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Fred's Storied Career

A five-time felon has spent his life elaborately lying his way into jobs at churches, nonprofits and UCLA. Now he's ready to go straight. Maybe.

August 17, 2005|Tonya Alanez | Times Staff Writer

Brito said he kept two cellphones, with one reserved solely for reference checks. If someone called asking for Harrison Winslow, he knew it was about a job. He had a standard set of responses: "Fred's a good guy. He's good at what he does. He gives more of himself. He's a kind, giving, caring, nurturing, loving person. You never get a 'no' from Fred."

UCLA will not comment on how well Brito did at his fundraising job. But that was not his undoing in any event.

He lost his job after he visited Mount St. Mary's College in mid-March. He identified himself as a philanthropist and offered to provide seed money for a scholarship.

"What brought suspicion was the level of involvement that he wanted in the scholarship program," said Francine Marlenee, director of public relations at the college. "He wanted to interview the potentials [donors]. That was unusual for us, and also his life story was kind of farfetched. It was too extravagant."

College officials checked variations of DiBritto's name on the Internet and unearthed newspaper accounts of a previous con. They notified police.

Turning to Crime

Brito has lived most of his life in a rear house on a small lot in Glassell Park with his stepfather and mother, Frank and Mary Esparza.

He graduated from Franklin High School in 1973, assumed his stepfather's last name -- though he didn't change it legally -- and enlisted in the Marine Corps as Freddrick Esparza.

He committed his first felony at 22, within months of his March 1977 military discharge. Working as a bank teller, he stole $1,000 in traveler's checks from his till and didn't show up for work the next day.

He pleaded guilty to a federal embezzlement charge and was placed on four years' probation and ordered into a federal halfway house. A month later, he was convicted of grand theft for obtaining rental cars and not returning them.

An Aug. 9, 1978, report prepared by an L.A. County probation officer described Brito as "highly manipulative" and as an "elusive young man."

"Defendant is a well-developed con artist and deserves state prison," the report said.

He fled the halfway house in early 1979 and headed for Canada. There he committed numerous crimes, including theft of blank airline tickets and possession and use of stolen credit cards. He was jailed for eight months before being extradited to the United States on the theft and embezzlement charges and was sent to federal prison.

Brito bounced in and out of prison for much of the 1980s. By the mid-'80s, he had shifted to inventing and assuming identities.

"I tried to get a legitimate job and I couldn't," Brito said. "After hearing 'no' so many times, you have to think out of the box and think of another way to do it."

Former Lancaster Mayor Fred Hann recalled when Brito surfaced in that community in early 1987 as Marc Esparza.

"He made us look like fools," Hann said of the well-dressed young man with a "fine" resume who arrived in town claiming his wife had been killed in a Florida airplane crash.

"You can't help but like him," Hann said. "He is very personable."

Brito/Esparza became active in city politics, used a phony resume to get a job counseling youths at a foster care agency and was appointed by the City Council to the Planning Commission. He gave the mayor a lapel pin he said President Reagan had given him.

City officials learned of Brito's criminal background within three months. "He got caught up in saying too many things to too many people that weren't exactly the same," said Dennis Davenport, the former assistant city manager. "He would have had eight or nine degrees from different universities if you put them all together."

City officials confronted Brito and contacted his parole officer. Brito went back to prison for 10 months.

But before returning to prison, Brito pulled off one of his boldest cons. He appeared in court posing as a psychiatrist and convinced a Los Angeles County public defender and a Superior Court judge to let him take charge of a defendant and treat him in an alternative-sentencing program, according to an account of the incident published in the National Law Journal.

The defendant, Brito said, was a friend charged with a drug crime.

"I played the role of a psychiatrist, and my friend was able to walk out of jail," Brito said.

Lied to Priests

Brito's mother, Mary Esparza, had hoped her son would become a priest. Even his crimes, she believes, were aimed at helping people.

"He helped lots more people than he's hurt," she said. "He's done bad things, but he did it for good, to help the poor."

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