By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
Tampa's Matthew B. Cox is suspected in more loan fraud. He was let go after questioning because police didn't know him.
TAMPA - There was something odd about Gary L. Sullivan, the polite young businessman who moved into Columbia, S.C., last summer and bought a couple of nice homes in the northeast section of town.
At one of his places, a $225,000, 3,000-square-foot home, the furnishings were bare-bones: a desk, a computer, a phone and a mattress on the floor. At the other, no one was ever around, but the outside lights stayed on day and night.
Sullivan told some people he was a failed restaurant owner from Tampa trying to get back on his feet. To others, he said he was a supervisor for a day labor service, even though he drove a flashy, two-door sports car - hardly the vehicle to ferry workers to job sites.
What no one in Columbia knew until it was too late, investigators say, was that Sullivan was actually Matthew B. Cox, 35, a former University of South Florida art student, aspiring author and suspected master con artist whose specialties are forgery and fraud.
Authorities now think Cox used the name Gary Sullivan to obtain more than $1-million in mortgage loans, using bogus ID cards, false credit information, a phony loan company, a business address that was nothing more than a mail drop and a series of forged documents bearing the signature, in one case, of a cartoon character from The Simpsons TV show.
Police detained Cox for questioning after he was snared by a fraud alert sent to Columbia banks. But he was released because no one knew who he was. Then, just as he did when sought by the FBI in Tampa in 2003 and the Secret Service in Atlanta in 2004, he vanished.
"This whole scam is the talk of the real estate community," said Mary Nell Degenhart, a Columbia lawyer who handled a loan closing for Sullivan. "It just amazes me he got away."
As the scam began to unravel, Degenhart obtained a copy of a St. Petersburg Times story containing Cox's picture and identified him as the man she knew as Sullivan.
Degenhart said the FBI was notified after an abstractor researching property records at the Richland County Courthouse in Columbia noticed that Sullivan had obtained a half-dozen mortgage loans on his two properties in the space of a few days in early February.
The stack of mortgage refinances, adding up to $886,318, smacked of an MO Cox wrote about in his unpublished fictional work, The Associates, in which a young mortgage broker obtains a series of loans and absconds before any of the banks realize other lenders are making loans on the same property.
Along with a half dozen mortgages obtained on the two houses, the sellers themselves extended hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit. So, the total take from the scam exceeded $1-million.
"To pull this off, he had to have a working knowledge of the courthouses," said Bailey Preacher, a title abstractor who has researched the documents filed by Sullivan. "He has to know where there is a lag time between recording of mortgages and when that information actually becomes public."
Because of the high volume of recorded documents at many courthouses in recent years, a new mortgage loan may not be available for public viewing for days after it is initially recorded, creating a time gap during which lenders might be unaware of activity involving a particular property.
Joseph Fedyszen, an FBI agent in Columbia, confirmed that local police had questioned Sullivan, then released him. The agent said he learned that Sullivan was Cox from Candace Calderon, a Tampa FBI agent in charge of the investigation into Cox in Florida.
In Tampa, Cox was director of acquisitions for Urban Equity Inc., a company that used fictional names and credentials to obtain inflated mortgage loans on marginal properties in the Tampa Heights and Ybor City areas, according to court records.
The name Brandon Green, for example, was used to sign for loans totaling $858,000, borrowed on five dilapidated properties. Lenders foreclosed on all five loans but never were able to locate any Brandon Green.
Urban Equity, with more than 90 properties, is now in bankruptcy.
The company's activities sparked a federal grand jury investigation that so far has resulted in the indictment of two Cox associates on charges of bank fraud. Prosecutors say as many as 13 other people may be indicted locally.
Cox, already on probation on state and federal mortgage-related fraud convictions, disappeared from his Tampa Heights home in December 2003, days after a St. Petersburg Times article titled "Dubious Deals" chronicled questionable real estate transactions involving Urban Equity.
Cox and a female accomplice, Rebecca Hauck, then surfaced in metropolitan Atlanta in the summer of 2004. There, according to a complaint by the Secret Service, the couple adopted the stolen identities of Gerald S. Cugno and Grace Hudson, among others, to pocket more than $800,000.
The two used phony documents to obtain fraudulent mortgages, a Honda Element automobile and $12,000 worth of plastic surgery to alter the appearance of Hauck, federal agents said.
Then, the couple slipped out of sight.
As the Justice Department was putting out its first news release on the Atlanta fraud, it appears that Cox was already in Columbia using his new name, Gary Sullivan, to buy and mortgage new property. Records show Sullivan bought the home at 7211 Holloway Road in August, then in December purchased the home at 105 Sandy Lake Road.
In both cases, the sellers were persuaded to finance the initial purchases themselves. A hard luck tale was the key to this part of the swindle.
"The previous owner said (Sullivan) had a restaurant in town that went bankrupt and he was trying to get his credit straight, so that's why he needed the owner financing," said Floyd Moon, a neighbor next door to the Sandy Lake Road home.
With such transactions, the owner gives the deed to the buyer in exchange for a short-term loan agreement. In legitimate sales, the buyer then pays off the loan as pledged, or uses the deed as collateral for a conventional bank mortgage and that money is used to pay the seller.
The sellers with the Sandy Lake Road property were Bruce and Bridget Brown of Martinez, Ga. They let Sullivan sign for an 18-month, $201,000 mortgage loan on the Sandy Lake Road property. On Jan. 10, less than a month after the sale, a satisfaction of mortgage form was filed in Columbia showing Sullivan's loan had been paid in full. The document bore the purported signatures of the Browns.
But in a telephone interview last week, Bruce Brown said that he and his wife never signed any loan satisfaction form. The document was forged, it appears, to show Sullivan had clear title to the Sandy Lake Road home, which allowed him to sign for what turned out to be three new loans.
That left the Browns without title to their South Carolina home and holding a $201,000 note that is all but uncollectible. To top it off, the Secret Service called the Browns last weekend and told them Sullivan was Cox, a fugitive who disappeared again after being let go by Columbia police.
"I'm living in the middle of a nightmare," Bruce Brown said.
On Jan. 10, the day the satisfaction with the Browns' forged signatures was filed, a second document was filed in Columbia regarding the Sandy Lake Road home: a new $164,000 mortgage loan to Sullivan from Southern Funding Consortium.
But Southern Funding was nothing but a shell company incorporated six days earlier, on Jan. 4, with a UPS box as its address and Gary Sullivan as its registered agent. When Sullivan got a new loan to pay off Southern Funding, he could simply pluck the check from the mailbox and deposit the funds in the Southern Funding corporate account he controlled.
There was another phony loan satisfaction for Sullivan involving a real loan company called Capital Trust Mortgage. The satisfaction is signed by "Montgomery C. Burns, Vice President." There is no Montgomery Burns at Capital Trust, according to the company's real vice president, Danny Goldstein.
Goldstein laughed when he heard the name.
C. Montgomery Burns is the name of the aging tycoon and nuclear power plant owner in the TV cartoon show The Simpsons. "I watch the show," Goldstein said. "But he's not with our company. It's strange what you hear in this industry sometimes."
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story. Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or firstname.lastname@example.org