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Crime

Fraud leader had a lot of help

Matthew B. Cox had 22 co-conspirators in his mortgage schemes, new charges say.

By JEFF TESTERMANN
Published April 10, 2007


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TAMPA -- With Matthew B. Cox ready to plead guilty in Atlanta today to a five-year rampage of forgery, identity theft and mortgage fraud, federal prosecutors have filed charges in Tampa and Nashville that reveal the depth and breadth of his crimes.

In Tampa, according to the newly filed charges, Cox committed $8.6-million in fraud on transactions involving 77 properties in the Tampa Heights and Ybor City areas.

In Nashville, Cox committed $2.35-million in fraud on 22 properties, according to the new charges.

Cox was helped by 22 unnamed co-conspirators in Tampa and Nashville, the new charges reveal.

A one-time University of South Florida art student and Tampa mortgage broker, Cox had fine-tuned his fraud by the time he set up shop in Tennessee. The criminal information there says he created a bogus bank, complete with a Web site - Southern Exchange Bank, he called it - to confirm his assets for lenders. He also obtained valid Social Security numbers for loan applications by creating nonexistent babies, replete with phony birth certificates and vaccination records.

Now, in a deal with the government, Cox, 37, says he will plead guilty to the new charges as well as to charges in a 42-count indictment filed in Georgia in August 2004, when he was a fugitive whose name topped the Secret Service's most-wanted list.

"As real estate fraud, it's one of the larger cases I've seen," said Michael Markham, a bankruptcy attorney responsible for sorting out the real and fraudulent assets at Urban Equity, where Cox worked while the Tampa fraud was committed.

"Cox was a master at creating new identities and documents and at getting others to do his dirty work for him," Markham said. "He recognized the weaknesses in the real estate system and figured out how to profit from them."

Facing as many as 422 years in prison, Cox's plea deal presumably will save him from a life term in return for his cooperation in pursuing accomplices.

The charges in Tampa list 16 unnamed co-conspirators, identified by initials only. The charges covering Cox's activities in Nashville list six more unnamed co-conspirators.

"Our investigation continues," Robert A. Mosakowski, assistant U.S. attorney in Tampa, said Monday.

For three years beginning in December 2001, Cox used a dozen phony names in Tampa, favoring color-coded aliases: Brandon Green, Lee Black, David White and James Redd.

His favored scheme, according to court records, was to purchase rundown properties, artificially inflate prices using fraudulent appraisals, then supply invented credit information to straw buyers, or proxies, who obtained loans far more than the value of the mortgaged properties.

Two co-conspirators identifiable in the court papers charging Cox are David A. Walker and Rudy L. Arnauts, officers of Urban Equity, the Ybor City investment company where Cox worked as acquisitions director. Neither could be reached for comments Monday.

Arnauts has been cooperating with the FBI inquiry into Cox. Walker told the St. Petersburg Times in 2004 that Cox had dreamed up the idea to use false identities to buy, sell and mortgage marginal properties.

Also identifiable as a co-conspirator is Keyla Burgos, Cox's ex-wife, who was involved in property transfers with him and who collected rent at properties purchased by some phony identities invented by Cox. Burgos could not be reached Monday.

No charges have been filed against Arnauts, Walker or Burgos.

A Times examination of Cox's questionable property deals in December 2003, entitled "Dubious Deals," chased Cox and his fiancee, former Las Vegas legal secretary Rebecca Hauck, from Tampa.

The couple surfaced in Atlanta, and embarked on a new string of mortgage frauds in Georgia and the Carolinas.

The couple split up in Houston in 2005. Hauck, who maintains she was under Cox's domination, became Rebecca Hickey, a bartender and cosmetology student. Secret Service agents arrested her a year ago. Now serving a 70-month prison term, she expects a reduced sentence for agreeing to testify against Cox.

After Texas, Cox headed for Tennessee. He adopted a new identity, found a new girlfriend and forged ahead with new mortgage fraud in Nashville.

As the operator of a renovation company called Nashville Restoration Project, Cox used the stolen identities Joseph Carter and Walter Holcomb to commit fraud from June 2005 to November 2006, the criminal information says.

Nashville Restoration was co-owned by Amanda Lynn Gardner, Cox's new girlfriend, who is identifiable in court papers as one of the six co-conspirators used as straw borrowers in his schemes. The charges say Cox and Gardner used a shell company called Manufacturers Funding Group to provide phony employment and income data on loan applications.

Gardner's attorney, Paula Hutchinson, said Gardner believed she was working in a legitimate business with a man named Joseph Carter and, when she learned he was Cox, cooperated fully with federal agents.

"She did see some things, little by little, that at the time she did not realize were illegal," said Hutchinson. "But the information she provided to authorities did prove to be very useful."

In Nashville, court papers say, Cox took creation of bogus IDs to a new level of sophistication. To generate the illusion of assets for him and his unqualified straw buyers, Cox created an entire fake bank and produced bank statements for account holders there.

When Cox needed a clean Social Security number, one that would pass muster on a credit report, he stole identities by pretending to be a surveyor of homeless persons and drug rehab patients.

Those names were used as the names of supposed newborns, supported by fraudulent county-issued birth certificates, fake inoculation records and false midwife certificates showing the babies had been born at home.

After Social Security numbers were issued for the nonexistent babies, Cox paired them with the names of adults when applying for credit.

Cox seemed to have made enough money to retire comfortably. But he was committing fraud until he was captured in Nashville last November after a suspicious babysitter figured out who he was and turned him in.

Markham, the bankruptcy attorney, thinks Cox couldn't stop, no matter how much he raked in.

"With Cox, it was not about making money," he said. "It was the thrill of the bluff and getting away with it."

Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 9, 2007, 23:30:54]


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