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'House of cards' theft trial gets under way

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


TAMPA -- Three years ago, Jerome Ellington promised the poor and credit-challenged he could fulfill their dreams of home ownership and dozens of Hillsborough County residents took him up on the offer.

The problem: Ellington's non-profit group took their money, but no one ever moved into a new home.

Ellington, 44, went on trial Monday facing 24 counts of collecting advanced fees from borrowers, 26 counts of grand theft and three counts of racketeering. The trial is expected to last most of the week in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

Prosecutor Craig Clendinen told jurors that Ellington turned his victims' dreams into nightmares through a series of false promises and deceptions. Ellington squandered about $250,000, never intending to fulfill his end of the agreement, Clendinen said.

"It was built on a house of cards," he said in his opening statement. "A house of cards designed by Mr. Ellington."

Ellington told eager home buyers in the summer of 1997 that his company would fix their credit and begin construction on a 2,000-square-foot home for them in three to six months at a cost of $1,659.95, plus a monthly fee of $165. About 150 people signed up.

Ellington's attorney, Danny Hernandez, said his client had every intention of fulfilling his promises until health problems created an opening for Darryl Simpson, the office manager. Simpson wrested control of the program away from Ellington, Hernandez said. It was Simpson who cheated the would-be homeowners, not Ellington, Hernandez told the jurors.

"(Ellington) is a deeply religious Christian man," Hernandez said. "Mr. Ellington's plans were thwarted by (Simpson)."

Simpson was also charged in the case but agreed to testify against Ellington as part of a plea agreement. Simpson will be sentenced later.

- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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