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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — James Christopher Castle, 57, formerly of Petaluma, was sentenced today to 15 years in prison for a bank fraud scheme that sought to fraudulently eliminate home mortgages and then profit on the subsequent home sales, U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert announced.

On Aug. 2, 2021, a jury found Castle guilty of 35 counts of bank fraud. According to evidence at trial, 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.  

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. Attorney Audrey B. Hemesath is prosecuting the case.

Three other co-defendants have previously entered guilty pleas. On April 21, 2017, Remus A. Kirkpatrick, 65, formerly of Oceanside, pleaded guilty to one count of falsely making writings of lending associations and was sentenced to six years in prison. On May 26, 2017, Michael Romano, 75, of Benicia, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and was sentenced to three years in prison. On July 14, 2017, Laura Pezzi, of Roseville, pleaded guilty to falsely making writings of lending associations and was sentenced to time served.

In related cases, on Sept. 4, 2015, Tisha Trites and Todd Smith, both of San Diego, pleaded guilty to related charges. Trites is scheduled to be sentenced on June 14, 2022, and Smith was sentenced to two years in prison.

Two other co-defendants, George B. Larsen, 60, of San Rafael, and Larry Todt, 70, of Malibu, were convicted of conspiracy and bank fraud following a jury trial in December 2017. Larsen was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Todt was sentenced to 7 years and three months in prison.

Co-defendant John Michael DiChiara passed away on Aug. 24, 2019, while awaiting trial.