Fred’s Storied Career
Each morning as he backed down the driveway of his Glassell Park home, Federiqkoe DiBritto III couldn’t be sure if that day was going to be his last on the job.
For months -- much longer than he had any right to expect -- his luck held.
Then on April 21, DiBritto, a fundraiser for the UCLA medical school, was summoned to his supervisor’s office, handcuffed and taken to jail.
DiBritto, who had been hired for the $100,000-a-year UCLA job with what seemed to be excellent credentials, was really Fred Brito, a con man and five-time felon. UCLA detectives arrested Brito after a tip from the Los Angeles Police Department.
Brito, 49, has spent his adult life using aliases and phony credentials to pull off one elaborate deception after another. He has lied his way into jobs as a Catholic priest, a youth counselor for a foster care agency and executive director of the National Kidney Foundation of Southern California, among many others. He once convinced a judge he was a psychiatrist in order to testify in a friend’s criminal trial.
Sometimes his poses have landed him in jail. Other times, he’s been allowed to leave jobs quietly. His latest unmasking put him behind bars for a couple of weeks while authorities decided what to do.
Brito was on parole at the time, but authorities decided not to send him back to prison because they found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in his role at UCLA.
Posing as a medical professional, an attorney, a law enforcement officer or a professional whose job requires a license is illegal, but lying about education or past experience to land a position at a nonprofit agency is not.
Brito is at a familiar crossroads. Go straight or scam again? Brito, a short, balding man with wire-rimmed glasses, agreed to be interviewed, saying he hopes publicizing his exploits will make it difficult for him to continue his life of deceit.
“There’s going to be nowhere for Fred to hide anymore,” said Brito, speaking of himself in the third person, as he often does. “Deep down there’s a good person inside. Fred is trying to bring that person out.”
Over the last 30 years, Brito confessed, he has embezzled and stolen and deceived more people than he can count. He has been sentenced to serve a total of 11 years behind bars.
His early offenses, he said, were committed when he led a decadent lifestyle. In recent years, he said, he has lied his way into jobs that enabled him to help people.
“I’m attempting to turn my life around,” he said. “The secret that Fred has been hiding so long is out. Now Fred can move forward.”
But over the course of several conversations, he sometimes questioned whether he would pursue an honest life. He spoke of his responsibility to support his aging, sickly parents, saying: “I’ll do whatever I can to ensure that [my parents] have proper care. And if that means that I have to lie to get a job, then I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Society, you give me no other choice.”
Good on Paper
Brito was hired at UCLA in October. The university paid $10,000 to Askanas Human Resource Consulting, a Manhattan Beach-based search firm, to recruit and interview an appropriate candidate.
“My agreement with UCLA did not require me to do any reference checking whatsoever,” said Leslie Askanas, president of the firm.
A UCLA spokesman said the university believed references had been checked, although by its own admission the university did not require a criminal background check. The university has since changed its hiring policy.
On paper, Brito looked perfect. His resume detailed a 24-year career in senior nonprofit management and awards from a variety of organizations. It said Brito was scheduled to complete a doctorate in ethics in May at the American Catholic University of the Immaculate Conception, where he had also earned a master’s degree in public administration, a master’s degree in education and bachelor of arts degree in social justice.
Along with the resume, Brito submitted a glowing six-page letter of recommendation written on official-looking letterhead and quoting “Harrison Winslow,” who was identified as serving on the executive committee of Catholic Charities, for which Brito claimed to have worked. “I was personally taken by his zest for life. His motivation. But most of all his sense of honesty and humbleness,” said the letter. “He excelled in every position he was elevated too.” The misspelling of “to” was in the letter.
But the resume and the letter accompanying it were fraudulent. American Catholic University of the Immaculate Conception doesn’t exist. And Brito wrote the letter himself, using the name of a character portrayed by Charles Grodin in the 1993 movie “Heart and Souls.”
“I saw the movie and [the name] sounded good,” Brito said.
Brito said he kept two cellphones, with one reserved solely for reference checks. If someone called asking for Harrison Winslow, he knew it was about a job. He had a standard set of responses: “Fred’s a good guy. He’s good at what he does. He gives more of himself. He’s a kind, giving, caring, nurturing, loving person. You never get a ‘no’ from Fred.”
UCLA will not comment on how well Brito did at his fundraising job. But that was not his undoing in any event.
He lost his job after he visited Mount St. Mary’s College in mid-March. He identified himself as a philanthropist and offered to provide seed money for a scholarship.
“What brought suspicion was the level of involvement that he wanted in the scholarship program,” said Francine Marlenee, director of public relations at the college. “He wanted to interview the potentials [donors]. That was unusual for us, and also his life story was kind of farfetched. It was too extravagant.”
College officials checked variations of DiBritto’s name on the Internet and unearthed newspaper accounts of a previous con. They notified police.
Turning to Crime
Brito has lived most of his life in a rear house on a small lot in Glassell Park with his stepfather and mother, Frank and Mary Esparza.
He graduated from Franklin High School in 1973, assumed his stepfather’s last name -- though he didn’t change it legally -- and enlisted in the Marine Corps as Freddrick Esparza.
He committed his first felony at 22, within months of his March 1977 military discharge. Working as a bank teller, he stole $1,000 in traveler’s checks from his till and didn’t show up for work the next day.
He pleaded guilty to a federal embezzlement charge and was placed on four years’ probation and ordered into a federal halfway house. A month later, he was convicted of grand theft for obtaining rental cars and not returning them.
An Aug. 9, 1978, report prepared by an L.A. County probation officer described Brito as “highly manipulative” and as an “elusive young man.”
“Defendant is a well-developed con artist and deserves state prison,” the report said.
He fled the halfway house in early 1979 and headed for Canada. There he committed numerous crimes, including theft of blank airline tickets and possession and use of stolen credit cards. He was jailed for eight months before being extradited to the United States on the theft and embezzlement charges and was sent to federal prison.
Brito bounced in and out of prison for much of the 1980s. By the mid-'80s, he had shifted to inventing and assuming identities.
“I tried to get a legitimate job and I couldn’t,” Brito said. “After hearing ‘no’ so many times, you have to think out of the box and think of another way to do it.”
Former Lancaster Mayor Fred Hann recalled when Brito surfaced in that community in early 1987 as Marc Esparza.
“He made us look like fools,” Hann said of the well-dressed young man with a “fine” resume who arrived in town claiming his wife had been killed in a Florida airplane crash.
“You can’t help but like him,” Hann said. “He is very personable.”
Brito/Esparza became active in city politics, used a phony resume to get a job counseling youths at a foster care agency and was appointed by the City Council to the Planning Commission. He gave the mayor a lapel pin he said President Reagan had given him.
City officials learned of Brito’s criminal background within three months. “He got caught up in saying too many things to too many people that weren’t exactly the same,” said Dennis Davenport, the former assistant city manager. “He would have had eight or nine degrees from different universities if you put them all together.”
City officials confronted Brito and contacted his parole officer. Brito went back to prison for 10 months.
But before returning to prison, Brito pulled off one of his boldest cons. He appeared in court posing as a psychiatrist and convinced a Los Angeles County public defender and a Superior Court judge to let him take charge of a defendant and treat him in an alternative-sentencing program, according to an account of the incident published in the National Law Journal.
The defendant, Brito said, was a friend charged with a drug crime.
“I played the role of a psychiatrist, and my friend was able to walk out of jail,” Brito said.
Lied to Priests
Brito’s mother, Mary Esparza, had hoped her son would become a priest. Even his crimes, she believes, were aimed at helping people.
“He helped lots more people than he’s hurt,” she said. “He’s done bad things, but he did it for good, to help the poor.”
Brito, too, said he believes his true calling is as a priest. During the mid-1990s, he lived for several months with an order of Norbertine priests in Albuquerque, telling them he was nearly finished with his seminary training and wished to join their religious order. After trying to call a seminary Brito had said he attended in Mexico, the Norbertines discovered that there was no such seminary and that his transcripts had been falsified. The Norbertines asked him to leave.
He briefly worked as an office manager at a Los Angeles law firm. His stint there ended in January 2002 when he was charged with embezzling $600. He left before he could be arrested.
He surfaced later in the year at the Immaculate Conception Parish in Yuma, Ariz., as Father Federico B. Gomez de Esparza, a Norbertine priest ordained in Mexico. He said his elderly mother lived in the area and needed him nearby.
“He was very persuasive and legitimate-appearing in his role as a priest,” said Fred Allison, a spokesman for the Tucson diocese. “When it comes to liturgy, people will know when you are stumbling around. This guy was pretty slick.”
About a month into his stay, he visited Mexico; when he tried to return, he was detained at the border on the outstanding grand theft warrant involving the $600 he had embezzled in Los Angeles.
He somehow talked his way out of the arrest -- church officials say he convinced border police that it was his twin brother they were really after -- and headed for Phoenix, where he passed himself off as a visiting priest at two parishes, presiding over a funeral, baptisms and quinceaneras and saying Mass.
Father Tom Zurcher, vicar for priests at the Phoenix diocese, said some parishioners “thought he was one of the more devout priests that they had met.”
Then, church officials in Phoenix received a national alert from the Catholic Church warning of Brito’s stint in Tucson and the outstanding warrant for embezzlement and called Los Angeles police. He was returned to Los Angeles in the custody of U.S. marshals and, on July 5, 2002, he was sentenced to 16 months for embezzling from the law firm. He served eight months before being paroled.
“Emotionally and spiritually, he did real damage to people here in Phoenix,” said Father David Sanfilippo, vicar general of the Phoenix diocese. “To find out that it was an impostor celebrating these sacraments was very hurtful.”
Brito said he regrets fooling the Arizona parishioners, but he sees things differently.
“When I worked in the parish, I gave my heart,” he said. “When I spoke at the Masses, they applauded.”
Brito describes himself as “very” religious and dedicated to fulfilling the needs of others. “I probably would have made a great priest, a great elected official, a great human being,” Brito said. “But I screwed it up.”
He said he prays for forgiveness.
“God came to heal sinners, not perfect people, and I am one of them,” he said.
Within three months of getting out of prison for embezzlement, Brito became program director at a youth center called A Place Called Home in South-Central Los Angeles. His new name: Father Federico Brito Gomez de Esparza.
Thyonne Gordon, the center’s executive director, said she fired Brito because of personality conflicts.
A few weeks later, she received a routine fingerprint report that exposed his criminal record.
Gordon said that initially, Brito seemed to be the ideal person for the job. “A lot of people were very upset that I let him go. They felt that he was very much an asset to this place,” Gordon said. "[We] really thought he would be able to work his way up and become the next executive director.”
By September 2003, three months after leaving A Place Called Home, Brito was executive director of the National Kidney Foundation of Southern California.
By December he was gone. The foundation won’t discuss his employment or what name he used.
Next came what Brito said was his favorite nonprofit job, 11 weeks last summer as deputy director at the Western Law Center for Disability Rights near downtown Los Angeles. He used the name Federiqkoe DiBritto III.
“His resume was outstanding,” said Eve Hill, the center’s executive director. “Everything seemed to be in order.”
“He was just energetic and sort of bouncy and a go get ‘em kind of person,” she said. “He set huge goals, he talked very emphatically and very energetically.”
Hill declined to comment on the conditions of Brito’s termination, but she said the center didn’t find out about his criminal record and use of aliases until after he had left.
Lifestyle Takes Toll
Brito said he typically learned of jobs in the nonprofit realm through Internet searches.
“In the interview process, that’s who I am,” Brito said. “There is no acting involved. They get to know me. They get to know my passion.”
And once he landed a job, all focus shifted to holding on.
“I’m focused, focused, focused on my job, and I excel in that,” Brito said. “I’m very, very clear as far as to what I’m doing, why I’m doing it and what my goal is. But in the back of my mind, I know that at any given moment, I could be discovered.”
Living a lie takes a toll, Brito said. “A large amount of it is psyching yourself out to do what you’ve got to do,” Brito said. “It’s exhausting having to play a role. It’s exhausting that I can’t be Fred.”
And “once people find out who I am and that maybe I got the job through deception, that has ruined a lot of friendships. Right now I have zero friends....”
Since losing his UCLA job, Brito said, he has been pensive. “It’s a clear opportunity for me to be Fred now. Maybe this is what I need to do to just be me, to bring all the skeletons out of the closet ... and that is refreshing.”
Meanwhile, there is the future to think about.
“Like a phoenix,” Brito said, “Fred will rise again.”