By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
On a weekday in the spring of 2006, Linda Clewette, a 57-year-old transcriptionist and self-employed candy machine vendor, slid into a booth at the Baker's Square in Maple Grove and ordered a coffee. With a modest income but a stellar credit score, she was about to become a real estate investor. Brandon Flavin and Nathan Nordvik, both in their twenties and dressed casually, sat across from her. They were there to tell her how.
Two years later, Clewette owns six suburban properties in various stages of foreclosure, her credit is shot, she's selling her north Minneapolis home of 10 years, she's living on her 35-year-old daughter's couch, and she's suing Flavin, 29, and Nordvik, 26, for $500,000.
Clewette is not the only real estate investor suing Flavin. One other suit has been filed and at least two more are in the offing, according to investors' lawyers. All make similar claims: that Flavin and his associates allegedly recruited them into a real estate investment scheme designed to implode by deliberately partnering with a dishonest mortgage company, making false promises to rent the homes and pay the mortgages, and leaving investors to pick up the pieces.
See supporting documents and additional images in Jeff Severns Guntzel's REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK for this story. Plus, learn what to do if you think you're a victim of real estate fraud.
At Minnetonka police headquarters, an entire room is reserved for the criminal investigation into the accusations against Flavin and a mortgage company he partnered with. A detective working the investigation believes Flavin and his companies may have made millions from the home sales at the front end of their investment deals.
To secure loans for his investors, Flavin leaned heavily on American Wholesale Lending, a national mortgage broker with franchises in several states. The Minnesota franchise, which purported to match borrowers with lenders offering the best rates, quietly closed up shop about a year ago. One principal in the company, John Searle, went to prison on a felony stalking charge. Another, Brian Matheson Sr., disappeared sometime in 2007. Investigators say he's rumored to be in South Africa. His two sons—Jonathan and Brian Jr.—worked for Flavin.
American Wholesale has also been hit with multiple mortgage fraud lawsuits. It lost its first suit in November when Searles and Matheson didn't show up for court. Now they owe $322,000 to a subprime lender in Colorado. Indymac Bank, the seventh-largest mortgage originator in the country, filed another suit against American Wholesale just as the first one wrapped up, also naming Flavin and Nordvik as co-defendants.
All of Flavin's real estate companies are caught up in one lawsuit or another: Innovative Personal Solutions, National Investment Group, and United Management Group. Asked if his companies are still in the business after all of this, Flavin hedges a bit: "Not really."
As the lawsuits have piled up, Flavin has built a small empire for himself. He's registered at least six companies in his name. He drives a 2007 Cadillac Escalade. He owns a half-million-dollar house on a quiet street in Maple Grove and a $130,000 yacht he docks in Stillwater called the Nothin' but Trouble. When the water freezes over, there is always the coach bus—converted into a party bus built to hold 30 people, with four mini bars, wraparound seating in the rear, booths up front, and a wall built to hold a flat-screen television.
Ten years ago Flavin looked every bit the part of the scrappy stoner type you'd expect to aspire to these kinds of trophies, with shaggy bleached hair and a wry grin propping up a suggestion of a mustache. Today, with close-cropped hair, a gentle face, a confident voice, and a neck like a linebacker, he employs a friendly smile in service of a complex scheme.
In her interview with a Minnetonka detective, Clewette laid out the details of her ruined finances. "She just burst into tears," says her attorney, Nathan Hobbs. She couldn't believe, she said, that these "nice young boys" had done this to her. "She's constantly afraid people will think she's dumb," Hobbs says. "She wasn't dumb. She was trusting."
MOST SUNDAYS LINDA CLEWETTE opened the Star Tribune and browsed sale flyers and coupons. She can only remember breaking the routine once: It was April 27, 2006, and she was still fired up from a seminar on real estate investment hosted at a suburban hotel ballroom. She pulled the real estate section, spread it out, and zeroed in on an ad: "INVESTORS WANTED / $25-$30K PAID UP FRONT / 700+ Credit Score Req." It was an ad Flavin ran in every Sunday Strib for a year and a half.
She called first thing on Monday. Nordvik answered and gave her the pitch, which they later had printed up on a flyer:
In the right area a home price can double in a matter of years. We help you invest with zero out-of-pocket money. The property management company that manages our properties has a constant watch on our investments and actually guarantees [to pay] the mortgages for two years. These homes are rented on a rent-to-own basis; our tenants go through a credit restoration program to get financed. We sell these properties to the tenants if possible, or put the house on the market for sale.
Clewette would get $5,000 per property up front, Nordvik told her, and when it was all over, they'd split the equity down the middle—everybody wins.