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'House of cards' theft trial gets under way

Jerome Ellington is accused of squandering about $250,000 and never intending to fulfill his end of an agreement to help people with credit problems own homes.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 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 fees in advance from borrowers, 26 counts of grand theft and three counts of racketeering. The trial in Hillsborough Circuit Court is expected to last most of the week.

Prosecutor Craig Clendinen told jurors that through a series of false promises and deceptions Ellington turned his victims' dreams into nightmares. Ellington squandered the money -- 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. Through a formula involving reduced overhead, wholesale materials and a separate mortgage for labor costs, Ellington said, even families making $30,000 a year could afford one of the dream homes.

Low cost wasn't the only appeal. Ellington's Home Ownership Means Empowerment program, or H.O.M.E., was grounded in Christian principles, he said. The program promised satisfaction or a full refund.

Ellington prayed with some of the victims and pledged in company literature to handle them "like a 24-K gold bar." The program promised free lawn maintenance, maid service, haircuts and legal help. About 150 people signed up.

Investigators contend that Ellington spent thousands of dollars of company funds on himself, including $2,624 for a sound system for his Mercedes and $8,000 to keep his two-story, waterfront North Lakes home out of foreclosure.

As for his contention that he was a successful businessman, Ellington was arrested on worthless check charges, lost a home through foreclosure and was successfully sued by five parties with whom he had done business, according to Leon County records.

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, to take over the program.

Simpson rallied support from some of the other employees and 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 also was charged in the case but agreed to testify against Ellington as part of a plea agreement. Simpson will be sentenced after Ellington's trial, which is expected to last most of the week.

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

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