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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On Monday, a federal jury found James Christopher Castle, 57, formerly of Petaluma, guilty of 35 counts in a bank fraud scheme that sought to fraudulently eliminate home mortgages and then profit on the subsequent home sales, Acting U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced. This was the first jury trial in the Eastern District of California since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
“Castle decided to game the system so that he could profit in the midst of the then looming financial crisis, to which his actions contributed,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Talbert. “We are gratified by the jury’s verdict for this significant fraud scheme.”
“Mortgage fraud is not a victimless crime. Identifying and investigating those who abuse the system for their own personal gain ensures the mortgage system is safer and fairer for everyone. The FBI affirms our commitment to pursuing those who leverage false statements made to financial institutions to enrich themselves while threatening the stability of the banking system and taking advantage of distressed homeowners desperate to retain their homes or start anew without significant losses,” said Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan of the FBI Sacramento Field Office. “We thank our domestic and international law enforcement partners for their continued efforts to ensure fugitives will face justice regardless of the distance traveled or time that has elapsed.”
According to court documents, in May 2020, Castle was extradited to the United States from Australia. Castle had fled to New Zealand and then Australia in 2011 when it became clear that his scheme was unraveling. After a three-year extradition process, Castle was transported back to the United States by the U.S. Marshals Service to stand trial in the United States.
“The U.S. Marshals Service successfully conducted this extradition during the height of the pandemic,” said Acting U.S. Marshal Lasha R. Boyden for the Eastern District of California. “To minimize exposure, the extradition was conducted expeditiously with minimal time on the ground. All safety precautions were implemented, and Mr. Castle was extradited back to the United States without incident.”
Between April 22, 2010, and Nov. 18, 2011, Castle was the leader of a conspiracy that ran a “mortgage elimination program” that purported to help distressed homeowners avoid foreclosure. The conspirators fraudulently altered the chain of title on residential properties, sold the properties, and received the sales proceeds.
As a requirement for participation in the “mortgage elimination program,” the conspirators enrolled homeowners as members in a Nevada City-based church named Shon-te-East-a, Walks With Spirit, or its successor entity Pillow Foundation. The conspirators told the homeowners that these entities would offer protection against the banks.
Castle directed other co-conspirators in all aspects of the mortgage elimination program, including recruiting homeowners into the scheme, marshaling the necessary recorded documents, and guiding the homes through sale. Once the homeowner enrolled with Shon-te-East-a or Pillow Foundation, Castle would cause a sham deed of trust to be created and recorded, giving the impression that the homeowner had refinanced the mortgage loan with a new lender. In reality, the new lender was a fake entity controlled by the conspirators, and the homeowner owed no money to the purported new lender.
The next step in the process was also a recorded document. The conspirators caused a fake deed of reconveyance to be recorded, giving the appearance that the true mortgage loan had been discharged and that the true lienholder no longer had a security interest in the home.
With title appearing to be clear, the conspirators caused the sale of the home and split the proceeds between the co-conspirators and the homeowners.
In total, 37 properties were sold through the Shon-te-East-a conspiracy. The conspirators recorded fraudulent documents on an additional approximately 100 homes but were unable to sell these before the scheme unraveled.
This case is the product of an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Audrey B. Hemesath and Tanya B. Syed are prosecuting the case.
Three other co-defendants have previously entered guilty pleas. On April 21, 2017, Remus A. Kirkpatrick, formerly of Oceanside, pleaded guilty to one count of falsely making writings of lending associations. On May 26, 2017, Michael Romano, of Benicia, pleaded guilty to conspiracy. On July 14, 2017, Laura Pezzi, of Roseville, pleaded guilty to falsely making writings of lending associations.
In related cases, on Sept. 4, 2015, Tisha Trites and Todd Smith, both of San Diego, pleaded guilty to related charges.
Two other co-defendants, George B. Larsen and Larry Todt, were convicted of conspiracy and bank fraud following a jury trial in December 2017.
Co-defendant John Michael DiChiara passed away on Aug. 24, 2019, while awaiting trial.
Castle is scheduled to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. on Oct. 28, 2021, at which time he faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine for bank fraud, 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for falsely making documents of a lending association, and five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for conspiracy. The actual sentence, however, will be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables.