Swindler Cox gets 26 years

Matthew Cox used stolen identities and mortgage fraud to reap millions.

By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 17, 2007

ATLANTA - In Tampa, he was James Redd, a $94,000-a-year marketing director for a financial consultant. In South Carolina, he was Gary L. Sullivan, the polite owner of a day labor service. In Tennessee, he was Joseph M. Carter, the witty, wealthy owner of a home restoration business.

All the masks that master con man Matthew B. Cox used fell away with finality Friday when a federal judge sentenced him to more than 26 years in prison.

"The degree of consciousness and forethought used to accomplish these schemes was stunning," said U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten Jr.

Cox's theft of identities, forgery of property records and mortgage fraud bordered "on the sociopathic," the judge said.

"The nature of what Mr. Cox did was personal, and he did it again, and again and again."

The judge also ordered Cox to pay $5.97-million in restitution, beginning with wages he will earn in what likely will be a maximum security prison. Any proceeds from the sales of Cox's artwork or written works also must go to satisfy the restitution.

An aspiring author, former University of South Florida art student and Tampa mortgage broker, Cox masterminded a five-year, cross-country fraud binge that took on elements of American folklore. Bloggers dubbed him and his girlfriend "the Bonnie and Clyde of mortgage fraud."

In his crime rampage through five Southern states, the 38-year-old rose to the top of the U.S. Secret Service list, committing so much fraud the FBI had trouble keeping an inventory of it all.

In Tampa, it amounted to $8.6-million, involving 77 properties, mostly in Tampa Heights and Ybor City. In Tennessee, it totaled $2.35-million on 22 properties. Millions more were added to the tally in Georgia and the Carolinas.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gale McKenzie needed 41 pages to catalog Cox's crimes from 1999 until his capture a year ago, and to list the identities of 48 adults and eight minors that Cox stole.

Facing dozens of charges with maximum penalties that totaled 422 years in prison, Cox pleaded guilty to reduced charges, including mortgage fraud, identity theft, bank fraud and passport forgery.

His public defender, Mildred Dunn, argued that Cox deserved no more than 10 to 15 years in prison. She pointed to his dyslexia, to a troubled childhood, to his remorse, and to his cooperation with an ongoing investigation.

The prosecutor acknowledged that in debriefings, Cox has provided verifiable information concerning "over a dozen co-conspirators" involved in mortgage fraud, most of them in Tampa.

But McKenzie said Cox is hardly remorseful: He told others that mortgage fraud is a victimless crime; he "constantly Googled himself" to see how his exploits were being treated by the media; he treated fraud like a game, like the time he signed to a forged document the name Montgomery Burns, the tycoon in The Simpsons.

Michael Shanahan, an Atlanta businessman that Cox targeted in one identity theft, testified that he is still recovering. "It still hangs over my head," Shanahan said. "To this day I don't know if I could get another loan."

A shackled Cox, supported by 10 family members, briefly addressed the judge. His voice trembling, he complained about being in debt, about nightmares and panic attacks, but in the end offered no excuses.

"I had no idea how many people would end up getting hurt," Cox said.

The St. Petersburg Times discovered Cox's crimes in late 2003 after a tip from the county property appraiser about questionable home sales in the Tampa Heights area. The first newspaper story, "Dubious Deals," examined a mysterious investor named Alex Antioch who had paid $552,000 for a dilapidated boarding house recently condemned by the city of Tampa.

He flees Tampa

Records showed Antioch was fictional, the deed forged and the price artificially inflated. Documents pointed back to Cox, a onetime mortgage broker already on probation for fraud and grand theft.

As the first news story was being published, Cox fled Tampa with his fiance, Rebecca M. Hauck, a former Las Vegas legal secretary.

Cox's whereabouts were a mystery, but he left behind a trove of evidence, recorded at the Hillsborough County Courthouse. The records revealed Cox's fine-tuned strategy of buying decaying homes at bargain prices, filing falsified deeds to reflect hugely inflated prices, then using false or stolen identities to obtain fat mortgage loans on the subpar properties.

Cox sometimes utilized color-coded aliases: James Redd, Brandon Green, Lee Black, David White. He sometimes rented properties, then took the identity of the owner, using a computer-generated ID to get refinanced cash out of a home as if he owned it.

The fraud followed the blueprint set down in his unpublished manuscript, The Associates, the fictional story of the exploits of Christian Locke. The hero, eerily patterned after Cox, leaves a dead-end insurance job, executes a plan to defraud lenders of millions, then eludes the mob and the FBI to rendezvous with his girlfriend on an island in the Caribbean.

Telltale clues in The Associates connected to real crimes. And Cox's fraud left a trail from Tampa to Atlanta to Columbia, S.C., to Nashville.

Along the way, Cox's forgery gained sophistication. To generate the illusion of plump bank accounts for him and his straw buyers, he created a fictional bank with its own Web site.

When he needed a new name for a fraudulent loan application, he grabbed a clipboard and played the part of a government bureaucrat surveying homeless persons or drug rehab patients.

When Cox needed a fresh Social Security number to pass muster on a credit check, he created nonexistent babies, complete with birth certificates and vaccination records.

Girlfriend arrested

When Hauck fled Tampa with Cox, she says she thought she was embarking on a honeymoon. But instead of a bride, she became an accomplice. After two years on the run, Cox abandoned Hauck after a falling-out in Houston. She was arrested, got a plea agreement and was sentenced to 70 months in prison. She was ordered to pay $1.19-million in restitution.

Hauck, now at Coleman Federal Correctional Institution in Sumter County, agreed in her plea to testify against Cox. With his sentencing Friday, she is now eligible for a sentence reduction.

Having eluded the Secret Service and the FBI for years, Cox was finally done in by a suspicious 60-year-old babysitter named Patsy Taylor. Cox was masquerading in Nashville as Joseph Carter, but dropped hints that he had mortgage-related problems in Tampa.

Taylor said she saw "a certain deceit in his eyes" and began scouring the Internet for clues. She found the Times news stories and a link to a Secret Service poster of Cox that was the spitting image of Carter. Taylor contacted a Times reporter with her revelation, and a day later - exactly one year ago Friday - Cox was in handcuffs.

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