Did sellers' smiles mask misdeeds?
Natalia and Victor Wolf won over buyers in Citrus County with their charm. But they may also have stolen millions and fled the country.
By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published December 3, 2006
Maureen and Samuel Spence, a retired couple from Pennsylvania, paid Sky Development Group to build this home on N. Ibsen Drive in Citrus Springs. Now, the house sits unfinished, and investigators say Sky Development's creators have fled the country.
[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
Robert and Mona Alley, who lost legs in a botched medical procedure, paid more than $500,000 to Sky Development Group.
Natalia and Victor Wolf lived lavishly.
They hosted swanky penthouse parties, owned a $2.3-million waterfront home and declared they would become the biggest developers in America.
But now their company, Sky Development Group, is at the center of a huge real estate fraud investigation that started in Citrus County - and could span the globe.
Detectives say they think Natalia and Victor Wolf slipped out of the country in October, leaving behind more than 100 victims and taking more than $20-million from fraudulent transactions.
No charges have been filed. Investigators from the FBI, the Citrus County Sheriff's Office and the North Miami Beach Police Department are building a case and trying to unravel how the deals were done.
For a while Sky Development Group appeared to be operating legitimately. But problems with the company's land sales started surfacing in October. Investigators say they don't know whether the alleged scam was part of a long-orchestrated plot or a last-ditch attempt to deal with a plummeting real estate market.
One thing is clear: The elaborate scheme fooled retirees, seasoned real estate agents and big companies alike. The list of alleged victims grows daily.
Allegations include claims that Sky Development Group:
- Forged deeds and sold more than $1-million worth of property it didn't own in one Citrus County development, Citrus Springs.
- Took millions of dollars for land without turning over the property to the buyers.
- Referred buyers to a fake title company managed by Natalia Wolf to close land deals.
- Took money for new homes it never built or never finished.
"This is just a nightmare. It truly is," said Citrus County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Gail Tierney.
Scores of victims are searching for money - and answers.
"Everybody believed them. Everybody bought into their scheme," said Alex Hamilton, a Miami real estate agent who sold more than $500,000 of the company's property and bought a lot for himself in Citrus Springs. "We're all trying to figure out how they did this. ... We're still reeling."
Citrus Springs residents saw the first sign of trouble in August, when the company abruptly left its local office in the community welcome center.
Company officials told investors they planned to move to a new site soon.
But Sky hadn't paid its $9,653 monthly office rent since June, said Sharon Hummerhielm, executive vice president of the Deltona Corp., which owns the building.
"We had no idea there was anything fishy," Hummerhielm said.
Detectives say they think Natalia and Victor Wolf are of Russian descent, but they aren't entirely sure. They don't know when the couple came to America, if they came together, how they met or whether they were married.
Investigators know Natalia Wolf used a German passport to enter Germany in October. They don't know how she obtained a German passport. And they can't confirm that anyone named Victor Wolf even exists.
Victor Wolf started Sky Development Group in July 2004, state records show. He resigned as its registered agent in December of that year. Natalia Wolf replaced him.
The company was based in North Miami Beach, but investigators say they think it also started projects in St. Augustine and Palm Coast, and maybe Texas and Arkansas.
Now Sky's North Miami Beach and Citrus County offices are closed.
The company bought 149 lots in Citrus Springs in November 2004 for $2.2-million from the Deltona Corp., the company behind sprawling communities like Spring Hill and Deltona Lakes.
It was Sky's first major purchase in the north Citrus County development, where property values had just started to surge. But it wasn't the last.
Sky later purchased 175 lots from Deltona for $2.4-million. And the company bought and sold more than 1,000 pieces of property in Citrus Springs since 2004, county records show.
Sky aggressively marketed the property for months on Russian-language TV stations and in Russian-language newspapers across the United States. It appears many people who bought property were from the Russian community.
Sky also played a prominent role in Citrus Springs. Employees handed out free hot dogs and hamburgers at picnics in the company parking lot. They joined the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce and the Citrus County Builders Association. At the welcome center they gave away glossy brochures and led free tours for potential buyers.
When payment problems started to pop up, Natalia Wolf said she was struggling to raise a newborn.
"She apologized profusely, saying that things had just gotten past her because she was pregnant," said Deltona's Hummerhielm. "She was so sorry."
The company still owes Deltona about $3.7-million, Hummerhielm said, and several foreclosure cases are in the works.
Deltona didn't realize the extent of Natalia Wolf's deception until it was too late, Hummerhielm said. "Now we're stuck like everybody else is," she said.
Deals and deceptions
Investigators say it appears most of the land Sky sold was in Citrus Springs, though buyers are scattered across the country. Many lived in South Florida.
That's where Natalia and Victor Wolf frequently hosted lavish parties, making it clear that they had money and planned to make more.
Before the birth of their baby girl several months ago, they celebrated with a shower on a cruise boat near North Miami Beach. More than 100 people enjoyed an open bar, caviar and gourmet desserts, said Peter Madison, an Orlando developer who attended the affair.
"It was extravagant, actually. That's why I never questioned them," Madison said. "They knew how to throw a party. It was a baby shower for the rich and famous."
Less than a month later, Victor Wolf called Madison to tell him times were tough for Sky. He asked for a loan. Instead, Madison agreed to buy 129 lots from Sky for $1.3-million. In October they sealed the deal.
But Sky Development didn't own those lots, according to fraudulent deed notices and lawsuits filed by several lawyers representing clients across Florida.
Madison, who had paid more than $2-million for more than 80 lots from Sky before, said he was shocked by the news.
"They were actually great people to deal with. They actually did what they said, and they were no problem at all," he said. "Then we found out they had disappeared."
'The nicest people'
The signature scrawled on all of Sky Development Group's corporate filings, and most of the company's property transactions, is simple. "Wolf," it says, with Natalia Wolf's name typed neatly underneath.
"Her name was on everything, but he kind of cut the deals," Madison said of Victor Wolf. "And then she'd send the paperwork."
For Mona and Robert Alley of Hollywood, Natalia Wolf wasn't just a name on paper; she was a familiar face.
The Alleys met Natalia and Victor Wolf in January, after purchasing three lots in Citrus Springs for $189,700.
"They were the nicest people," said Mona Alley, 53. The Alleys bought a Precious Moments jogging suit for the couple's new baby girl. They bought an $80 bottle of Russian vodka for their anniversary. And in August and September they bought more than $330,000 worth of additional property in Citrus Springs, Mona Alley said.
But legitimate deeds for that purchase don't exist, and the money the Alleys paid is missing. The company where they wired most of the money, All Title and Trust Co., dissolved in August.
No record of the company exists in the files of the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, which licenses all title companies in the state. The company's manager, according to corporate filings, was Natalia Wolf.
'They left nothing'
Peter and Gwen Mazzarino chose Sky Construction Group to build their dream retirement home in Crystal River.
The company, owned by Sky Development Group, offered a good product for a great price, so the Coral Springs couple took out a loan and gave the company a $28,500 down payment.
After no sign of construction for months, Peter Mazzarino, a 49-year-old locksmith, grew suspicious and called police. In September, North Miami Beach police Detective Ed Hill went with him to Sky's headquarters, located in an upscale strip mall, for a meeting with Natalia Wolf.
"She was very professional, very reserved and carefully choosing her words," Hill said. He found no evidence of illegal activity.
But on Oct. 16, after a $28,500 refund check that Natalia Wolf gave Peter Mazzarino bounced, Hill returned to the headquarters. He found unlocked doors leading to an empty office, with papers scattered inside. The scene was similar a few blocks away at the five-bedroom waterfront home in Eastern Shores where Natalia and Victor Wolf lived.
"The house was ransacked. They took their clothes. They took the pictures out of all the picture frames," he said. "They left nothing."
Hill said investigators are looking for Natalia and Victor Wolf's possible assets, including a 37-foot yacht and an Aston Martin. And they're trying to track down as many victims as possible.
In Citrus County, billboards still boast that the developer will provide "The Best Home of Your Life." Sky Development Group owns 345 parcels assessed at $9.4-million, records show. But officials don't know if those deeds are legitimate.
'I want my money'
Last month a Citrus sheriff's detective received a complaint claiming that at least one deed transferring property to Sky in 2005 was signed by a dead man.
Tracking down victims could take months or even years, Tierney said.
Meanwhile, Mazzarino said he's also trying to find as many victims as possible so the group can band together to hire an attorney and sort out the mess.
"Things are moving too slowly," he said. "I want my money back."
Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352 860-7309. Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan and staff writer Elena Lesley contributed to this article.
FORGED DEEDS DRIVE SCAMS, OFFICIALS SAY
Investigators say Sky Development Group's alleged scam relied on a simple and increasingly common scam: forging deeds.
"Most of the victims were clients who had either purchased land from Sky Development before, or Sky had purchased it from them," said Citrus County sheriff's Detective Mike Kanter.
State law does not give clerks' offices the power to verify deeds, said Citrus County Clerk Betty Strifler.
State Sen. Dave Aronberg sponsored legislation this year that makes "false documents" a third-degree felony, increasing the penalties from 60 days in jail to five years.
Fraudulent deeds have become such a problem in Miami-Dade County that the clerk's office now alerts property owners after the filing of a quit claim deed (used to transfer property when no sale takes place). The system has stopped dozens of schemes, Clerk Harvey Ruvin said.
"These people that are doing these schemes are extremely clever," Ruvin said. "We always have to be alert that once we've solved the problem, they'll find a way around it. It's almost like coming up with pesticides and seeing the bugs get immunity."
[Last modified December 3, 2006, 00:38:17]
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