Jury Duty: Aaron Dare Mortgage Fraud (filed March 19, 2010)
by Frank S. Robinson (blog: http://www.rationaloptimist.wordpress.com)
I was recently an alternate juror on a major criminal trial, involving mortgage fraud. The big cheese was Aaron Dare, 41, who partnered with an Albany police detective, Kenneth Wilcox, killed in a 2006 car crash. Dare is already in federal prison for similar fraud; in this state case, he pleaded guilty and awaits sentence. “My” defendant was Dare’s ex live-in girlfriend and fiancee, Ana Monteiro, 32, originally charged with 58 counts of complicity in Dare’s frauds (and a few of tax evasion).
The trial lasted almost two weeks. This was, for me, an emotionally intense experience.
First, the jury: a real cross section of diverse people. All had a good attitude: perhaps not glad to be saddled with this, but no griping, and a very responsible determination to conscientiously discharge their civic duty. It was also nice how this group of strangers, thrown together in unfamiliar circumstances, quickly bonded into a little family. Several were people who, not so very long ago, would have been likely targets of prejudice or stigma of one sort or another. Nothing like that was observed. It’s in the past.
Dare’s scheme: originally, buying rental properties and re-selling them at inflated prices (but “no money down”) to victims who were basically conned; getting them mortgages via fraudulent loan applications; and flim-flamming banks about down payments. This evolved into simply stealing the portion of the loan earmarked for paying off the seller’s pre-existing mortgage. That triggered foreclosure by the original bank. That screwed the seller; it screwed the buyer; and it screwed the bank giving the new mortgage loan.
I said “simply,” but how this all worked out wasn’t simple at all. In fact, starting right with the prosecution’s opening statement, I felt a growing sense of frustration, indeed, infuriation, at their failure to really connect the dots. They spent a week presenting over 40 witnesses, including banks, and the schnooks who were conned, going over all the 20+ separate episodes in the indictment. But it wasn’t till the second week that I was able to piece together, in my own mind, how it really worked. More or less. And even then, I still had questions. (I queried the prosecution’s second banana lawyer upon encountering him outside after the alternates were dismissed, and got some clarification – but still not total.)
But time and again, for all the immensity of the prosecution’s case, things were left vague and inadequately explained. Just as an example, there was constant reference to HUD-1 forms, with fraudulent information and even forged signatures. What exactly is a HUD-1? I don’t know. We weren’t told!
The indictment also entailed altered checks. At one point, the prosecution was projecting enlarged images of various unaltered checks. Then mention was made of an altered one. “Don’t show us that one,” I said to myself sardonically, because that one I really wanted to see, to understand the alteration. And, sure enough, that one they didn’t show us. (Of course it was in the record – among all the umpteen boxloads of documentary evidence. But the prosecution seemed to lack focus on actually convincing the jury sitting there.)
They didn’t seem to have done much witness preparation. At the conclusion of one victim’s direct testimony, the prosecutor asked a final question: “Did Ana Monteiro have any role in this transaction?” Answer: “No, not really.” I was dumbfounded that the prosecutor would let this happen, and thought the defense would have been very happy to leave it there. But no: the defense lawyer rose to ask “What do you mean, ‘not really’?” And sure enough, she managed to bring out that Monteiro did have some role. I thought I was in a bizarro world where the prosecution and defense had switched roles. This wasn’t the only instance.
From the start, there were constant references to certain people involved in Dare’s operation. In due course, they testified, and it turned out that they too were more victims than perpetrators. One was Dare’s college frat buddy and longtime friend, whom Dare lured in. Not only did that guy wind up financially screwed, his mother got screwed into the bargain. Dare was responsible for a vast swathe of human destruction.
The prosecution did make a good case against him; but he had already pled guilty. However, there was hardly anything to connect our defendant, Monteiro, to his crimes. He did give her things to do in the office, made her president of a couple of his companies, and used her bank accounts (because he couldn’t have his own – another point never explained to my satisfaction). Nevertheless, as the prosecution’s case unfolded, it succeeded in proving not guilt, but that Monteiro had no substantive role in the dirty dealings and was probably oblivious to them. This also gave me a rising sense of fury. Monteiro seemed as much a dupe and victim as all the others. In fact, she herself bought rental properties through the scheme, and Aaron stole the mortgage money on those too, resulting in their foreclosure, leaving Monteiro financially ruined (though she had led quite the high life with him while the money was flowing).
The defense called two witnesses: Dare and Monteiro. Dare was brought in with handcuffs and leg shackles. While their testifying was a riveting spectacle, by that point, it added nothing to the picture that had already become clear. Dare did testify about how he had set up his live-in fiancee with some properties of her own, and then allowed their mortgages to default. I wished the prosecutor would ask, “what were you thinking?” But he didn’t. In fact, in cross-examining both witnesses, it seemed the prosecution had run out of steam.
In their summations, the defense portrayed Ana as a naif who was swept off her feet by this charismatic scoundrel, who made great efforts to maintain an image as a legitimate businessman and to hide the truth from her; the prosecutor, given the poor cards he had to play, did a manful job at arguing that she “ought to have known.” But even if true, that wouldn’t have been enough. To be convicted as Dare’s accomplice, it would have to be proven (as made clear by the Judge’s instructions to the jury; and beyond a reasonable doubt, of course) that Monteiro had the intent of helping him with his rip-offs. They weren’t even attempting to prove that.
The tax charges were tougher. For two years she was charged with underreporting income. Large sums did go through her account, and she spent lavishly. But it was Aaron’s income; the prosecution never showed that she earned anything. (I had the same situation with a woman I lived with, with no income. She spent mine, lavishly. It never occurred to us that it was her taxable income; it was mine.) Sums Monteiro spent were gifts from Dare; gifts are not income. They did introduce some mortgage forms that claimed a high income for her; but Aaron was falsifying all those forms. For 2 further years she was charged with non-filing; but she did file, late (because, she said, her records had been seized), showing losses, and received refunds! The accuracy of those returns was never challenged. And conviction for non-filing requires intent to evade tax liability.
I was initially very frustrated being an alternate juror, with no part in deliberations. But as the trial unfolded, the outcome seemed to grow increasingly obvious, and though we were prohibited from discussing the case, I had confidence the jury would reach the right result. This was reinforced by discussion among us 3 alternates as soon as we were dismissed; the other two (a chemist and a teacher at a pharmacy school) had reached exactly the same conclusion as me. One was particularly negative about the prosecutor’s closing statement, saying, “Did he think we’re stupid?”
I couldn’t understand why the DA saw fit to expend all these huge taxpayer resources – witnesses were being flown in from all over the country, and I’d have been glad to be the xeroxing contractor for all the voluminous documents – to prosecute – persecute – this woman. I asked the second banana, “Did you guys really feel she was such a big criminal?” He said yes, but it wasn’t a strong yes; and even so, I didn’t see how they could have expected to convict her.
I was wrong. Monteiro was convicted on 17 counts, and faces a considerable prison sentence. Hearing of this, I felt shocked and horrified. And, in an exchange of e-mails with the local newspaper reporter who covered the trial, I learned that Monteiro, in the US with her family since age 3, apparently never gained citizenship and will be deported after serving her sentence.
Her life is destroyed.
I didn't develop any personal feeling toward Monteiro one way or the other. But she is a human being, and I cannot feel her fate is just. And I cannot help wondering what would have happened had I been a juror rather than an alternate. Perhaps I could have saved her life.