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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Real estate agent admits to mail fraud

CONCORD – Having lost their home to a refinancing swindle several years ago, Jonathan and Jan May came to U.S. District Court on Tuesday to see whether the criminal justice system might offer any consolation or, better yet, restitution.

What they found was a judge and lawyers who see banks and mortgage companies as the scam’s principal victims. However, the Mays were able to see and hear the Nashua real estate agent to whom they had entrusted their financial future declare himself a convicted felon.

Richard Winefield, 32, of 6 Short Ave., Nashua, attained that status shortly after 10 a.m. Tuesday, with three words: “Guilty, your honor.”

Winefield was part of broader criminal conspiracy, whose members defrauded lenders and homeowners around New Hampshire, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gunnison told Judge Steven McAuliffe.

They sought out homeowners who were having trouble making mortgage payments and offered a deal: Winefield and his cohorts would buy the property and take over the payments. The homeowners would pay rent and would contract to buy back their homes at a higher price a few years hence, when they regained financial footing.

What the homeowners didn’t know is that Winefield and his co-conspirators were then flipping the properties. They would use inflated appraisals and bogus buyers and take out much larger mortgage loans, helping themselves to the difference after paying off the original mortgage.

“It’s commonly referred to as an equity-stripping scheme,” Gunnison said, and not one of the homeowners ever got the chance to buy back his or her property.

Because the original loans got paid off, however, McAuliffe said it didn’t appear that the homeowners lost anything.

“I thought we just decided they were not victimized,” he said, as Gunnison explained that they did lose their homes and no one got to buy his or hers back.

“My stomach was turning,” Jan May said later, of the exchange.

The Mays had just lost a daughter to illness when, in 2006, they signed on with Winefield to rent the home at 117 Smoke Road, Barrington, where they’d raised their children for 14 years.

“He made it (the deal) look like a bed of roses,” Jon May said.

The Mays first found something was wrong in June 2007, when real estate agents came to their door, followed by sheriffs, and told them they had 10 days to get out, they said.

“Us poor, little people, we get screwed every time,” Jon May said, adding later, “He should pay the people he screwed. He should pay up.”

Winefield faces a statutory maximum of up to 20 years in prison, but his plea deal with the government will result in a much lower sentence.

Winefield admitted Tuesday to a single count of mail fraud, for using the mail to send fraudulent loan applications. It is clear that Winefield is but the first to fall: Gunnison has said the Winefield joined a scheme that was already in progress for at least a year, and before the hearing, Gunnison was heard to mention the name “Prieto” while speaking with an investigator in the courtroom.

Winefield set up limited liability companies in association with both Michael Prieto and Walter Bressler III, both of whom were named in a 2007 “cease and desist” order by the New Hampshire banking commissioner. Winefield was not named in that case, but it involved similar allegations, and Prieto and Bressler were ordered to repay eight different homeowners and refrain from any further involvement in home financing.

After Winefield pleaded guilty, he and his lawyer, Peter McGrath of Concord, cloistered themselves in a conference room with Gunnison and several investigators. No charges have been made public against anyone else in the scheme.

Gunnison declined to comment later Tuesday on the scope of the scheme, saying the FBI and U.S. Postal Inspectors are still working on the investigation, along with the joint state and federal Mortgage Fraud Task Force.

“It’s an ongoing investigation. There is a strong likelihood that others will be charged,” Gunnison said.

While the charge against Winefield focuses on the fraud committed against lenders, with falsified applications, Gunnison said he’s keenly aware that homeowners were victimized, too.

“The way that the charge is drafted, one could say that the banks are the primary victims here,” Gunnison said. However, he said, “We believe that the homeowners themselves were also victims, in the sense that they were not made aware of everything that was going to be done with their home.”

Winefield’s sentencing was scheduled for June 1, but McAuliffe cautioned that date is subject to change.

Winefield was a licensed real estate agent working for RE/MAX Properties in Nashua and advertised himself online as a “foreclosure and short sale specialist.”

The Mays have been renting in Barrington since they lost their home, paying more than their monthly mortgage payment had cost them. The Mays said Winefield destroyed their credit, wreaked havoc in their lives and made them a whole lot more wary.

“I don’t trust anybody,” Jonathan May said.

Andrew Wolfe can be reached at 594-6410 or