In trouble's footsteps
Rebecca Hauck was already fleeing trouble when she met Matthew Cox . Joining in his wave of identity theft and mortgage fraud has landed her a nearly 6-year jail term.
By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published November 16, 2006
[Michael Lewis for Fortune magazine]
Rebecca Hauck says her fiance, Matthew Cox, assured her that they would not be caught because they were "small fish." Instead, they made the most-wanted list, accused of millions in mortgage fraud.
[Times photo: Brian Cassella]
Matthew Cox's artwork in his Tampa Heights home was what initially attracted Rebecca Hauck to him, she said.
This Cox painting is on the wall of a home in Nashville he rehabilitated.
Matthew Cox, 37, remains at large while two ex-girlfriends are in jail.
TAMPA - Three years ago, Rebecca Marie Hauck left behind a gambling problem, a bankruptcy and a broken marriage in Las Vegas to seek a new life. She found it in Tampa when she became the fiancee of Matthew B. Cox, an artist, aspiring author and real estate professional.
But the bride-to-be's picture never made it into a wedding album. Instead, her photo ended up next to Cox's on U.S. Secret Service most-wanted posters.
A federal judge in Atlanta sentenced Hauck on Wednesday to five years, 10 months in prison for a multistate, multimillion-dollar crime wavew involving forgery, identity theft and mortgage fraud. After pleading guilty to conspiracy and bank fraud, Hauck also was ordered to pay restitution of $1.19-million.
She recounted her life on the run with Cox in a recent telephone interview from prison in Atlanta. "The person that did those things with Matt Cox is not the person I am now," Hauck said. "I'm prepared for what's ahead."
She is the third Cox associate convicted of schemes involving mortgage fraud. As many as a dozen others are expected to be indicted in fraud masterminded by Cox, Tampa prosecutors say. Cox remains a fugitive.
For Hauck, 35, the promise of a better life with Cox turned into 28 months fleeing federal authorities across six states, and now, prison and restitution that may keep her in debt for the rest of her life.
"I guess if there's a lesson I've learned, it's this: If it seems to be too good to be true, it is."
A $36,900-a-year legal secretary in Las Vegas, Hauck got addicted to video poker and was fired after forging her employer's name on checks to pay her debts. Her Saab convertible was repossessed. She filed for bankruptcy.
She moved to Florida with her teenage son and met Cox on Match.com, an online dating service where he posted some of his artwork. A former University of South Florida art student, Cox had art deco paintings, many wryly ironic, in his Mediterranean-style triplex on Amelia Avenue in Tampa Heights.
Acrylic nuns smoked cigarettes in one corner of an upstairs apartment; a priest peeked over the corner of a shower curtain in another.
"What drew me to him was his artwork," Hauck said. "When we met, I found him very funny, very charming."
Cox took Hauck to Urban Equity, a real estate firm across the street from a one-time cigar factory in Ybor City, where a staff of 20 hung on Cox's every word.
"But something was not quite right," Hauck said. "Everybody had top-of-the-line everything - cars, houses, jewelry - everything."
Cox finally revealed that he was on probation for mortgage fraud and grand theft. He admitted that his real estate acquisitions were woven out of forgery, fraud and color-coded aliases.
"He told me about James Redd, Charles White and Brandon Green," said Hauck, three names Cox invented to sign for more than $2.7-million in fraudulent mortgage loans taken out on dilapidated homes in Tampa Heights.
Cox told Hauck that by forging and filing multiple mortgage satisfactions - documents denoting a mortgage loan has been paid in full - he obtained eight loans totaling $994,750 on the triplex, a building worth about $210,000.
He outfitted the home with surveillance cameras. He converted an upstairs closet to a concealed, black-walled safe room in case police appeared. He stashed $35,000 behind one painting, she said.
"And everything he owned was bought using false identities."
Hitting the road
The couple piled into Cox's $80,000 Audi and left town in a hurry in December 2003, Hauck said, because the St. Petersburg Times was preparing a series of stories about Cox's questionable property deals.
"Matt said it was just a matter of time before everything fell apart," she said.
The newspaper story, "Dubious Deals," was published on Dec. 14, 2003. The next day, Cox and Hauck surfaced in Marietta, Ga., where Cox used a counterfeit Florida driver's license to rent a mail drop to use as an address on fraudulent loan applications, the federal indictment says.
The couple avoided capture by residing in one state and committing crimes in another. Living in the Atlanta area, they targeted a handicapped retiree in Tallahassee, Theresa A. Knight.
Cox used a phony ID to rent Knight's home and filed a forged mortgage satisfaction. Hauck used more counterfeit identification to assume Knight's identity, signing for a $53,000 mortgage loan in the victim's name.
Part of the take paid for a Honda Element car and breast augmentation, liposuction and a tummy tuck for Hauck.
Cox had created a blueprint for his schemes in an unpublished 317-page novel he called The Associates, about a young mortgage broker who commits mortgage fraud and escapes from the FBI. As Cox followed his fictional blueprint, he got away with $800,000 in Georgia and millions more in South Carolina, authorities say.
To secure bank loans, Hauck said, Cox sometimes stole people's identities and other times took the IDs of the homeless.
"He'd carry a clipboard and tell these homeless guys he was doing a census for the Red Cross or Salvation Army," she said. "He'd pay them $50 and get all their credit information, Social Security number, date of birth, everything.
"Matt would say, 'You know, the homeless are widely under-utilized.' "
In Columbia, S.C., police had Cox, but he charmed his way to freedom. He was masquerading as Gary Sullivan, owner of a temporary labor service. Banks were alerted after a title abstractor noticed a half-dozen mortgage loans filed on two properties just purchased by Sullivan.
Police handcuffed Cox/Sullivan as he left a Wachovia Bank. But he convinced them that it was a case of mistaken identity.
He and Hauck rendezvoused in Houston.
"When we left Tampa, I knew we were going to get involved in crime," Hauck said. "But Matt convinced me were small fish. He said I would still be able to see my family."
But after the couple were indicted in August 2004, Hauck "freaked out," and later had a falling out with Cox.
One morning in Houston, she stepped out of the shower to find Cox and the couple's pet Shar-Pei had vanished.
Hauck studied cosmetology by day, tended bar by night, bought a Volkswagen, paid her $600-a-month rent and waited for the next shoe to drop. On March 21, it did: Federal agents arrested her at cosmetology school.
A Web trail
Hauck believes the Secret Service may have discovered her whereabouts after she accessed a Web site used by her son, who had been left with relatives when she and Cox fled Tampa.
Facing a 42-count indictment, Hauck cooperated with prosecutors and agreed to testify against Cox if he's captured. She said she has no idea where he is.
In Tampa, the two Cox accomplices already imprisoned are Eric Tamargo and Alison Arnold.
Tamargo got 21 months for taking $1,000 to use a phony ID prepared by Cox and sign for two loans totaling $235,300.
Arnold, a former Cox girlfriend who bears a startling resemblance to Hauck, got two years for committing fraud with Cox in Pinellas after stealing the identity of another woman.
Hauck has been in contact with Arnold.
"Matt did to her what he did to me," Hauck said. "He caught her on the rebound from a divorce and put her in a house full of furniture."
Hauck said Arnold told her that Cox, now 37, contacted federal investigators and offered to negotiate his surrender.
Cox declined the deal, Hauck said. "He didn't like the terms."
Jeff Testerman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3422.
[Last modified November 16, 2006, 00:35:21]
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