Alleged swindler leveraged gang ties, officials say

Times Staff Writer

To those who met him, Tony Nava Jr. exuded success. He was a Realtor who drove fancy cars and boasted of owning one of the most expensive houses in Montebello.

Los Angeles County prosecutors say Nava was a swindler who preyed on people in working-class neighborhoods. They charged Nava with defrauding as many as 80 people -- from housekeepers to a stand-up comedian -- of about $2.6 million.

When "investors" got suspicious, they rarely complained. Why? Because Nava made it clear that he had connections to the Mongols biker gang, according to prosecutors.

Now, Nava, 42, is about to go on trial in a case that reads like a gangster novel, including a shootout with L.A. County sheriff's deputies that left his brother -- a Mongol -- dead.

Investigators are still looking for defrauded investors, and trying to determine whether Nava funneled some proceeds to the gang.

Nava has pleaded not guilty to 86 counts of securities fraud. His attorney did not return calls seeking comment.

Deputy Dist. Atty. David Berger said Nava told people that by investing large amounts of money with him, they would see big returns.

Adrian Ramirez, 30, one of Nava's alleged victims, said he, his parents and grandmother gave Nava more than $200,000.

Ramirez said he met Nava about four years ago while taking real estate classes at a realty company in Monterey Park.

Ramirez said initial investors like himself would bring in additional investors, often family members.

"He told me he was forming a real estate team and wanted young guys who were not tainted by the real estate industry yet," Ramirez said, adding that Nava complimented him for wearing a suit. "He appealed to my ego."

The alleged scheme involved persuading people to invest in "hard-money" loans -- high- interest loans to people who couldn't borrow from banks. In the beginning, Ramirez said, Nava offered returns on the investments, which were not large.

Soon the investments grew. From 2004 to March 2006, 12 people alone invested more than $780,000 with Nava, prosecutors said.

"My father put up about $150,000 from a line of credit off his house," Ramirez said. "I have a very trusting family. They're not business-oriented at all."

In some cases, family members gave more than $350,000 to Nava, always in cash, Berger said.

"One day he bought a Lincoln Navigator, the big ... extended one," Ramirez said. "It didn't dawn on us right away that we just gave him all this money, and he goes out and gets a Lincoln Navigator."

Eventually, people began to get suspicious because they were not receiving investment returns from Nava, Berger said. But he said initially they declined to go to authorities because Nava made it no secret that his brother, Art Nava, was a leader of the Mongols gang.

"Nava presented his brother as a stockbroker by day and Mongol by night," Ramirez said. "He was telling us about his brother the Mongol about the time the money was coming due."

In March 2006, Nava stopped answering his cellphone and disappeared, according to court records. He checked into the Hilton Garden Inn in Montebello. While there, Berger said, he persuaded some of the hotel staff and guests to give him cash for investments.

Then, on Nov. 6, Nava's brother was killed during a shootout with sheriff's deputies in East Los Angeles after a domestic violence call.

With his brother dead, some of the people who gave money to Nava began earlier this year to approach prosecutors and the Montebello Police Department.

But Art Nava's death also led Tony Nava Jr. to make a fateful decision, Berger said.

"He had to get himself protection," he said, which meant solidifying his connection to the Mongols gang.

On March 24, Nava was driving a new BMW 745i in the West Covina area when he suddenly got out of the car and hopped into a friend's Chevrolet Tahoe.

A short distance away, the Tahoe was stopped by deputies and Nava was arrested on a $2.5-million arrest warrant. Inside the Tahoe, investigators found a black leather vest with the colors and badge of the Outlaw Mongols, and in one of the pockets, a loaded .45-caliber Colt handgun, court records show.

"You can't wear that badge unless you are a member of that gang," Berger said during a bail hearing. "Otherwise, you will be killed."

While Nava was in custody, Berger said investigators discovered recent tattoos on his arms indicating his membership in the Mongols. Nava faces an additional charge of being an alleged gang member in possession of a gun.

Inside the abandoned BMW, investigators said they found ammunition for the gun, as well as a leather briefcase filled with about 70 "investment agreements."

Berger said investigators are trying to find the people named in the agreements. The forms suggest that these people -- assuming they exist -- gave Nava about $1.6 million.

Nava has changed attorneys, but his onetime lawyer, Attilio M. Regolo Jr., in court described Nava as no threat. Regolo did not return phone calls seeking comment. Neither did Nava's subsequent attorney.

On May 9, Nava was released on $1.3-million bail. The bail was posted by George Aguirre, an admitted Mongol, Berger said, who invested more than $167,000 with Nava. In court, Berger argued that the bail was "feloniously obtained." But a court commissioner said there was no proof of that.

Aguirre declined to comment, and Nava could not be reached for comment.

Berger said that many mysteries remain in the case. A preliminary hearing is set for July 18. Investigators are still trying to locate other people who appear to have given Nava money.

The prosecutor said he also wonders whether Nava funneled money to the biker gang. None of the money has been found, Berger said.

"That might explain his very rapid acceptance into a gang that has historically been very hard to join," he said.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Montebello police at (323) 887-1249.

Ramirez said he is doubtful he will ever get his family's money back. He said he has not told his parents that the money is gone. He has been working seven days a week, 12 hours a day to pay his father's mortgage.

"I'll probably be doing this for the next 10 years," Ramirez said. "Nava was a great manipulator. I learned a lot from him from being scammed."

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Buyer beware

Tips for avoiding real estate fraud:

* Know what you are signing.

* Have an attorney or neutral counselor explain documents.

* Avoid pressure to sign anything quickly without reviewing it.

* Never sign blank documents or those with missing details.

* Understand promised mortgage terms and check them against actual documents.

* Check references of real estate professionals.

* Conduct business only in an office or bank.

* Beware of businesspeople who are "mobile" with no office.

* Beware of telephone solicitations.

* Check comparable home sales in area.

* Review ownership history of a property.

* Beware of promises of outrageous profits.

Common types of real estate fraud:

* Home improvement scams, which involve real estate professionals getting loans in the name of fictitious borrowers, or in the name of people unaware that their identities are being used.

* Equity fraud, which occurs when a person forges a property owner's signature on a deed and equity in the property is stolen through loans taken out against the targeted property.

* Fraudulent flipping, which involves buying property and reselling it at an inflated price based on fraudulent appraisal values.

* Fraudulent loan origination, in which real estate professionals help unqualified buyers obtain funds for Federal Housing Administration-insured mortgages.

* Equity skimming, in which an owner sells his property to a bogus buyer at a price well above its actual value.

Sources: Orange County clerk-recorder's office; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; Modesto Bee

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