw buyer in mortgage scam.
Tony Tamargo, crooked Tampa Heights estate investor.
Steve Sutton, Hillsborough Sheriff's deputy who makes cameo appearance.
Janet Anglin, clerk at records office who handles loan satisfactions from Locke.
Escape: Locke boards a cruise liner for a rendezvous with his girlfriend on an island in the Caribbean.REALITY
Matthew Cox, former USF student and insurance salesman; 5-feet-6, green eyes, brown hair.
Worked as a mortgage broker at United Capital Trust.
Drove silver Audi TT.
Accused in court records of using false names to borrow $2.7-million on Tampa properties.
Gretchen Zayas, Cox's boss, convicted of mortgage fraud in 2001.
Dominic J. Ferrara, Cox colleague at Consortium Financial who cashed a $15,908 check Cox had gained from mortgage fraud, according to court records.
Eric Tamargo, charged with bank fraud after authorities say he was enlisted by Cox to use a false ID to sign mortgage loan papers.
Steven K. Sutton, Hillsborough Sheriff's detention officer involved in real estate transactions involving Cox and partners.
Joyce Anglim, actual employee who once worked at Hillsborough County's records office.
Escape: Cox left Tampa in 2003, and, according to the U.S. Secret Service, began a new round of fraud with a female accomplice in Atlanta in 2004, then disappeared. His whereabouts are unknown.