John Ember, who is 66 years old, suffers from Parkinson's disease and can't get around much, lost half his life's savings when a property scam cost him his eight condominiums.
Mike and Susan Reynolds and their three young children lost their home and say it will be years, if ever, before they can save enough to buy another.
Raul and Michelle Rodriguez fought for a year to get their home back and clean up the trash and rats' nest tenants had left, but finally abandoned the house with its "nightmare" memories.
These Southern California families are only a tiny fraction of the people who say their lives were ruined by four real estate agents and a callous scheme for easy riches.
By the time investigators halted what they have called "the largest real estate equity skimming case ever tried" in the United States, 343 families had lost homes worth $41 million in 2 1/2 years of operations by a Long Beach realty firm, Suma Properties Ltd.
Last Thursday, the case that began in April, 1986, with federal grand jury indictments ended with prison terms for four top officials of Suma Properties.
U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts sentenced the company's president, Mark Christopher Meng, 36, and its chief financial officer, Marcel Fernando Jordan, 29, to 12 years each in prison. They were each also ordered to pay fines of $27,000 and make restitution totaling $77,286 to their victims.
Meng's brother, Charles H. Meng Jr., 38, and Carol Ann Hays, 34, both vice presidents of the company, were each sentenced to six months in custody and five years of probation and ordered to perform 300 hours of community service.
For the victims, the sentences were small compensation.
"It doesn't seem nearly enough, considering how many people's lives they wrecked," said Susan Reynolds.
In a five-week trial in February and March, testimony showed that Suma Properties agreed to buy hundreds of Southland homes by assuming the mortgages and paying owners for their equity with promissory notes dated months later.
Never Made Payments
Suma Properties then rented the houses, but almost never made payments to the owners or mortgage companies, allowing the homes to go into foreclosure. By collecting rents until the homes went into foreclosure, Suma Properties made at least $1.2 million, testimony showed.
A federal court jury convicted Mark Meng and Jordan of 22 counts of mail fraud, and Hays and Charles Meng of nine counts of mail fraud. In addition, each of the four was found guilty of one count of equity skimming.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Paul L. Seave, who prosecuted the case with Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Albert H. MacKenzie, had asked for 20 years for Mark Meng and Jordan and three to six years for Charles Meng and Hays.
"The scope of the crime is shockingly large," Seave said. "Often the homes acquired by Suma represented the victims' life savings. . . . The loss of those homes not only represented grave economic problems but also caused needless and tragic feelings of humiliation, rage, and finally despair."
In a scathing sentencing memorandum, Seave accused Jordan and Mark Meng of trying to intimidate government witnesses, and said Jordan had threatened to kill a former Suma Properties employee if she cooperated with investigators.
Fondness for Weapons
Jordan, Seave said, had a fondness for weapons and was seen in photographs submitted to the court holding a submachine gun and smiling as he held a pistol to the head of a stuffed Easter bunny.
Seave said that during Suma Properties' operations, victims "telephoned, wrote and visited the defendants on literally hundreds of occasions in order to ask, threaten and beg for the money promised them or the return of their properties. Often, shouting and shoving matches broke out between the defendants and their victims."
And in a vivid reminder of the attitude in Suma Properties' office, Seave recalled testimony that Charles Meng had regaled his brother and Jordan with a song, sung to the tune of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," that went:
Ream, ream, ream the sellers,
And the tenants, too.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.
We know how to screw.
At Thursday's sentencing, Jordan and Hays both broke down and cried as they apologized for the harm that the scheme had caused and appealed for mercy.
"I just want to ask for mercy and ask for another chance," said the slim, brown-haired Hays, as she stood before the judge. "I ask for the chance to prove to you that I want to live a good life."
Apology to Parents
The Argentine-born Jordan, appearing in his khaki prison garb, apologized, his voice breaking, "to my father and mother for the pain and suffering I have caused them." His mother sobbed and wailed as he and Mark Meng were led from the courtroom shackled together.
During the trial, Jordan told the judge, he had seen himself "described as an arrogant and ruthless person who is still proud of what he did. I want the court to know this is not so. I humbly regret the insolence I might have shown to anyone."