The first years of the 1980s were a boom time for Westlake Thrift & Loan of Westlake Village as it grew into a company of more than 100 employees with almost $100 million in assets.
Automobile loans were a company specialty. The word was out that Westlake Thrift virtually wanted to corner the car-loan market in Ventura County, and it almost succeeded.
"They grew by taking a lot of low-quality loans. They were writing $64 million in auto loans a year," one government official said. "An 18-year-old kid with no credit could finance a new Cadillac through Westlake, and every car dealer in the county knew it."
But something was drastically wrong. In July, 1988, Westlake Thrift went out of business. Federal regulators gave no reason for the collapse, and the exact nature of the company's many problems was not initially disclosed.
What also was not disclosed at the time was that much more than questionable banking practices was involved in both the rise and fall of Westlake Thrift.
An FBI investigation already was well under way into allegations that at least one bank official was part of a large-scale fraud scheme involving millions of dollars in bogus loans--some of them written to people who never existed.
Last week, the story of Westlake Thrift's demise became clearer as the financial institution's former president, Steven Smith, 46, of Thousand Oaks, pleaded guilty in federal court in Los Angeles to charges of conspiracy, fraud and misapplication of bank funds.
Even as Smith was entering his guilty pleas, the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles were pressing forward with their inquiry into Westlake Thrift, as well as the activities of some officials of the thrift's parent company, United Community Bank of Thousand Oaks.
It is too early to say where the investigation will lead, officials said. Already, however, court documents and interviews provide a detailed account of what went wrong.
In sketching the anatomy of a thrift and loan collapse, federal officials begin the story with Walter Vladovich, 55, a Riverside businessman who allegedly set out in the mid-1980s to build the largest chain of video stores in the nation.
Vladovich, the lead defendant in a 26-count federal bank fraud indictment returned earlier this month, has pleaded not guilty to all charges that he conspired with Smith and others to set up the phony loan scheme. He is awaiting trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
But, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. David C. Scheper, Vladovich and Smith were the central figures in a fraudulent scheme in which $4 million in loans from Westlake Thrift were channeled into a Riverside company called Leader Video.
A variety of sources said Vladovich, who also owned a mortgage firm called Pioneer Acceptance Corp. of Riverside, allegedly began his fraudulent activities in 1984 with a banker named Henry Schneider, vice president of First United Thrift & Loan of San Francisco.
Vladovich is accused of submitting false loan packages to Schneider for video store franchises that supposedly were going to be operated by some of his own employees and others.
"At first, he sold some legitimate stores, then he coerced employees to submit paper work that they were buying the stores," one source told The Times. "Schneider helped him get 38 or 40 loans in all. Vladovich was the one actually making the payments and keeping the money."
The arrangement between Vladovich and Schneider allegedly lasted about a year. Scheper said Vladovich received about $550,000 in loans and paid $15,000 in bribes to Schneider. Scheper said Schneider has agreed to plead guilty to three counts of conspiracy and fraud.
First United ultimately was absorbed by a larger bank, however, and the loans to Vladovich were stopped in 1985. About that time, sources said, Schneider introduced Vladovich to Westlake Thrift officials.
After meeting Smith, who then was a vice president of Westlake Thrift, Vladovich allegedly came up with a different scheme that involved obtaining $5,000 loan packages through Pioneer Acceptance.
The loan packages were submitted to Westlake Thrift on behalf of people who supposedly were going to buy 48 video movies and video equipment with which to launch their own video store businesses--a tiny inventory that alone would have warned off serious investors.
In fact, according to federal officials, Vladovich initially enlisted applicants for the loans by telling them that he would give them $1,000 in video equipment for the use of their names and would make the actual $200-a-month loan payments.
In exchange, officials said, Vladovich kept the $5,000 loans from Westlake.