Friends swin­dled by fel­low Mor­mon Church mem­ber re­lieved to see jus­tice

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - MARK BROWN mark­[email protected]­ | @MarkBrownCST

When FBI agents met with Tom Ge­orge nearly five years ago to ask him about a $60,000 in­vest­ment he’d made with Lake in the Hills busi­ness­man Car­los Meza, their ques­tions alone were enough to make Ge­orge re­al­ize he was never go­ing to see that money again.

Ge­orge died the next morn­ing of a stress-in­duced heart at­tack at age 57. His last words to his wife, Linda, were: “I need to talk to Car­los.”

So there was more than a lit­tle rid­ing Thurs­day on the out­come of Meza’s fed­eral fraud trial for Linda Ge­orge, and when U.S. Dis­trict Judge Elaine Bucklo re­ported the jury had found Meza not guilty on count one, it felt for a mo­ment as if her own heart was seiz­ing up.

Then Bucklo an­nounced that Meza was guilty on the sec­ond fraud count, and re­lief flooded over Ge­orge and other al­leged vic­tims of Meza’s var­i­ous schemes who had awaited the ver­dict — many of them for­mer fam­ily friends and still fel­low church mem­bers with Meza in the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints, bet­ter known as the Mor­mon Church.

“I’ll take it. There’s a con­vic­tion,” Linda Ge­orge said out­side the court­room, then im­me­di­ately dis­solved into tears as she em­braced one of the other women whose hus­bands had been duped by Meza.

The fed­eral case against Meza dealt with charges in­volv­ing only two of the dozens of peo­ple who say they were vic­tim­ized by his var­i­ous al­leged scams.

Sit­ting in on Thurs­day’s closing ar­gu­ments were pros­e­cu­tors from McHenry County, where Meza is sched­uled to soon stand trial on charges he stole thou­sands of dol­lars from an­other cou­ple by pock­et­ing checks in­tended to help them re­fi­nance their mort­gage. They lost their home in the process.

“The bad guy had con­se­quences. It’s such a re­lief that we can just kind of put it be­hind us. The bur­den is gone,” said Lori Stroh, among those who have doggedly pur­sued Meza to make it harder for him to sucker oth­ers.

I’ve been writ­ing about Meza since he first pleaded guilty in Cook County in 2014 to a mis­de­meanor for pass­ing bad checks. The charge it­self was small pota­toes, but I re­garded it as an im­por­tant ex­er­cise in what we call “belling the cat.”

A fed­eral fraud con­vic­tion is a much louder bell.

Pros­e­cu­tors Rick Young and Kaitlin Kla­mann said Meza per­suaded oth­ers to trust him with their funds by falsely por­tray­ing him­self as a so­phis­ti­cated in­vestor and mul­ti­mil­lion­aire who owned 100 trucks and had mil­lions of dol­lars stashed in South Amer­ica that he could use to cover any losses.

Meza por­trayed the in­vest­ments as norisk deals that he “100 per­cent per­son­ally guar­an­teed.”

He promised one of his friends that his $250,000 in­vest­ment (which the man made by raid­ing his re­tire­ment ac­count) would yield $5 mil­lion in five $1 mil­lion monthly in­stall­ments start­ing in just two weeks.

In ac­tu­al­ity, Meza was in big fi­nan­cial trou­ble and knew noth­ing about the in­vest­ments he was tout­ing. His im­age of be­ing a wealthy man was a com­plete lie.

How can peo­ple be so gullible? That’s the eter­nal ques­tion in the wake of a swindler, but a good con man like Meza makes the vic­tim think he’s do­ing them a fa­vor by tak­ing their money.

Meza told his vic­tims he was in­vest­ing his own money right along­side them, when in fact he was skim­ming part of their in­vest­ment to pay per­sonal ex­penses such as a new condo and car and lawyer fees from pre­vi­ous le­gal scrapes.

Meza’s at­tor­ney, Joshua Kut­nick, por­trayed his client as just an­other un­wit­ting vic­tim of a larger in­vest­ment fraud scheme per­pe­trated by oth­ers.

“Car­los did not know that he was swept into a scheme that was huge, that was big­ger than him,” Kut­nick told ju­rors.

“Did he in­tend to de­ceive and cheat his friends? The an­swer is no,” he said.

Kut­nick brushed off Meza’s de­ci­sion to siphon some of the in­vest­ment money for him­self to some­one spend­ing the money from an ex­pected Christ­mas bonus be­fore ac­tu­ally re­ceiv­ing it, so con­fi­dent that it would ma­te­ri­al­ize.

That may be the first time I’ve heard the Clark Gris­wold De­fense, a la Chevy Chase in “Na­tional Lam­poon’s Christ­mas Va­ca­tion.”

Only this was more like Clark spend­ing Cousin Ed­die’s Christ­mas bonus.

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