A 59-year-old Calexico man whose reported medical conditions helped persuade a local judge to suspend a nine-year prison term was recently sentenced to three years of probation for his role in a $650,000 real estate fraud scheme.
As part of a plea deal, Jose Rodriguez pleaded no contest on Feb. 1 to 18 felony counts related to forgery, grand theft, and embezzlement and was sentenced by county Superior Court Judge Marco Nuñez on Feb. 24 at the Imperial County Courthouse in El Centro.
Though Rodriguez was considered presumptively ineligible for probation, the county Public Defender’s Office presented information to the court that detailed the heightened risk of serious illness or death that COVID-19 could have on Rodriguez were he to be incarcerated.
In agreeing to follow the terms of the plea deal, Nuñez made a finding of an “unusual circumstance” that permitted Rodriguez to have his prison sentence suspended and instead serve probation and 10 months of house arrest, according to the minutes of Rodriguez’s Feb. 24 sentencing hearing.
Rodriguez was also ordered by the court to pay $520,000 in restitution to a pair of his victims and was barred from being employed as notary public, real estate agent, or real estate broker.
In his memorandum to the court to request probation, county Deputy Public Defender John Harter outlined Rodriguez’s recent medical history and how those ailments place him at greater risk of serious illness or death if he were to contract COVID-19 while incarcerated.
“In sum, Mr. Rodriguez suffers from numerous serious health issues including what appears to have been a recent stroke, diabetes, and obesity,” the memorandum stated.
Rodriguez pleaded no contest to 18 charges stemming from falsely signing, notarizing, and recording real estate documents related to two separate Calexico properties in 2014 and 2018 to secure $127,000 and $520,000 loans, court records stated.
The properties belonged to a mother and daughter residing in Mexicali and who had hired Rodriguez, who was employed at Casa Blanca Real Estate in Calexico, to pay the properties’ taxes and collect rent from occupants.
Instead, Rodriguez, with the assistance of two alleged co-conspirators, forged and signed multiple grant deeds and titles with the county Clerk/Recorder’s Office to obtain the two separate $127,000 and $520,000 loans, the amended court complaint stated.
He ultimately pleaded no contest to four counts of offering a false instrument to file, register or record, four counts of perjury, four counts of grand theft, four counts of elder fraud, one count of embezzlement, and one count of conspiracy.
A charge of first-degree residential burglary appears to have been dismissed, court records suggested.
Aside from Rodriguez’s health conditions, the county District Attorney’s Office had also felt compelled to strike a deal with the defendant to help the victims clear the title to their properties, said Deputy DA Martin Gonzalez in an email Thursday, March 4.
“The significance of those specific convictions is that they include a procedure by which the District Attorney’s Office can file a motion with the court to void the fraudulent deeds that were the subject of this case,” Gonzalez said.
That motion was expected to soon be filed with the local court, he said.
Rodriguez’s ability to avoid incarceration was nothing short of an injustice for Maria Libertad Moreno and her mother, Maria Amparo Caballero Valencia, whose properties were unknowingly used by Rodriguez to secure the fraudulent loans.
Moreno said she told the court and the DA’s Office just as much during the Feb. 24 sentencing hearing.
“I thought there was going to be a more just sentence, but they didn’t take into account anything I had to say,” Moreno said in Spanish on Monday, March 8. “The law doesn’t work how it’s supposed to.”
Moreno said she had initially gotten wind of the scam in July 2017 when she visited the county Clerk/Recorder’s Office to transfer her mother’s two Calexico properties into her name and discovered that the properties were already in her name and used as collateral for a bank loan. The documents in question had been forged and notarized by Rodriguez.
“I practically had a heart attack,” Moreno said.
Prior to that discovery, she said she was having trouble getting Rodriguez and his wife and co-conspirator, Sylvia Rodriguez, to assist them with the property transfer.
After her discovery at the Clerk/Recorder’s Office, Moreno alerted the Calexico Police Department to the apparent fraud, which then investigated the matter and submitted its case to the DA’s Office in July 2018, court records stated.
Based on her understanding of the crime, Moreno also said that she feels that the Rodriguez’s co-conspirator and Casa Blanca Real Estate broker, Ralph David Bowen, bears a larger responsibility for the crime involving her property.
Both Bowen and Sylvia Rodriguez are each facing three felony charges of grand theft, conspiracy, and buying/receiving stolen property, court records stated. They were due back in court on Thursday, March 11, the DA’s Office reported.
What happened in their cases were not immediately available.
As part of the plea deal reached Feb. 24, Jose Rodriguez was also ordered to pay $520,000 in restitution to victims Graciela Romero and Alexander Romero, trustees of the Romero 1991 Family Trust, from which Rodriguez had obtained a loan.
About $135,000 was used from the $520,000 loan to pay back an initial $127,000 bank loan. About $321,000 was then deposited in a Wells Fargo account controlled by Casa Blanca Real Estate, according to the DA’s Office’s statement in aggravation filed Oct. 21, 2019.
Through an insurance policy, Alexander Romero was subsequently able to recover the money he loaned Rodriguez, Deputy District Attorney Gonzalez said on Monday, March 8. No money has been recovered directly from the defendant yet, he said.
On March 8, the court also revoked Rodriguez’s notary commission and required him to surrender his notary seal, Gonzalez said.
During an initial November 2019 sentencing hearing, Rodriguez had withdrawn his plea of no contest to 18 felony counts after Nuñez had advised him that the court was inclined to jail Rodriguez despite having previously indicated the defendant would not be incarcerated.
Nuñez had said that his tentative ruling was based on remarks Rodriguez had made to the county Probation Department that essentially denied any culpability for his actions.