New victim comes forward in alleged housing scheme
The new year of 2014 was off to a rough start for Marilyn Mejias.
She had recently lost her job as a medical office assistant and her long-term relationship with the father of her 4-year-old son had ended badly.
Newly single, Mejias needed to move from the home she shared with her ex-boyfriend in Groton, her son and an 18-year-old daughter from another relationship.
"I was really desperate," she said. "So much was going on and I needed to find a home quickly."
Mejias came forward after an investigation in The Day last month found more than a half-dozen instances across the state in which property owners facing foreclosure believe they were victims of a scheme run by a man convicted of similar illegal activity in New Jersey.
Mejias, 33, said she found a home to rent in Ledyard on Craigslist. She called the number on the ad and her call was immediately returned from a man who called himself "Matt."
After a quick walk-through of a home at 44 Meeting House Lane, Mejias signed a lease with New Haven Investments and gave Matt a cashier's check made out to New Haven Investments for $2,440.
The lease also said Mejias would receive $3,750 in credits in exchange for agreeing to do cosmetic work like painting and redoing the floors. Her first rental payment of $1,250 would be due on June 20.
But Mejias never moved in. She said broken windows were never repaired, the furnace was not working and a sliding door to the outside could not close.
Matt is Timothy W. Burke, who also goes by Jimmy and Bill. Burke, now 63, was sentenced in 2003 in U.S. District Court in New Jersey to 60 months in prison for participating in an "equity skimming" scheme. According to New Jersey court records, Burke and his co-defendants told various homeowners who were in default of their mortgages that by selling their property to their management company they could walk away from their debts and other financial obligations. However, authorities said, Burke and his associates didn't buy the properties but instead rented them out and diverted tens of thousands of dollars per month in rental income to themselves, rather than applying it toward mortgage or tax payments.
The Day's investigation found similar cases across Connecticut - in Bridgeport, New London, Griswold, Waterbury, Plymouth, Portland, Andover, New Haven and West Haven.
Law enforcement officials believe that Burke is running a variation of the New Jersey equity skimming scheme here. One officer said his department has turned over its investigation to the FBI. Burke and his associates have not been charged in Connecticut.
As with the other properties, the house at 44 Meeting House Lane was under foreclosure. Craig and Dawn Petersen owned the home before getting divorced. Craig Petersen said he hadn't lived in the home since 2009. He said his now ex-wife, Dawn DePriest, was contacted by someone and she made a deal with them to buy the house.
"I don't know much more than that," said Petersen. "She's the one that made the deal."
DePriest could not be reached to comment.
The home was foreclosed on Sept. 9. A woman who answered the door Monday said she was renting the home from Fannie Mae and had no dealings with New Haven Investments.
'A living hell'
After turning down the Ledyard rental, Mejias said she needed to find another place to move into and this time used a rental agency to find an apartment in New London, where she has been living since April.
"I've always rented a home," said Mejias. "I've always had a back yard so my kids can play, and while I'm grateful to have a roof over my head, we are living in a small space."
Soon after she moved into her New London apartment, she contacted Burke to get her money back and didn't hear anything from him.
She then had attorney John C. Wirzbicki at Brown Jacobson in Norwich write a letter and mail it to the address she had for New Haven Investments.
"You attempted to rent the property to her in 'as is' condition," the letter said. "Since the premises were uninhabitable, this amounted to an illegal attempt to avoid your responsibilities under the Landlord-Tenant Act. Ms. Mejias, as you know, has not moved into the premises. You have represented to her on several occasions that you will return her money to her, but you have not done so."
The letter, dated April 14, demanded the return of her deposit within 10 days. At first, Mejias said, the letter seemed to work. She was mailed a $500 money order and then about two weeks letter another money order in the amount of $250 arrived in the mail.
But then the money stopped.
Mejias said Burke didn't return her phone calls. A friend who had an out-of-state cell phone number called Burke on Mejias' behalf. This time Burke picked up the phone and said the check was in the mail.
Mejias said the never received the remainder of her money.
"I used my tax return money to pay for the Ledyard home," she said. "Things are rough for me financially and that was a lot of money that I couldn't afford to lose."
Mejias said she decided not to sue because at that time she didn't know Burke's real identity nor did she know where he lived.
"It would cost me more to sue him than what I lost," she said. "I think he takes advantage of that."
Mejias said she also contacted the attorney who represented New Haven Investments, Bradford Barneys, but she never heard back from him.
The Day has been unable to reach Burke. Barneys told The Day on Monday that he has "terminated" his representation of New Haven Investments but would not say when that occurred.
Barneys said he solely represented New Haven Investments in landlord-tenant matters like evictions. But when Barneys was questioned about homeowners going to his office and signing their homes over in quitclaim deeds to companies affiliated with Burke, and then losing the homes to foreclosure, Barneys said he was not at liberty to discuss those matters because of attorney-client privilege.
"I no longer represent them," said Barneys. "The relationship is over."
Mejias said she has run through a gamut of emotions, feeling angry, sad and desperate as a result of her dealings with Burke.
"It's been a living hell ... knowing that I've been taken advantage of," she said.
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