The people who Carlos Meza allegedly swindled will all tell you how much they liked and trusted him — right up until the point they realized he was never going to return their money.
Meza, 53, of Lake in the Hills, was charged last week in a federal grand jury indictment with defrauding friends and associates out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The federal charges follow an unrelated fraud case brought against Meza in December in McHenry County, where he is accused of stealing thousands of dollars from a married couple by claiming to help them refinance their home mortgage and instead pocketing the money.
In both cases, the alleged victims were befriended by Meza through their membership in the Mormon church.
I first told you about Meza three years ago, shortly after he had been charged in Cook County in connection with writing a $45,000 bad check.
I met many of his accusers in court that day, and the most telling moment was when one of them told me: “He said I was his best friend.”
“No, I’m his best friend,” said another.
“No, I’m his best friend,” chimed in a third.
People forget that the con in “con man” is short for confidence.
A good con man relies on gaining the confidence of his victims, then using that trust to trick them into foolish decisions.
Federal authorities say Meza portrayed himself as a “multi-millionaire” businessman who owned multiple properties in Chicago, 100 road construction trucks and had millions of dollars in South America.
All those statements were false, but help explain how Meza was allegedly able to convince “friends” he was doing them a favor by taking their money.
“He told my husband: ‘I’m only doing this for you. Don’t tell anyone else. I don’t do this for everybody,’ ” Linda George, of Algonquin, told me Tuesday.
What Meza did for Tom George was to take $60,000 of his money with the promise of putting it into a low-risk, high-return investment. George withdrew funds from a retirement account in expectation of paying it back promptly and using the windfall to rescue a failing business venture.
Three years ago this month FBI agents met with Tom and Linda George to interview them about their dealings with Meza.
After the meeting, Tom George was so alarmed about the prospect of losing the money he died the next morning of a stress-induced heart attack, his wife said.
“The last thing he said to me was: ‘I need to talk to Carlos,’ ” she said.
Linda George said Meza “definitely used his friendship” from their relationship through the Mormon church to gain her husband’s trust.
Both families attended a Mormon church in Crystal Lake, as did Randy and Linda Stroh, the McHenry County couple who lost their home after Meza told them he had hired people to assist in refinancing their mortgage.
In announcing the charges in that case, Attorney General Lisa Madigan said Meza arranged for the Strohs to write checks to those individuals. Then Meza took the checks, forged signatures and deposited the money in his personal bank accounts, Madigan said.
Meza has pleaded innocent in that case, which is still pending.
In the federal case, Meza is accused of taking at least $95,500 from his victims that he was supposed to invest on their behalf and instead paying his personal debts and expenses.
Meza plea bargained the earlier Cook County felony charge down to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to probation.
Chicago businessman Andrew Lee, the victim in that case, admits Meza capitalized in part on greed and the lure of easy money.
“We all want to win the lottery, right?” Lee said.
It’s the old story that when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, even if it comes from a trusted “friend.”