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Sale Of The Century
  • May 13, 2013 : 15:05
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His crimes continued unabated as he picked up new counterfeiting tricks, such as using sandpaper and an X-Acto knife to create fake driver's licenses. Soon Cox devised an even bigger plan: inflating the value of homes he bought in bad areas so he could refinance them and pull out heaps of cash. With the help of allies in the industry, Cox refined a system. He'd buy a crappy house and have his accomplices create inflated warranty deeds. Then other aides would refinance the homes so Cox could make a fortune.

Housing prices in Florida were heading for an astonishing 56 percent increase compared with five years prior. The Department of Commerce soon reported that new-home construction had hit its highest point since the mid-1980s. With money flowing in, Cox became a party-hopping playboy known around town for rolling up in his silver Audi TT Quattro and charming women and wannabe brokers alike. Kevin Stuteville, one of his early employees, found him to be "a very personable smooth talker. He makes an impression quickly."

Business continued to grow, and Cox maintained laser-sharp focus to stay on top of all his scams. Still, he needed help staying organized and found just the right office assistant in a pretty blonde named Alison Arnold. A young mom with a New Age streak, Arnold had her work cut out for her. "Nothing was organized," she recalled. Cox sensed something in Arnold that was "sweet and innocent," he told me, likening her to "a babe in the woods." To keep her onboard, Cox paid for her apartment and showered her with compliments. "No one ever believed in you like I believe in you," he'd say.

He took Arnold to his stylishly furnished apartment, which seemed to her more like an elaborate lair out of a crime movie. "He always had a dark side," she recalled. "He's like Batman." There was a back exit in case he had to flee and a picture frame on a wall that gave way to a secret room. "This is where I'm going to hide," he told her. Her suspicions were confirmed when he confessed that the "investors" in his properties were a ploy to acquire more properties. "My investors are me," he said. "They're fictitious, aliases, characters."

He was still ripping off identities from real people too. Cox had stolen the identity of a woman, Rosita Perez, and wanted Arnold to start withdrawing funds from bank accounts he'd opened in Perez's name. Arnold claimed she wanted to back out, but Cox leveraged her apartment to make her comply. "You owe me," he told her. Nervous but with a son to support and hungry for money, Arnold dyed her hair brown, donned glasses and a baseball cap and tried to pass herself off as Latina. As she walked into the bank, she recalled, "I felt like my life was a movie."

But the movie was quickly turning dark. When the bank clerk told Arnold she'd have to wait a few days to withdraw her funds, she panicked and quit working with Cox. It was good timing. A task force out of Tampa was on his trail, sending hundreds of subpoenas around town and estimating that he had inflated the value of more than 100 properties, equaling millions of dollars in fraud. It was, as one investigator put it, "one of the largest, most flagrant displays of public-records and banking manipulation we've ever seen."

When Cox got word that the local paper was preparing an exposé on him, he felt his throat constrict. Rather than face going to what he called "the federal rape factory," he devised another plan: assume a new identity for real—and run.

"Free home loan applications, 100 percent financing available, good credit/bad credit, no problem." This ad in a Tampa Bay flyer seemed too good to be true, but so did the real estate market. By 2004 housing prices in nearly half of America's major metropolitan areas were showing double-digit annual increases, a record achievement. And six of the 10 areas posting the biggest gains—increases of more than 25 percent—were in Florida. Eager home buyers who answered the flyer ad, however, weren't being patched through to a legitimate broker. They were talking with a fugitive. With $83,000 in cash in his pocket, Cox had fled Florida for Atlanta, on a mission not just to evade the law but to find a permanent identity he could hide behind. Using his ad as a front, he was conning callers into turning over all their personal information.

Meanwhile, lying in bed beside him was a new sidekick, a sexy and rambunctious blonde named Rebecca Hauck. Cox had met Hauck, a single mother who had recently relocated from Las Vegas, on a dating site, and the affair was passionate and intense. Cox told her of his crimes and his need to escape Tampa, but she didn't care. She sent her young boy to live with relatives so she could be the Bonnie to Cox's Clyde.

They were soon traversing the South, stealing identities, opening fake accounts and scamming hundreds of thousands of dollars from mortgage lenders and credit card companies. They blew the cash on designer bags, laptops, Rolexes and plastic surgery for Hauck. There was so much cash around they had to hide it in air-conditioning vents and in their freezer. But the feds had recently raided his office in Tampa, and Cox was buckling under the stress of life on the run. He was numbing himself with Xanax, trying to dull the pain of disappearing from his family without a trace.

Jacked on sex, money and drugs, Cox was on the prowl for a lucrative pool of victims: the homeless. Stealing an identity always involved the risk that the real person would track him down, but, Cox realized, people on the streets rarely had the means. Pretending to be a survey taker for the Salvation Army, Cox would pay a homeless person $20 to answer a series of questions: where he was from, his mother's maiden name, his Social Security number and so on—the details Cox needed to take out credit cards and loans.

On a trip to Vegas, he pried the details from a male prostitute, Gary Sullivan. Cox drove off with a new identity and a grin on his face. "You know," he told Hauck, "the homeless are widely underutilized."

One day Cox took a long look in the mirror. He barely recognized himself. His nose was thinner, his hair thicker, his teeth whiter. Even his man-boobs—"bitch tits," he called them—were gone. That's what $27,000 in cosmetic surgery, hair grafts and dental work had gotten him. The physical changes weren't just for his ego. They were for his survival. By now Cox was at the top of the Secret Service list, and wanted posters of him and Hauck hung in more than a thousand banks and real estate companies in several states.

With a new face and a new identity, complete with forged documents for Gary Sullivan—his birth certificate, state ID, even a new Social Security card—Cox was eager to fatten his wallet. He opened up several bank accounts, enough that he could easily fill with a couple of million in home-equity loans. He gobbled up homes at full price using owner financing (a system by which the buyer finances the home through the seller rather than a bank, taking possession of the property while paying the seller off in monthly installments). Then he could take out mortgages against the homes. For just a $12,500 down payment he could borrow more than $500,000 against a home.

His victims never knew what hit them, especially not Dr. Bruce Brown, an ophthalmologist who was on active duty in the Army, and his wife, Bridget. The couple badly needed to sell their house in Columbia, South Carolina. Their baby boy was born with a birth defect that had required 50 surgeries so far. To make matters worse, they were eager to move to Georgia for a new job and were unable to find a buyer for their home. Their real estate agent suggested they consider owner financing—and there was Gary Sullivan, ready to do the deal.

At the closing Sullivan seemed nice enough, though, as Brown later put it, "a little cheesy." He also seemed to have "a little inferiority complex," Brown recalled. "He said he had to be good in one area to make up for being short." But Sullivan's $20,000 deposit went through without a hitch, and he gave the Browns a year's worth of payments in the form of postdated checks. Using Sullivan's identity, Cox took possession of the home and immediately refinanced, pulling out cash. Brown came back from a trip to Disney World and found a message from a Secret Service agent on his answering machine. "I thought it was someone at work playing a prank," he recalled. It wasn't, and as the Browns painfully learned, they'd fallen victim to Cox's ruse.

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read more: News, issue may 2013

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