A tale of couple's life on the run

While on the Secret Service’s most-wanted list, Rebecca Hauck  says she and Matthew Cox kept moving, kept committing crimes.

Published May 22, 2006

TAMPA — For Rebecca Hauck, the promise of a new life began three years ago with a new home, a new name, a new look and a diamond engagement ring from one-time Tampa mortgage broker Matthew Cox.

The couple never did walk down the aisle. Instead, U.S. prosecutors say, they embarked on a multistate string of crimes involving identity theft and fraud, exchanging a honeymoon for a life on the run as fugitives on the U.S. Secret Service’s most-wanted list.

Now, after her arrest in Houston in March and a plea bargain tendered in federal court in Atlanta last week, Hauck, 34, faces a likely prison term and restitution that could saddle her with debt for the rest of her life.

“Rebecca is very remorseful and is willing to pay for the consequences of her actions,’’ said Paula Hutchinson, Hauck’s defense attorney from a branch of the Johnnie Cochran law firm in Lincoln, Neb.

Facing a 42-count indictment that could have subjected her to 400 years in prison, Hauck agreed   to plead guilty to conspiracy, which carries a maximum five-year term, and bank fraud, which carries a maximum of 30 years. The two crimes are also punishable by a possible order of restitution and fines totaling $1.25-million

Hauck agreed to assist the U.S. government with testimony against Cox, who remains a fugitive and faces the original 42 counts of conspiracy, bank fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and use of stolen identities.

At Hauck’s sentencing, now scheduled for July 31, Hutchinson said she intends to argue that although her client participated in identity theft and mortgage fraud while crisscrossing several southern states from 2003 to 2005, she was herself a victim of Cox’s exploitation.

“She was manipulated and utterly controlled by him,’’ said Hutchinson.

Cox, 36, the acquisitions director for an Ybor City firm called Urban Equity, was already on probation for fraud involving theft of an identity when he asked Hauck, a former legal secretary, to marry him in Tampa in 2003. As the St. Petersburg Times was exploring several questionable real estate deals involving Cox, the couple disappeared.

The prospective bride and groom each left behind bankruptcies, sons from earlier marriages and questions from business associates and worried family members.

Cox and Hauck surfaced in Atlanta, according to indictments of them, using stolen names, forged documents and phony IDs to obtain a series of fraudulent mortgage loans on properties owned by someone else.

Cox had fine-tuned the scheme in Tampa, according to court papers, adopting names such as Brandon Green and James Redd, then inventing credentials for them as tax consultants or certified public accountants to obtain more than $2-million in mortgage loans on dilapidated homes in Tampa Heights neighborhoods.

In Atlanta, the couple used fake documents to finance the purchase of a Honda Element. At Cox’s insistence, Hutchinson said, they visited the Swan Center for Plastic Surgery, where Hauck had liposuction and breast augmentation.

After a couple of months, Hutchinson said, the romance faded, but Cox maintained his grip on Hauck as his accomplice.

“After she signed the first fraudulent bank papers under the name Theresa Knight, Cox turned to her and said, 'Now, you’re in this as deep as I am,’ ” Hutchinson said. “They would watch that HBO prison show, Oz, and he would tell her that’s where she’d be spending her time if they were ever caught. The brainwashing about the ugliness of prison ultimately prevented her from turning herself in.”

The couple vacationed for 10 days in Jamaica, but returned to the United States because Cox has “an obsessive fear of Interpol,’’ Hutchinson said.

With the FBI investigating Cox’s property transactions in Tampa and the Secret Service on Cox and Hauck’s trail in Atlanta, the couple fled to Texas.

There, according to Hutchinson, Cox said they needed to continue their illegal activities, but Hauck said no, that she had had enough. They exchanged bitter words, and when Hauck stepped out of the shower one morning, Cox had vanished, taking whatever cash he could find, Hutchinson said.

After that, the attorney said, Hauck went straight, living in a $600-a-month apartment as Rebecca Hickey, aware federal agents were looking for her.

“She worked hard. She bought a Volkswagen and made the payments. She tended bar at night. She went to cosmetology school in the day,” Hutchinson said. “She was hiding in plain sight.”

Hauck wasn’t able to tell Secret Service agents where Cox is, Hutchinson said, but feels sure he is in a warm-weather place in this country so “he can work his mortgage fraud magic.”

The money is gone, too, except for $239,856 Cox stashed in eight bank accounts under phony names in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, all now seized by the Secret Service.

But Cox did abandon something of potential value. The former University of South Florida art student used acrylics to create several wall-sized murals. Hutchinson thinks the unusual paintings may attract collectors on eBay and help defray Hauck’s restitution.

In Tampa, Cox left behind a painting of nuns smoking cigarettes. Another depicts a priest peering over the top of a shower curtain.

“He engaged in irony and moral paradox,’’ said Hutchinson. “He is a brilliant genius of an artist.”

Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or by e-mail at testerman@sptimes.com