Local News

Wednesday, Nov 02 2011 11:40 AM

Small department, big case for California City

BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

A small police department did some heavy lifting in a real estate fraud investigation that spanned two and a half years and involved alleged identity theft, multiple properties and more than $1 million in losses.

California City Police Department took the case -- which originated as a tip regarding a single instance of identity theft -- and put in hundreds of hours of work that paid off last weekend with charges filed against five suspects.

"They did an excellent job investigating the case and drafting the report," said Kern County Deputy District Attorney Gordon Isen, who is prosecuting the case.

Isen said the criminal complaint alleges an elaborate mortgage fraud scheme involving several properties along with a number of forgeries, fraudulent appraisals and false loan applications. In short, it's a large, complex case.

How did a police department with a staff of less than 20 pull this off? Diligence, patience and the willingness to put in as much time, including late nights and weekends, as the case demanded.

A call from Anaheim

The three officers who primarily handled the case were Reserve Officers Michael Katz and Chris Christopher, and Sgt. Jeff Takeda. Christopher, who died earlier this year, was an expert in real estate fraud investigation who had retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The investigation began in November 2008 when police received an identity theft report out of Anaheim in which the victim's identity was being used to buy property in California City. Katz examined the report and noticed there appeared to be a much larger crime lurking beneath this single case of identity theft.

Katz said there are certain things he can't disclose regarding the investigation, but he began following leads and examined the loans, the companies involved and the people who were listed as living in the house. He saw that a lot of the same players were involved in each of six properties.

"They built the houses in a plummeting market, a market with no buyers," Katz said. "The (suspects) used a combination of what's called straw buyers and identity theft victims to sell the houses to."

In addition, the appraiser "super-inflated" the value of the houses, Katz said. With a highly inflated value, there was a lot of money left over for the suspects to divide among themselves, he said.

The houses were appraised at $275,000 to $300,000, Katz said. The properties were reappraised by banks during the investigation and their actual value was about $120,000, not even half the original amount.

Those charged in the scheme are: appraiser Nathaniel Acree, 65, of Long Beach; broker Jay Langer, 51, of San Juan Capistrano; Khalid Malik Abdul Ali, 60, of California City; Angie Cachu, 44, of Orange; and notary Elizabeth Torres, 28, of Santa Ana. The charges differ for each defendant.

Langer was arrested by Orange County Sheriff's deputies Friday and has posted bond, Katz said. Torres was taken into custody Saturday by a task force comprised of California City police and officers from several other agencies.

Ali was taken into federal custody on unrelated charges, Katz said. Both Langer and Acree are expected to appear in Kern County Superior Court early next week.

Cachu had not been arrested and was still missing as of Monday morning, Katz said. A $790,000 arrest warrant has been issued for her and law enforcement is asking for the public's help in finding her.

Cachu is described as Hispanic, 44, 5 feet 4 inches tall, 165 pounds, with brown hair and green eyes, according to a California City Police Department news release.

Anyone with information on her whereabouts is asked to call California City police at 760-373-8606.

Hard work pays off

There is a room at California City Police Department headquarters that's filled with boxes of files in connection with the fraud case. There are loan files from victimized banks, escrow files from escrow companies that were used, broker files and title files.

"It's wall-to-wall documents," Katz said.

Documents that Katz, Takeda and Christopher pored over at every opportunity, often working weekends and dedicating time for the sole purpose of furthering the investigation.

"Basically we did a lot of this case after hours and outside regular duty hours," Takeda said.

The officers scheduled entire weeks for the purpose of serving search warrants and conducting interviews in southern California. One trip took them to Nevada.

One factor working in their favor was that phone companies, banks and other entities sent the department numerous documents, Katz said. While traveling was sometimes necessary, they accomplished a lot at the office.

The assistance of the bureau of investigation for the Orange County District Attorney's office and the U. S. Postal Inspection Service was also a big help. Katz said the inspection service provided some crime analysis and research the department didn't have.

The suspects, Katz said, used P.O. boxes to conceal who they really were, and the inspection service helped track them down.

For Katz, this was an exclusive assignment in which he said he probably dedicated 20 hours a week. He said the filing of the criminal complaint and the serving of arrest warrants means the toughest part is over for the department.

Katz said he hopes the arrests will make others think twice before trying something similar. He said each of the suspects betrayed their respective professions.

"They wanted to cheat the system," he said. "If any good can come out of this, it's a message of deterrence to others."

Cal City Police Chief Eric Hurtado said his department is small, but officers were able to get a bunch of resources and network with other agencies and businesses and compile a massive amount of information.

"As far as I'm concerned, they did a great job with just a handful of guys," he said.

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