Friends swindled by fellow Mormon Church member relieved to see justice

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Chicago businessman Carlos Meza, right, leaves Cook County courthouse in Rolling Meadows with defense attorney Fred Dry in 2014. File Photo. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

When FBI agents met with Tom George nearly five years ago to ask him about a $60,000 investment he’d made with Lake in the Hills businessman Carlos Meza, their questions alone were enough to make George realize he was never going to see that money again.

George died the next morning of a stress-induced heart attack at age 57. His last words to his wife Linda were: “I need to talk to Carlos.”

So there was more than a little riding Thursday on the outcome of Meza’s federal fraud trial for Linda George, and when U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo reported the jury had found Meza not guilty on count one, it felt for a moment as if her own heart was seizing up.

Then Bucklo announced that Meza was guilty on the second fraud count, and relief flooded over George and other alleged victims of Meza’s various schemes who had awaited the verdict — many of them former family friends and still fellow church members with Meza in the Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church.

Related: These ‘best friends’ aren’t forever

“I’ll take it. There’s a conviction,” Linda George said outside the courtroom, then immediately dissolved into tears as she embraced one of the other women whose husbands had been duped by Meza.

The federal case against Meza dealt with charges involving only two of the dozens of people who say they were victimized by his various alleged scams.

Sitting in on Thursday’s closing arguments were prosecutors from McHenry County, where Meza is scheduled to soon stand trial on charges he stole thousands of dollars from another couple by pocketing checks intended to help them refinance their mortgage. They lost their home in the process.

Carlos Meza’s 2014 booking photo.

Carlos Meza’s 2014 booking photo.

“The bad guy had consequences. It’s such a relief that we can just kind of put it behind us. The burden is gone,” said Lori Stroh, among those who have doggedly pursued Meza to make it harder for him to sucker others.

I’ve been writing about Meza since he first pleaded guilty in Cook County in 2014 to a misdemeanor for passing bad checks. The charge itself was small potatoes, but I regarded it as an important exercise in what we call “belling the cat.”

A federal fraud conviction is a much louder bell.

Prosecutors Rick Young and Kaitlin Klamann said Meza convinced others to trust him with their funds by falsely portraying himself as a sophisticated investor and multi-millionaire who owned 100 trucks and had millions of dollars stashed in South America that he could use to cover any losses.

Meza portrayed the investments as no-risk deals that he “100 percent personally guaranteed.”

He promised one of his friends that his $250,000 investment (which the man made by raiding his retirement account) would yield $5 million in five $1 million monthly installments starting in just two weeks.

In actuality, Meza was in big financial trouble and knew nothing about the investments he was touting. His image of a being a wealthy man was a complete lie.

How can people be so gullible?

That’s the eternal question in the wake of a swindler, but a good con man like Meza makes the victim think he’s doing them a favor by taking their money.

Meza told his victims he was investing his own money right alongside them, when in fact he was skimming part of their investment to pay personal expenses such as a new condo and car and lawyer fees from previous legal scrapes.

Meza’s attorney, Joshua Kutnick, portrayed his client as just another unwitting victim of a larger investment fraud scheme perpetrated by others.

“Carlos did not know that he was swept into a scheme that was huge, that was bigger than him,” Kutnick told jurors.

“Did he intend to deceive and cheat his friends? The answer is no,” he said.

Kutnick brushed off Meza’s decision to siphon some of the investment money for himself to someone spending the money from an expected Christmas bonus before actually receiving it, so confident that it would materialize.

That may be the first time I’ve heard the Clark Griswold Defense, a la Chevy Chase in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”

Only this was more like Clark spending Cousin Eddie’s Christmas bonus.

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