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Investors in Fiddlesticks deals unaware of ‘flip’ plan

By Staff | Jan 7, 2009

In the thick binder handed to potential investors, one figure jumped out — a projected 234 percent cash-on-cash return.
The profit that real estate agent Samir Cabrera promised investors in a pair of south Fort Myers land deals sounds ridiculous now, but in the fevered development market of early 2006, anything seemed possible.
On Wednesday, six investors who lost their money — including a truck stop waitress, a landscaper and a plumbing business owner — told jurors in a federal courtroom they never would have invested had they known Cabrera marked up the price of their land for a $900,000 gain.
“If someone’s going to flip a property and make money on it, and I’m not going to make money on it, why would I give (that person) my money?” wondered Kevin Buck, a landscaper from Pennsylvania who lost $200,000.
Jurors also heard from the former chief operating officer of Cabrera’s business, who said his boss should have known investors were clueless about the flips.
Cabrera, 32, is charged with 12 counts of fraud and money laundering. If convicted, he faces a maximum possible sentence of 190 years in prison.
Cabrera listened calmly as investors spoke about their losses.
Georgia Bohar, an Ohio truck stop waitress, said she invested $25,000 on the urging of her son, who knew one of Cabrera’s fund-raisers.
When asked by Assistant United States Attorney Robert Barclift if she knew the land, at 13701 Fiddlesticks Blvd., had been marked up in price, she replied she did not.
Bohar, 64, made $14,000 a year when she invested.
Debra Mundy, a plumbing business owner from Pennsylvania, lost the $50,000 dollars she pooled with three others. Like other investors, they first learned about the opportunity from a high-pressure seminar Cabrera held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Philadelphia.
“It was a rush to get that money,” is how she described the fund-raiser.
Mundy did not receive financial documents about the investment before paying, she said, and for a long time her only record was the receipt from the wire transfer.
Cabrera’s defense attorney, John Mills, later said he doubted a disclosure of the flip would have prevented some people from investing.
“The market was so hot,” he said.
Even the savvy were duped. Mark Perkins, the chief executive officer of a Wall Street investment firm, told jurors on Tuesday that he invested $150,000, despite believing “the numbers were exaggerated.”
Investors lost their money when development plans for the two lots stalled and construction loans began drying up.
Also on Wednesday, Tom Pence, the former chief operating officer for Cabrera Capital LLC, which operated both investment deals, testified Cabrera controlled the business and oversaw drafts of investor documents, where the disclosure should have been made.
In an afternoon-long session, Barclift methodically presented Pence the marketing material, investor agreements and internal e-mails, asking each time for Cabrera’s role in the matter.
Pence described his boss as the head of a group of company “principals,” fund-raisers and project developers who pushed the Fiddlesticks deals to investors across the nation. The group met weekly, and Pence translated their decisions into action.
Asked about the “kicker fees,” or profit from the flips, Pence replied, “The principals make those decisions.”
Pence, a retired attorney from Iowa, worked with Chicago real estate lawyer Mitch Goldsmith to craft investor documents. The two men are the target of Cabrera’s defense, which claims they should have disclosed the flips in the course of their work.
At one point, Barclift presented an e-mail in which Pence told Goldsmith to craft the documents in the same form as two earlier land deals, neither of which had a land flip to disclose. In the defense’s opening statement, Mills pointed to the e-mail as proof that Pence had mislead Goldsmith.
Barclift tied it back to Cabrera, asking Pence, “Is (the e-mail) something you would have discussed with Mr. Cabrera before conveying to Mr. Goldsmith?”
It was, Pence said.
In cross-examination, Mills presented Pence with more e-mails between him and Goldsmith. He pointed out that Goldsmith often used the wrong address for one of the Fiddlesticks properties. The error, Mills said, is proof the lawyer had confused the project for another in which there was no disclosure.
Outside court, Mills said prosecutors had proven Cabrera’s negligence, at best.
“They have to prove he intentionally did not disclose,” Mills said. “We’re trying to prove he was a bad businessman, not a crook.”

Steven Beardsley is a staff writer for the Naples Daily News.