By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
ON A FALL evening in 2006, John Foster arrived home from a long day of work just as the sun was setting. Still wearing his brown UPS uniform, Foster strolled to the end of his Plymouth driveway to retrieve the day's mail.
Sifting through the usual credit card offers and other junk, one letter caught Foster's eye. Sent from Avelo Mortgage, it claimed Foster had been late on a payment for 1564 Hillside Avenue in north Minneapolis.
Foster knew this to be impossible. He was always diligent when it came to paying bills on time. Not to mention Foster had never even heard of 1564 Hillside Avenue.
That night Foster called Avelo. Had there been a mistake? he wondered. But when a representative recited his social security number, his birth date, and his Plymouth address, Foster knew this wasn't going to be that simple.
In the months that followed, Foster and his wife, Melony Michaels, saw more evidence that someone was racking up a big tab using his identity. He received a notice for a second mortgage that had been taken out on 1564 Hillside just a month after the first mortgage. Trent Bowman, a loan officer they had never met, sent them a Christmas card thanking them for their business. Calls began to pour in from debt collectors.
At first, Foster and Michaels were naïve about the consequences of being caught up in an identity fraud scheme. They hadn't done anything wrong, so they thought that once they notified the right people, the whole mess would go away. The FBI seemed like a good place to start, but the response was less than comforting.
"They said, 'You can never catch these people, they're too slippery,'" remembers Michaels. "Isn't that terrible? If someone came over and stole my TV, I could have someone over here in a half hour."
Michaels called the police and U.S. Commerce Department. No one was interested. If the family wanted to solve the case, they'd have to investigate it themselves.
Over the next year, searching for answers became Michaels's life. She estimates that she devoted more than 1,000 hours calling banks and digging through mortgage and property records. Meanwhile, the family's interest rates skyrocketed and their credit score plummeted. The sound of the phone ringing became enough to send a chill through the whole house. At one point, debtors were calling 70 times a day. They were so tenacious they would also call neighbors and even Foster's 14-year-old son.
"Nobody cared when we said, 'No, this isn't us. We can show you the police reports,'" says Michaels.
What Michaels's investigation uncovered terrified the family. Using her husband's name, the culprits had taken out four mortgages on two houses. They were in the process of taking out eight more. To cover their tracks, the imposters created a web of fraudulent paperwork in Foster's name: social security cards, a driver's license, tax returns, bank statements, W2s, 401k, pay stubs, letters from fictional children.
Ironically, it was Foster's perfect credit score that made him the ideal victim. Because he was in such good financial standing, the imposters had to sign less paperwork and answer fewer questions from the banks.
In October 2007, Bloomington police investigator Cory Cardenas took the case. Cardenas had a license in real estate, making him one of the few investigators with the expertise to unravel such a convoluted crime. Cardenas followed the paper trail to Larry Darnell Maxwell, a 52-year-old Twin Cities real estate broker fresh off probation for a 2001 fraud conviction.
Maxwell was the nucleus of what turned out to be one of the biggest mortgage fraud cases in Hennepin County history. Using fake and stolen identities and forged documents, Maxwell had made more than $2 million setting up the fraudulent purchases of nine houses, including the two in Foster's name. After a six-week trial, a jury found Maxwell guilty of 18 counts, landing him a 16 1/2-year prison sentence.
After Maxwell went down, his confederates quickly followed. The Hennepin County Attorney's Office charged Tyrone T. Williams with multiple felonies for buying Maxwell properties under the name Donald Williams. Jerome Kingrussell, who bought property under Foster's name, was given a nine-year suspended prison sentence. Tynessia Snoddy, one of Maxwell's real estate agents, was charged with four felonies for aiding and abetting identity theft and is due in court next month.
But prosecutors couldn't catch everyone who was involved. And one would go on to a second career in local politics.
BY THE TIME Foster received the letter from a mortgage company he had never heard of, Jerry Moore was the interim director of north Minneapolis' Jordan Area Community Council and was looking to take on the job full time. In March 2007, the board met in the neighborhood council's office to vote on Moore's candidacy.
Some questioned whether Moore was qualified. He talked big, but didn't have much experience. He also didn't have a college degree, a prerequisite for the position, according to council members.
But the hiring of a neighborhood association's executive director is entirely up to a vote by members, and the charming northsider was popular. Not only did Moore get the job, but the board voted to give him a $60,000 salary—$25,000 more than the average at the time, says Neighborhood Revitalization Program director Bob Miller.
"There were a lot of questions about how that happened, who was really responsible for setting the terms of the agreement," says Miller. "The agreement, in my opinion, was very poor. It's more of an art than it is a science on these things."
Once in his new position, it didn't take long for Moore to start making enemies. In the news, he postured as a crusader against the looming foreclosure crisis, but behind the scenes, there were suspicions about where the council's money was going.
"Within a month or two we started asking questions," says Dottie Titus, who served as the council's executive director in 2005 and afterward became a regular fixture at meetings.
In Spring 2008, Moore applied for a grant from the American Cancer Society on behalf of JACC. Called "Let's Talk About," the money was intended to raise awareness of prostate cancer among black men. The research non-profit was impressed with Moore's pitch. In April, it cut the council a check for $10,000.
Moore seems to have treated the cancer awareness grant like a personal piggy bank. One night in late September, Moore charged $22.75 at 11:21 p.m. at Gabby's Saloon and Eatery in northeast Minneapolis. Moore wrote the charge off as a "Prostate screening." That same night, less than an hour before bar close, Moore charged another $24.20 at Gabby's—another late-night prostate screening at the bar. Two hours later, Moore charged a $14.59 bill for an order of mini chimichangas, a club turkey deluxe sandwich, and a cup of hot tea at a Perkins in Eagan.
This roused the suspicion of the council's bookkeeper. "I am unable to verify neither the data nor the applicable funding source," reads a note next to each expense.
An auditor from Larsen Allen hired by the council to check the books commented on what read like a night of drinking on the American Cancer Society's tab. "We question why the Executive Director is using the JACC debit card for what would appear to be personal uses as the times would not seem to be business hours."
The wild spending didn't stop there. Moore used thousands of dollars from grants on "questionable expenses," according to the Larson Allen audit. This included consulting fees paid to people with no relevant background, and expensive cell phone bills.
All told, the auditor found problematic spending on 10 grants allocated to the neighborhood association from 2005 through December 2008, the majority under Moore's watch. Of those grants, the auditor tallied more than $90,000 of "questionable" expenses.
"It boggles the mind to watch him in action," says Titus. "He can be very charming, he can be very persuasive."
IN JANUARY 2009, community council members filed into the Jordan New Life Community church for an election. This time, it was to vote on new board members.
Tension was high. Whispers of misspending had dominated the rumor mill, causing a rift between members with competing ideologies: those who wanted reform, and those who did not. Moore was the face of the latter.
As it turned out, he was also in the minority. When the votes were tallied, six new reform-minded members had been elected. Moore didn't take it well.
About 20 minutes after the meeting, a crowd was still meandering around the church cleaning up and making small talk. Moore took the opportunity to settle a score with Dennis Wagner, a former council treasurer.
Earlier in the night, someone in attendance had been asking about the rumors of misspending. Wagner had told her to ask Moore about it, which she did.
When Moore confronted him after the meeting in front of a group of people, Wagner slapped Moore's back and repeated what he had said earlier in the night, "If you want to know where the money is, ask this guy."
As Wagner turned to walk away, Moore slapped him in the side of his face, knocking off his glasses.
"Basically, you know, he lost control," says P.J. Hubbard, a board member who witnessed the incident. "He did it right in front of (Wagner's) daughter, which was more horrifying."
Megan Goodmundson, another community member in attendance, sprang into action and ran toward Moore, who shoved her out of the way.
Seeing this, Hubbard jumped in. "Hey, Jerry, you're out of order!" Hubbard screamed.
"Fuck you, P.J., I'll kick your ass!" Moore replied, and landed a right hook to Hubbard's forehead.
It was likely the most intense 30 seconds the church basement had ever seen. By the time police arrived, Moore had fled the scene.
Moore called police later to report an assault. He admitted to hitting Wagner, but said Wagner started the fight by slapping him in the back. Moore also admitted he had swung at Hubbard, but justified it because Hubbard pushed him first. Both Hubbard and Moore are listed as victims in the police report.
The new board met two days later. Because Moore had punched a board member, the council voted to relieve him of his duties as executive director.
THE DAY AFTER the board fired Moore, Anne McCandless showed up to the neighborhood association's office at around 10 a.m. McCandless was the newly elected secretary to the board, and had to stop at the building's landlord's office to pick up a key and the code to the alarm.
But when McCandless arrived at the office, she discovered that someone had preceded her into the building. Whoever it was had apparently left—but not before cleaning the place out. Noticeably missing were a refrigerator, three printers, three computers, a keyboard, a monitor, a video camera, and a stack of old files.
"They were gone," says McCandless. "Everything was gone."
Out of nowhere, in walked Moore, an unexpected visitor.
"What happened to our computers?" McCandless asked him.
"I don't know," he replied, and refused to indulge any more questions.
For the second time in four days, someone from the neighborhood association called the police. The cops found no signs of forced entry at the building, and the alarm had not been triggered. It seemed clear to police that whoever had stolen the equipment had a key and the alarm code. Based on what they knew about the contentious week and the small pool of people who had keys to the building, police listed Moore as the most likely suspect.
Because of the complicated political conflict stewing between the neighborhood council members, the police thought it was a dispute best left to the courts, says Minneapolis police Lt. James Rugel, who responded to McCandless's call.
"The old JACC board was questioning the new JACC board," says Rugel. "Basically, I instructed them that this was a civil matter."
Meanwhile, Moore looked for a new gig to satisfy his political ambitions. Earlier this year, Moore ran for a director spot on the DFL executive committee for the 58th District, a board that handles business for the district encompassing north and part of downtown Minneapolis.
Despite Moore's unceremonious exit from his council position, he made it past a nominations committee that screens each candidate. Put to a delegate vote, Moore was elected to the executive committee at the district's March 2010 DFL convention.
The nominations committee apparently didn't look at Moore's residence, either. Two court affidavits signed in February and June of this year, respectively, show Moore actually lived in an apartment in Hopkins while serving as director of the committee. Because Moore didn't live in the district, he was never eligible to serve on the DFL board. This minor detail flew under the radar of the DFL for months.
In June, other committee members got word that Moore wasn't living in the district, says Brian Bushay, a co-executive committee director and husband of the district's state representative, Linda Higgins.
"It's something that the nominations committee probably should have gone through if they were going to recommend him, but that did not happen," says Bushay.
Moore didn't show up to the executive committee's June meeting, but called another member to say he would resign, "so apparently he knew it was going to happen," says Bushay.
The committee voted to vacate Moore's seat from the board with little conversation.
WHILE INVESTIGATING THE theft of her husband's identity, Michaels found a check for $5,000 cut by the bank in the closing of 1564 Hillside. Dated June 27, 2006, the check is made out to "Jerry Moore." Accompanying the check was an invoice from J. L. Moore Consulting addressed to the seller of 1564, Keith Reitman. The invoice states Reitman owed Moore $5,000 for "Windows."
But there were never any "windows," says Reitman. The north Minneapolis landlord says the five grand was paid to Moore, in part, for setting him up with Tynessia Snoddy, one of the real estate agents who worked for Maxwell and is now facing felony charges.
"It was consulting," says Reitman. "I don't know anything about windows."
Here's Reitman's version of the story: In 2006, he and Moore were "acquaintances." One day he told Moore he was having a difficult time selling a house on Hillside Avenue in the Jordan neighborhood. Moore told him he could help. He put Reitman in touch with Snoddy, whom Moore introduced as his girlfriend. "Introducing me to Tynessia certainly was part of the consulting," says Reitman.
When asked what other consulting work Moore performed as part of their deal, Reitman refused to comment. "I'm gonna leave it at that," he says. "I'll see where that lands."
Reitman claims he had no clue he wasn't actually selling the house to a guy named John Foster. Though Reitman made $56,000 off the deal, he considers himself a victim of mortgage fraud too.
"Anytime anyone from [Councilmember] Don Samuels on down says 'Keith Reitman was associated with mortgage fraud,' I am re-victimized," he says. "It would be like saying someone who stepped out in front of a car that failed to stop and got hit by a car that ran off was associated with a hit-and-run."
Moore tells a very different story about his role in 1564 Hillside. In a 2009 civil case unrelated to the Maxwell trial, Moore sat on the witness stand of a Hennepin County courtroom. Under oath, attorney David Schooler confronted Moore with the check and invoice and questioned why he was involved with a house at the center of a prominent mortgage fraud case.
"Did you ever do any work on 1564 Hillside Avenue North?" asked Schooler, presenting the invoice from Moore to the court.
"Sir, I have never seen this invoice," Moore replied.
"Do you recognize that check that indicates there was $5,000 paid to Jerry Moore?" asked Schooler.
"No," Moore said, staring at the check with his name on it.
"Did you ever, and Mr. Reitman ever, engage in any business transactions together?"
"Not that I am aware of," maintained Moore.
When asked why Moore would deny doing business with him on the house, Reitman could not speculate. "I don't know why he would say that," says Reitman.
On a humid night in July, Foster and Michaels sit at their kitchen table. The smell of freshly baked cookies fills their suburban home. They are surrounded by the clutter of an upcoming garage sale that they hope will put some much-needed dollars in their bank account.
Michaels politely apologizes for the mess. "But at least it's organized," she says through a chuckle.
Foster doesn't mind talking about the mortgage fraud case. He's told the story dozens of times to lawyers, investigators, and reporters. When recounting the most unbelievable parts, Foster gives a tired smile, like he still can't quite believe it himself.
"As a victim of this, I couldn't do a damn thing about it," he says. "I had to work all the time."
It has been almost four years since Foster first opened the letter accusing him of missing a payment on a house he never owned. But his life is far from being back to the way it was before that letter came. Foster's name is in an FBI database that requires him to carry around a note and password to give to police in the event he gets pulled over; otherwise, they'll assume he's an imposter and arrest him on the spot. His once-proud credit score has fallen so far that Fleet Farm recently denied him a credit card. The kids can't get student loans for college.
"People say, 'Well you don't have to pay for the houses,' but they just don't get it," laments Michaels.
Looking back at all the financial turmoil the case brought them, the couple estimates they lost about $600,000 all told. They doubt they will ever get anywhere close to that much back.
Michaels and Foster are now in the process of suing everyone they say played a part in the fraud, even those who slipped away from the criminal investigation. On the list is Moore, who was served with the papers at the Wells Fargo where he works as a personal banker. The family prays they will get some restitution.
"We hope to, but from people like Moore, I don't think we'll ever see a dime," says Foster.
"He has to be accountable," Michaels insists. "It's not all about money, it's about accountability. It's about telling the whole story."
THE DIM, COOL lobby of the Wells Fargo in Minnetonka is a welcome relief from the humid weather outside. Moore is downstairs working on a project with some kids, a receptionist says, but I can wait for him if I'd like.
"Is there anything I can help you with?" asks a perky blonde teller.
"I don't think so," I say.
"Do you have an appointment with Jerry?" she asks.
We both laugh.
Suddenly, Moore walks into the lobby. He's wearing a blue blazer and a friendly smile.
"Jerry?" I ask.
"Yes?" he replies, offering a grin.
"I'm Andy Mannix with City Pages," I say.
His smile fades and he starts tiptoeing backward. "Sorry, I'm with a class right now," he says, moving away faster.
"I've left you quite a few messages," I say, "I need to talk to you." I pull a business card out of my pocket and try to hand it to him. "Can we talk later?"
Moore looks at the card as if I'm offering him a live grenade. "Sorry," he says, putting his hands up in the air defensively. He continues to back away, and turns around and heads for cover.
Just before he disappears, he looks back momentarily.
"Can you call me later?" I ask across the bank lobby.
"Sorry," Moore says one more time. Then he's gone.