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Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Con Man Takes the Money and Runs

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A con man who took a woman's life savings after delivering a spiel in her church must pay her $142,500 - if she can find him, a federal judge ruled.

Arlene Bell-Sparrow on Tuesday won her pro se case against Paul Wiltz and his company, Mone't.

Bell-Sparrow handed over everything she had - $11,500 - after Wiltz, his company secretary Wanda McGowan and vice president Don Lucas were given access to the congregation of the Abundant Faith Ministry Church in Memphis, Tenn., where they gave a presentation depicting themselves as "beacons of financial security" in an unstable economy.

Bell-Sparrow's brother was the church pastor. Bell-Sparrow was taken in by Wiltz's promise of financial security through the purchase of a multimillion-dollar commercial property.

She signed a "retention agreement" and wired $11,500 to Mone't. Wiltz then told her he needed another $60,000 to close the deal, and skipped town when Bell-Sparrow told him she didn't have the money, U.S. District Judge Susan Illston wrote in her Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.

Illston found that "it is beyond dispute" that the defendants absconded with Bell-Sparrow's money.

"The more difficult question the Court must answer is who among the named defendants may be held to account for it," Illston wrote.

Bell-Sparrow sued Mone't Inc., Wiltz and McGowan in May 2012, alleging breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, promissory fraud, fraud, unfair competition and breach of faith.

Wiltz failed to appear and the court entered default against him in November 2013.

"Defendants' scheme appeared to involve fleeing the state of Tennessee in order to evade detection," Illston wrote. She noted that Wiltz never bothered with typical approval processes, making it obvious he intended to mislead and defraud Bell-Sparrow.

She said there is no evidence showing that he "requested income verification, a credit score, a guarantor, or collateral before accepting her money and approving her application."

"It strains credulity to suggest that an individual could afford a five million dollar property with little more than ten thousand dollars in available assets and no other ready source of income," Illston wrote. "This dynamic strongly suggests that Wiltz knew from the outset that the transaction would never be consummated, and thus acted with intent to defraud plaintiff."

As a result, Sparrow wasn't able to keep current on her bills, most notably her mortgage payments, her bank began foreclosure.

"The court finds that the allegations in the complaint are true as to defendants Wiltz and Mone't and that plaintiff has adequately supported the damages she seeks," Illston wrote.

"Additionally, the court finds that the conduct of the defaulting defendants was intentional, oppressive, fraudulent and malicious, thus entitling plaintiff to punitive damages under both California and Tennessee law."

But Illston said that McGown, who properly responded to the lawsuit, lacked culpability in the scam, as she was "merely a line-level employee who had no knowledge of Wiltz's scheme, had no control of the company and who was herself ultimately defrauded by Wiltz."

Bell-Sparrow did not sue Lucas.

Illston ordered Wiltz, whose whereabouts are unknown, to pay $68,500 in general damages and $62,500 in punitive damages, plus prejudgment interest.

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