One day during the summer of 1997, a woman walked into Fremont’s LG Travel to buy a pair of airline tickets to the Philippines. Her name, at least for this article, is Soledad, or “solitude.” She chose that name for herself because the events that unfolded are still a terrible secret she hides from her husband and parents. Her secret digs at her, embarrasses her, cuts her off from the ones she loves most. She doesn’t know how to tell them she lost her life savings to a total stranger.
Soledad was greeted at the travel agency by Nimfa Montes Beredo, a likable woman who goes by the nickname “Patricia.” Like Soledad, Beredo is Filipina; she had come to the United States from the Philippines just two years before. Now 39, Beredo had — and still has — the face of a college student, tiny and cute, with long dark straight hair, full lips, and a snub nose. But to Soledad, she looked every inch the successful businesswoman. She had the well-coifed hair, manicured nails, luxury car, designer outfit and shoes, and expensive gold jewelry. And Beredo’s manner — bubbly, expressive, girlish — made it easy to relax in her presence. Following a pleasant conversation, the travel agent made Soledad an unexpected offer. She had a business plan to buy bulk airline tickets at a discount and resell them at a substantial profit. All she needed was a partner to cover the cost of the tickets. Might Soledad be interested?
A customer-service employee at a high-tech firm, Soledad was enticed by the promise of a 10 percent return in just one month, and felt reassured when Beredo buttered her up in Tagalog, the principal Filipino dialect. “She said, ‘I see you as a good person,'” Soledad remembers. “In our dialect she said she likes me and we can be good business partners.” The agency they were standing in certainly looked legitimate: It had cubicles, computers, and customers. Beredo had a business card identifying her as the manager and her desk was at the very front of the building, which Soledad thought made her look important. In truth, Beredo was simply renting her cubicle from LG Travel’s owners, but Soledad couldn’t have known that. The two kept in contact and, that August, Soledad decided to invest. “I took $10,000 out of my savings,” she recalls. “I gave her a check and right away she gave me $1,000 cash, just right there.”
Ten grand was only the beginning. Beredo kept asking for more. Still without telling her family, Soledad borrowed from her credit union and her 401(k) until she had invested about $60,000. Then Beredo hit her up for something really big — she said she wanted to buy LG Travel, and asked Soledad to take out a $50,000 business loan for its purchase. “She said she cannot take a loan by herself,” Soledad remembers. “She doesn’t have good credit and she’s not a US citizen and I am both.” Moreover, Beredo promised her the loan was temporary — as soon as the travel agent transferred the business into her own name, she would take it over. Soledad agreed, and when Bank of America granted her the money in the name of “LG Travel,” she rolled the entire $50,000 into Beredo’s personal account. “I never even saw the check,” she says.
For the next two years, things seemed to go smoothly. Soledad loaned Beredo more money and received some payments. Sure, Beredo wasn’t paying out quite as much or as frequently as she’d promised, but whenever Soledad asked about it, Beredo always had what seemed like a good excuse. In the meantime, they were becoming friends. Although Beredo was in fact married with two daughters, she told Soledad she was single, childless, and younger than she truly was. The pair would go shopping and out to eat. Beredo confided her boyfriend troubles, called Soledad her best friend, and gave her free airline tickets and gifts like Louis Vuitton purses and roses on her birthday. She would sometimes regale her friend with stories about her high-flying lifestyle, about how she had rented a boat while vacationing in Tahoe, or had taken her friends to the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. “She was a very nice person to be friends with if you don’t know she’s doing all these bad things,” Soledad recalls.
Before long, however, Soledad began picking up some hints that Beredo was up to something very bad indeed. In 1999, Bank of America complained that Beredo had stopped paying off the interest and demanded Soledad repay the loan. When Soledad asked her new friend about it, Beredo admitted to having money problems, but used the opportunity to hit her up for more funds. “She told me that the business of buying LG Travel didn’t go through,” Soledad recalls. “So she told me, ‘I’m going to form another business, and if you can help me form it it’s the only way I can pay you. ‘” Beredo offered to list Soledad’s name as CEO “in name only” on the incorporation papers as a show of good faith. The woman took the bait, and Beredo dubbed the new agency Fremont Cyber International Travel Services. It was in the same office as LG Travel.
The new business didn’t make things any better. Soon there was a letter from the state Employment Development Board asking Soledad why she hadn’t paid any taxes on the business she thought she owned “in name only.” There were calls from people who said they were investors and wanted to know where their money had gone. A mutual acquaintance let it slip that Beredo was actually married, and when Soledad confronted her about it Beredo claimed it was a marriage of convenience and that her children were actually her husband’s. Things were getting confusing and scary as more of Beredo’s investors threatened to hold Soledad responsible. “I was worried,” she remembers. “What’s going to happen? Are they going to put a lien on my property?”
By early 2001, Beredo confided to Soledad that she owed people who’d invested in her airline ticket business a lot of money, that she wasn’t able to make payments, and that the interest was accumulating too quickly. Soledad tried to remain supportive because she didn’t want to jeopardize her chances of getting repaid. She recalls one afternoon when Beredo seemed to break down. “She was telling me, ‘Let’s go to a church. Help me pray,'” she says. They drove around looking for a church, but couldn’t find one that was open.
And anyway, by then it would have been hard to find anyone left in the East Bay’s Filipino community willing to pray for Patricia Beredo. Soledad, it turned out, was just one among many dozens of marks who had together sunk millions of dollars into Beredo’s bogus business. Con artists often play on a common thread they have with their victims. In this case it was a shared Filipino heritage and close community ties that allowed her scam to spread among family members and co-workers, and from one family to the next.
It hit Eugene Mankinen’s family like a virus. Mankinen isn’t Filipino, but his wife and in-laws are. The semiretired electrical engineer from San Jose was brought into the scheme by his unwitting brother-in-law, who had been recruited by his sister-in-law and also had gone on to solicit funds from his mother and sister — at least nine friends and family members eventually invested. It’s this aspect Mankinen finds the most repugnant: “You’ve got sister selling brother on this scam. It’s pretty slick,” he says.
The con followed a formula. The mark would invest after being promised extraordinary returns, receive one or two payments, and excitedly invest more and bring in new victims. Then the checks would start to bounce. Sometimes investors would give Beredo access to their credit cards to cover airline ticket purchases, only to later receive exorbitant bills for personal expenses. When they tried to complain, Beredo would magically slip away. She’d stop taking their calls, and always seemed to be absent when they showed up at her office. Only then it would dawn on them: There was no bulk airline ticket business. All of the trappings used to win their trust — the cars, the suits, the gifts — came straight out of their own pockets.
This is what’s known as a Ponzi scheme, and what makes it illegal is that little or no real commerce is taking place — the money is simply shunted around in such a way that most, if not all, of the investors will lose their shirts. Using the new investors’ cash, the swindler makes modest payouts to prior investors, keeping them in the game; the con artist, meanwhile, takes a substantial cut. It’s the sort of white-collar crime the Internal Revenue Service investigates when it’s not auditing people’s taxes. In fact, at just about the same time Soledad was driving Beredo around looking for a church, the agency’s Criminal Investigations Unit had quietly begun looking into Beredo’s activities.
The feds eventually estimated that Beredo had bilked her victims, mostly East Bay Filipinos, out of $3.1 million, a conservative estimate based on the losses of 27 people the IRS agents used to build their case. But the Fremont police, California Attorney General’s office, and state’s bankruptcy courts documented dozens of additional complaints from Beredo’s targets, some of whom had sold or refinanced their homes, cashed out their stocks, emptied their retirement plans, or depleted their children’s college funds in order to invest.
Official inquiries, however, move at a snail’s pace. When the authorities were slow to respond, the frustrated investors began to find one another and launch investigations of their own. Individually and in small groups, they chipped away at Beredo’s complicated web of financial transactions. Sometimes the sleuthing led to dead ends or left them accusing each another of complicity. But it was ultimately their efforts that got law enforcement agencies to take the case seriously. In the process, they uncovered evidence that would be instrumental in putting their nemesis behind bars. In the end, the very bonds that Beredo exploited to make her con a success would lead to her undoing.
Mankinen was among the first to take a hard look at Beredo’s activities. He started investing in 1998, and for a time things seemed to be going well. “She was paying what she promised,” the engineer recalls. “At first it was 20 percent returns, then it was 10 percent.” He and his wife invested at a feverish pace, together giving Beredo more than $200,000 in just a few months. “I was really getting carried away,” he says, flipping through a stack of Beredo’s worthless promissory notes.
But some things about Beredo and her business didn’t smell right. For instance, Mankinen could never cash her checks without approval from a certain bank teller. Then a few checks bounced. After that, he says, “She would meet us in the parking lot to pay us cash. You’d see a stack of $100 bills. She had a purse full of them — she must have had ten or twenty grand in her purse all the time.” Sometimes Beredo would offer to reinvest Mankinen’s profits. She wouldn’t hand over a dime, but it left him with the impression that he was making money.
The breaking point came after a party at which Beredo introduced Mankinen to her husband, Edgar Beredo, saying that he was an engineer for General Motors. “I tried to talk engineer talk to him and it was clear he was not an engineer,” Mankinen says. “He didn’t have any technical knowledge at all. Zero.” The encounter left him deeply suspicious. He decided to stop investing and asked for his principal back. Initially, Beredo agreed. But each month she would fail to pay, and would lower the interest rate. “She signed an agreement for monthly payments, but she kept rewriting it, until we were down to zero percent. I said, ‘Okay, just give me my money back. I’ll be happy to break even,'” he recalls.
As 1999 dragged on, Mankinen launched a one-man investigation. He started with the luxury cars Beredo drove. He ran a license-plate check and discovered they were all rented. He also found that she was listed at a half-dozen addresses. He wrote to the owners of LG Travel complaining about her tactics, which he claims led to her being given the boot. He printed up “wanted” posters accusing Beredo of fraud. And he got the records for his brother-in-law’s credit cards, which Beredo had been authorized to use to buy plane tickets — instead she’d racked up expenses at beauty salons, clothing stores, luxury hotels, flower shops, fitness centers, and voice coaches.
Finally, Mankinen took his case to the courts. He hired an attorney to represent himself and five family members who had lost a total of $430,000. During the discovery process, Mankinen subpoenaed some of Beredo’s bank records and discovered something that made him wonder if she had an inside accomplice: Her account information contained no Social Security or driver’s license number, and no dates. During the time Mankinen had been her investor, she’d written checks to people he would later come to recognize as fellow victims, as well as to her husband, one of her boyfriends, and herself. “If you look at the bank records, you can see the day she got a check from me she took it to the bank and wrote checks against it,” he says. “There was no check clearing or anything.” He correctly surmised that Beredo was paying out small amounts to her investors to hold them off. “In the meantime, she’s bleeding the account for about five to ten grand a week,” he says.
But the civil suit ultimately went nowhere. Beredo failed to show up for many court appearances, and although the judge ordered her to pay back the $430,000 plus $500,000 in damages, she never did. Mankinen would later share his information with government investigators and fellow victims. But for now, there was little he could do but return to work and try to earn his savings back.
In the grand scope of Patricia Beredo’s activities, Caroline Carrion was small fry. The Hayward accountant, who had met Beredo while buying a plane ticket in 2000, had invested only $10,000. But unlike Soledad, Carrion didn’t keep her loss a secret. “When I want something done, I’m just basically a go-getter,” she says. “I’m focused. I felt that she shouldn’t be able to get away with this.”
After Beredo failed to repay her, Carrion took her case to the Fremont police, as others had before her. The investigators duly recorded the complaint, but claimed they didn’t have enough evidence to make an arrest. Many potential fraud cases are stymied by the difficulty of drawing a clear line between a legitimate investment that went bad and a genuine scam — investigators need to show deliberate malfeasance to get the district attorney’s office to prosecute. “It was a dead end,” Carrion remembers. “The police couldn’t move forward because you need proof.”
But Carrion didn’t stop there. On a trip to the Philippines, she inquired with that country’s National Bureau of Investigation to see if Beredo had a record. It was a clever impulse, but ultimately fruitless, since Carrion didn’t know what city Beredo was from or whether she’d used another name back home. She returned empty-handed, but still determined.
Back at Beredo’s office, the con woman stonewalled her. “She was giving me attitude and shouting at me and banging the phone, and she really pissed me off,” Carrion recalls. So, in a moment of pique, Carrion spirited the receptionist’s phone message log off the desk and copied down all of the names and numbers she found there. At home, she called everyone on the list, and discovered other angry investors to whom Baredo owed money. Carrion’s idea was that they would share their stories, piece together the scam’s common elements, and present their case to the authorities en masse. “If you go as a group, perhaps it will have an impact on the police,” she figured.
The newfound five-member alliance first met to compare horror stories in a Denny’s restaurant, and later at people’s homes. At first it was mostly women, including Soledad and a Fremont woman, who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Christine Day. Day had invested $20,000 and Beredo charged another $25,000 to her credit card. “She always targeted women and told them not to tell their husbands, so that the women would be scared and not make a big thing out of it if they lost the money,” she says.
The women wanted to close the net on Beredo. Not knowing where to start, they tried the media. They mailed a letter to Fox affiliate KTVU, Channel 2, as well as “7 on Your Side,” a consumer segment on KGO-TV, Channel 7. No luck. “They said they didn’t have the manpower to do an investigation,” Day says. They also filed reports with the Fremont Police Department, and with the state Attorney General’s Seller of Travel Program, which regulates travel agencies.
Although they found comfort in numbers, members of the anti-Beredo club were dispirited when they realized how large her debt truly was. As new members joined, each member’s chance of being repaid seemed to diminish. They began to feel that hiring a lawyer would just be throwing good money after bad. Then, in 2001, Beredo filed for bankruptcy, giving her victims a new way to confront her. The court appointed a trustee to examine her assets, which were to be liquidated and distributed to creditors. And the creditors were allowed to publicly question Beredo about where their money had gone, which led to heated interrogations by her victims.
None of them, however, got anything from Beredo but a “doey-eyed” look, according to Tevis Thompson, the court trustee. “We asked her about her receipts, her bills, her canceled checks — anything that would really show some trail of where money might have gone — and she would look at us with this strange, confused look and say ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t know much about business,'” he recalls. “She wouldn’t understand what a check was, what ‘income’ or ‘expense’ was. It was very frustrating.”
If Beredo had money, she kept it well hidden. The fancy cars, as Mankinen had previously discovered, turned out to be leased. An upscale house had been rented, not owned. “There was an evidence of high living,” Thompson says, “which doesn’t translate into assets, personal property.” Likewise, an attorney hired by the courts to research Beredo’s financial holdings came up empty-handed. “If all this money was flying around, where did it go?” Thompson asks. “There was no real answer to that. [Beredo] just kind of said it was gone.”
Dissatisfied with the way the hearings were going, Christine Day decided to launch her own sting. In bankruptcy, the debtor must shutter the failed business. Day was convinced Beredo had simply closed one office and started a new one, a Fremont agency called Travel Unlimited. To prove it, she walked into the office and pretended to price tickets. She asked the man at the front desk to write down his boss’ name. It was “Patricia Beredo.” Then the phone rang, and Beredo herself was on the line; Day asked her about tickets and was quoted a rate. Now convinced, Day obtained a copy of the agency’s business registration from the city. Her hunch had been correct. “She had mentioned in the bankruptcy papers that she wasn’t an employee for Travel Unlimited, and in the business registration she was employee number one,” Day exclaims. “She was lying under oath!”
Day produced this new evidence in the midst of a questioning session, handing over the incriminating papers to Thompson and provoking quite a reaction. “Oh, everybody was shocked,” Day recalls. The revelation indicated that Beredo was hiding her assets from the court. “It seemed to us that she’d taken all the assets — furniture and fixtures — and moved it to another spot and called it a different name and was working under someone else’s travel license because hers didn’t work anymore,” Thompson says.
The court, however, could find little else that Beredo owned. In the end, it distributed a mere $21,350 to her creditors — and most of that came by way of her attorney forgoing his fees. Despite the victims’ court attendance and all the reports they’d submitted to the authorities, they felt ignored. “We thought that nothing is happening,” Carrion says. “When we would follow up with the police and Seller of Travel office, they would say there is something working out but we cannot divulge what is going on. It was frustrating.”
Discouraged, the group gave up.
What the victims’ alliance didn’t know was that the Fremont cops and state Attorney General’s office, which had initiated a civil investigation, had taken their complaints seriously enough to quietly pass along the case to the IRS. Indeed, Thompson had been about to get a court order that would have forced Beredo to turn over more evidence, but was told to back off and let the feds take over.
The tax cops, after all, had the tools to scrutinize Beredo’s financial history, and they wanted this case. “The IRS doesn’t often get a chance to be the good guy,” says spokesman Mark Lessler. “We have a lot of cases where the government is largely the only identifiable victim. But in this case you had victims who were living, breathing people who lost in some cases their life savings.”
Special Agent Cecilia Braga, a soft-spoken and tenacious Filipina investigator, was put in charge of the case, which would take nearly two years to complete. She immediately recognized Beredo’s business as a Ponzi scheme, and saw how she was taking advantage of her targets’ ethnic background. “I know that when Filipinos do immigrate to the United States, it’s always scary,” she says. “You’re in a new country and you’re a little bit skeptical of other races, because in your homeland everybody was pretty much Filipino. They tend to trust more people from their own ethnicity.”
Braga’s investigation didn’t turn up much about Beredo’s past. According to court documents, her parents had died and she’d been raised by an aunt and uncle. She came to the United States in 1995 and was allowed a temporary stay thanks to her husband’s employment here, but she had overstayed her legal welcome. In the States, Beredo created quite a paper trail. Braga uncovered at least 29 bank accounts and six different travel agencies — many registered in the victims’ names — linked to the con woman. If trouble arose at one office, Beredo would simply open a new one. These offices did some legitimate ticket sales, but their real purpose, apparently, was as a setting to attract new marks.
Beredo had boasted to potential investors that she had ticket-buying agreements with many of the Bay Area’s biggest companies — Applied Materials, Boeing, Bechtel, Oracle, the Oakland Raiders — as well as a dozen major air carriers, claims Braga found to be false. “There were no contracts whatsoever,” she says.
The agent also conducted weekly trash runs at Beredo’s house to learn how she was spending her money. Sifting through coffee grounds and banana peels, Braga collected $60,000 in receipts for shops such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. “The cash receipts of her shopping habits were astonishing,” she recalls. Through her rubbish recon, Braga also stumbled upon a crucial piece of information: Beredo was a fugitive from the Philippine justice system.
This discovery, in fact, was first made by two of Beredo’s victims who still lived in the Philippines, a husband and wife named Jun Arcilla and Jovina Obiacoro. In an attempt to pressure the con artist to return their money, the couple had faxed Beredo court documents showing that she had been charged with estafa (check fraud) in 1995; she’d fled the Philippines shortly thereafter and was convicted in absentia in 1996. If they didn’t get their money back, the couple threatened, they would alert US authorities. Beredo simply tossed the incriminating fax in the trash, where Braga recovered it. In a circuitous fashion, Arcilla and Obiacoro had achieved their goal.
To really prove Beredo’s guilt, Braga had to catch the swindler red-handed. So in December 2001, the IRS sent in an undercover agent wearing a wire. One of Beredo’s victims agreed to introduce the agent as a “rich and frugal” friend who wanted to buy tickets to the Philippines. Sure enough, Beredo made her usual pitch. The agent invested $5,000, and was promised a 10 percent return in four days. There was no payout. In January, the IRS sent him back with another $5,000. Again, Beredo didn’t pay. The agent continued to demand repayment until May 2002. “We have to give her enough time, give her plenty of opportunity to do the right thing if this was a legitimate investment,” Braga explains. It was a delicate choice: Braga knew the longer the operation took, the more victims Beredo would snag. And she’d gotten better at it than ever.
By 2002, Beredo had left trails of sorrow through nearly every city in southern Alameda County, as well as San Jose, South San Francisco, and even Southern California. Nobody had a better view of the scam than Rosemarie de Vora, whom Beredo had hired to run a Fremont office she dubbed World Destiny Travel.
De Vora doesn’t speak Tagalog, and she thinks Beredo hired her because she couldn’t eavesdrop on the parade of upset people coming into the office. But de Vora was no fool. She quickly realized that Beredo knew little about running a business. “She never paid her bills; she did not know how to set up a ledger for bill-paying; she never kept track of ingoing or outgoing checks; there was no record for taxes,” she says.
As Mankinen had, de Vora saw things that aroused her suspicion, such as Beredo’s tendency to deal in cash. “She said Filipinos don’t like to pay checks,” the office manager recalls. Beredo also claimed she ran a string of travel agencies, but de Vora couldn’t find their phone numbers listed anywhere. And the boss would frequently call herself “Maria De Guzman,” particularly when dealing with the landlord. “She would lie about things she had no reason to lie about, like what she was wearing or what time she came into the office,” de Vora says. “I’ve never met anybody who was that adept at lying.”
Or at shopping. De Vora took phone calls from Beredo’s personal shoppers and booked her hotel reservations. “She must have spent $4,000 or $5,000 a month on clothes, minimum,” she says. “She had her hair done just about every day.” She’d also visited Beredo’s three-bedroom home in Fremont, decorated with designer furniture that had been purchased in layouts straight off the showroom floor.
Then there was Beredo’s whirlwind romance with an American named David Grech, a manager for an auto insurance company. They married in early 2003 after knowing each other only a short while. De Vora recalls that around the time of the wedding, Beredo had been asking her questions about whether marrying somebody meant she’d get a new Social Security number, or if Grech would still be obliged to pay alimony to his ex-wife if he remarried.
Unbeknown to her betrothed, Beredo was still married to Edgar Beredo. Grech, who has since annulled the union, is reluctant to say much, except that it lasted less than a month and he now believes she married him to get her citizenship. During their marriage, he knew nothing of her investment scheme or her victims. “I’m sure I was just one sucker of a different version along the way,” he says.
For de Vora, the final straw was seeing what looked like Beredo’s distinctive handwriting on checks belonging to other people. “It was a bad feeling; to me, it looked like she was forging checks,” de Vora says. So she began keeping a file of copies of documents that looked suspicious to her, just in case they would come in handy later.
Beredo’s ploy had her flying high for at least five years, but the endgame was approaching. As angry investors pulled out and spread the word to other potential targets, the con began to lose its momentum. “That’s probably what brings down the Ponzi scheme,” Braga says. “It slows down the incoming money, and then no one gets paid.” Beredo had approached three final sets of victims, who would provide the final evidence the feds needed to finally make an arrest.
It turned out Beredo’s alias belonged to a real Maria De Guzman, who worked at a Mercedes dealership in Fremont. They’d met when Beredo had come into the dealership to ask about buying an E-Class, and then pitched her usual deal.
De Guzman invested $20,000 with Beredo, who returned two weeks later and used what De Guzman now suspects was her own money to put a down payment on the car. At Beredo’s urging, De Guzman continued to invest, and in less than two months was in it for $80,000. “She works pretty fast,” De Guzman recalls. “She likes to take money from people right away, because sooner or later you’re gonna figure out what she does.”
Beredo played the same game as she had with Soledad, going out of her way to befriend De Guzman. The con woman gave her gifts and took her to expensive restaurants. And, much as she had with Soledad, Beredo registered her World Destiny Travel under De Guzman’s name as a show of good faith.
But the saleswoman quickly grew wary. Weird things kept happening; once, when Beredo called her at home, De Guzman’s own name showed up on the caller ID. Beredo, she realized, had put her phone bill in De Guzman’s name. De Guzman had authorized Beredo to use half a dozen of her credit cards for ticket purchases — instead she ran up about $125,000 at places such as Nordstrom, Louis Vuitton, and Macy’s. Meanwhile, she began missing payments on the new Mercedes. Then, out of the blue, De Guzman received a phone call from Jun Arcilla, who had seen her name on an American Express bill at Beredo’s house, and warned her to have nothing to do with Beredo.
Like Soledad, De Guzman remained friendly in an attempt to recover her investment. Shortly after she became disillusioned, however, she was contacted by Braga. De Guzman shared her story with the agent, then helped the investigators draw up an interior map of Beredo’s house in preparation for an upcoming raid.
Beredo, meanwhile, had moved in on her last known victims, the Abads and the Carandangs, both Fremont couples. The Abads were approached by Beredo at a birthday party — they both had daughters at the same elementary school. Ferdinand Abad, a kitchen supervisor at a nursing home, and his wife Donna had eagerly invested $400,000, hoping to use the profits to finance an addition to their house. Ferdinand even helped out at World Destiny Travel, delivering legitimate plane tickets to customers.
The charming con woman then hit up Henry and Nenita Carandang, who run a real-estate business, as they were eating in a restaurant. They ultimately invested almost $120,000, and agreed to rent her a cubicle in their Hayward office for a new travel agency Beredo said she planned to open. Beredo decorated the cubicle with model airplanes and posters advertising trips to the Philippines, Africa, and Mexico, but never officially opened for business.
As usual, Beredo greased her new marks with gifts such as free airline and football tickets. The two families didn’t know each other at the time, but later discovered that they had in essence paid for one another’s treats. “She’d be giving you gifts using your own money,” Henry Carandang sighs. “It’s like you are being cooked in your own oil.” Nenita Carandang says everything had seemed so promising that she’d been on the verge of telling her siblings to join Beredo’s investment deal.
Then Ferdinand Abad made a troubling discovery. Beredo had loaned him the Mercedes to deliver tickets. She’d previously told him the car was a bonus from Philippine Airlines for being such a great saleswoman, but when he opened the glove box, he found the sales papers from De Guzman’s dealership. It was clear the car was not a gift. Then came the bounced checks, outrageous credit card bills, and elusive behavior.
Abad knew that Beredo was cheating him and thought she had an accomplice — Maria De Guzman. After all, World Destiny Travel was rented in her name, and her name was on the Mercedes documents. He strode, fuming, into De Guzman’s dealership, where he accused her of being Beredo’s partner. The two quickly realized they were victims of the same scam, and De Guzman told him everything she knew. Abad promptly went to the Fremont police authorities — he figures that the evidence he provided must have been decisive, because the very next day the IRS arrested Beredo at home and raided her office.
“I went into the office at 8:30 to open it up,” de Vora recalls. “Five minutes later, there is a knock on the door and six armed FBI and IRS agents in flak jackets walked through the door. The first thing they said is ‘Are there any guns here?’ The look on my face must have said everything, because they said, ‘It’s okay, calm down.'” As soon as de Vora caught her breath, she handed over the stack of evidence she’d carefully saved.
The con was finally over.
The next time any of Beredo’s enemies saw her was at the federal courthouse in Oakland. The proceedings stretched on for a year, as her public defender sorted through sixty boxes of evidence and Beredo cooled her heels at Santa Rita Jail. In person, Beredo seems much younger than her booking photo, which shows a middle-aged woman with puffy eyes and a haggard look. Her face has filled out. Her dark hair, peroxided a brassy orange at the start of her incarceration, has grown out and is now only yellow at the tips. In court, she wore her bright-yellow prison-issue jumpsuit and denim jacket with the sleeves jauntily rolled up to the elbows, and her hair in French braids or perky little ponytails atop her head. Her behavior was girlish and demure. When she entered the courtroom, she would peer eagerly and shyly at the gallery, as if to see who had come to her surprise party.
Many had. Agent Braga and several of Beredo’s victims could frequently be spotted in the audience. Some of the onlookers were there simply to gawk, others to see justice carried out. At Beredo’s bail hearing, Henry Carandang remembers overhearing her tell her attorney that the audience was really there to urge her release so she could issue them their airline tickets. Carandang was so outraged he burst out yelling. “I couldn’t control myself,” he remembers. “I just stood up, and said, ‘No, Your Honor! We are here not to ask for her release! We are victims!'” Judge Wayne Brazil later remarked that in his more than eighteen years on the bench, he had never seen a courtroom full of people assemble to demand that he keep someone in jail. He called Beredo a “relentless liar” who seemed “incapable of honesty” and had “quite a facility with fake documents.” If released, the judge reasoned, Beredo could easily con a new investor, get some money quickly, then “write her own passport and her own airplane ticket and she’s gone. To anywhere! Tahiti! Iceland!” With that, he denied her bail.
Beredo pled guilty on all counts — which included charges of money laundering, credit card fraud, and wire fraud. At her sentencing last month, the con woman mostly remained quiet. She offered a few words of apology and meekly accepted her prison term of 57 months, which will likely be followed by deportation to serve time for her offenses in the Philippines. Public defender Joyce Leavitt would say only this on behalf of her client: “Ms. Beredo has made some bad decisions and I know she deeply regrets what she’s done.”
Her victims doubt it. “She will do it again,” Nenita Carandang says firmly. “That’s all she knows how to do.” Just as bad, they say, maybe she’ll just retire on their money. “In the Philippines there is really no justice like here in the United States. She can get away with a lot over there,” De Guzman says. “Maybe all the money she took from people is there, so she can really have a good life over there.”
Nobody, after all, can figure out where the money went. The judge ordered Beredo to pay $2.5 million in restitution, but the IRS dredged up only $17,000 to be divided among the victims. After all of their efforts, most of Beredo’s investors will reclaim only a few hundred dollars. Not only that, many now must contend with damaged credit, delinquent loans, bills their credit card companies won’t forgive, and higher mortgage payments. Even the IRS lost the $10,000 it sent in with the undercover agent.
Some of the money was clearly cycled from one victim to the next as part of the scam. And some went to pay for Beredo’s lifestyle. As for the rest, the victims have their theories: Beredo sent the cash back to the Philippines with her husband, who flew there with their children shortly after her arrest; or perhaps she salted it away in trust accounts for her daughters. Maybe she had an accomplice who worked at a bank who hid it in a secret account for her; then again, she might have gambled it away during frequent trips to Las Vegas and Reno.
The most popular theory, however, is that she simply spent it all. As de Vora puts it, despite Beredo’s illusion of wealth, “she lived from day to day, week to week. She was always on the search for one dime to cover the next dime. There is no cache of money.”
Special Agent Braga says she hopes the victims will find solace in knowing Beredo can’t continue her scam; the Beredo-investigation clubs have now morphed into something more like support groups. “I guess it’s part of the healing process to be in touch with each other and have some type of closure,” Braga says.
The Carandangs and Abads, now friends, are considering a civil suit, not that it would get them anything. The Carandangs still keep Beredo’s cubicle in their office as a sort of tongue-in-cheek memorial to their loss. But Henry Carandang concedes that what they all really need to do is move on. “If you don’t go back to your normal life,” he says, “you’ll go crazy.”
There are some victims who believe Beredo is actually crazy, a compulsive liar with no conscience or empathy. Others think that she is simply very, very clever. Regardless, she remains something of a contradiction, a woman who lived at the center of a vast network of people and yet was so totally alone — as she is now.
On a late April morning, Beredo gets out of her cell for a jailhouse interview deep in a wing of Santa Rita that is painted a garish pink. She is reluctant to discuss certain topics without first consulting her lawyer, but she’s clearly happy to have some company and chat about the less controversial aspects of her life. She boasts of having graduated with honors in communications at Far Eastern University, and says she worked as a television newscaster and then as a flight attendant for Philippine Airlines. She’s never been in trouble with the law before, Beredo adds. Given this bit of fiction, you can take the rest with a grain of salt.
Beredo claims she’d planned to pay investors back eventually, but they were too skittish. “Probably the bad thing I did is all my investors are not businesspeople,” she says. “They are not used to taking risks. They’re not really investors, so I don’t blame them.” It is counterproductive for her to be in jail, she says, when she could be out earning back people’s money. “I told them, which do you want, to see me in jail or for me to continue working?” she says.
When she does get out, she says, she hopes to go into publishing or advertising. Her dream, she notes, has always been to work for an advertising agency — she wants to be someone else’s employee now. No more running her own business. “I always have Plan A and Plan B,” she says. “I know for sure that I have something to look forward to.” She seems oblivious to the fact that she’ll likely be sent to serve more time in the Philippines.
Does she have anything to say to her investors? “I am deeply distressed and so very sorry for my actions, and I hope they can find it in their hearts to forgive me,” Beredo replies in a contrite tone. “I can assure them I have learned greatly and can live up to my full potential after this experience.”
Time’s up, and a guard comes to return Beredo to her cell. With the same sincere tone, she promises to confer with her attorney and then call the next morning to discuss the more intricate details of her investment scheme.
The next morning I wait by the phone. There is no call. There will never be a call. Even behind the electronically gated walls of Santa Rita, Beredo has slipped away once again. Like so many of her victims, I am left waiting for a payout that never comes.