INCOME AT ISSUE
When Kendall Lakes couple Monica Gaviria and Stacy Duthely applied for a loan through Sandkick in January 2004, they declared a combined income of $68,000 a year. She was a hair stylist; he, an "interpreter."
When the loan went through a few months later, the documents showed more than a fivefold increase, to $384,000.
Gaviria said that figure is grossly inflated, but said she knew nothing about the change on her mortgage application until years later when she fell behind on her payments and the bank called her.
She said the bank representative demanded, "What's the problem? You make $17,000 a month."
As the months went by, Valdez began to write more loans for Benn. She started small with an $87,000 loan in May 2004, records show. The next month, her numbers rose to $750,650. By that September, she hit $1 million.
The following year, she went on a tear, breaking the $1 million mark seven times.
Along the way, some borrowers came back for more.
One Sandkick customer, Erica Wright, bought her first house in July 2004, when she was 21. Her loan application said she had been the office manager at Weldon Industries, a Tampa fence manufacturer, for four years. The job paid $40,000 a year.
But when reached by The Miami Herald last month, the company's general manager, Scott Franzen, said, "We've never had anyone here by that name."
In September 2004, Wright bought three more houses using Weldon as the employer, even claiming a big raise to $78,840.
Wright could not be reached for comment. All four properties have fallen into foreclosure, leaving $501,677 in unpaid debt.
While Valdez was flooding Miami-Dade with risky loans, Benn's network drew the attention of state regulators several times.
One of the brokerages doing business with Benn -- Total Mortgage of Tampa -- incurred 10 complaints in just two years.
In four of those cases, state regulators confirmed that the company provided false and misleading information to get loans. The company owner put false data in her own mortgage application in 2004, regulators found.
Instead of pressing for disciplinary action, including suspending or revoking the license, the state closed the cases.
The company kept going, brokering two more loans -- later investigated by police -- that went directly to Benn's chief co-conspirator, Argent banker Sam Green.
Green managed to get two mortgages to buy one home. He used one loan to pay for the property, and illegally pocketed the other, which was worth $79,000, he later admitted to police.
While Benn and Green approved more than half a billion dollars' worth of mortgages during their run at Argent, it was a complaint filed by an elderly Tampa borrower over a disputed loan that drew the attention of police in 2004.
As other borrowers stepped forward with similar complaints, Benn's network slowly unraveled.
Investigators from the humble Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency began to review Argent loan applications and discovered irregularities in the tens of millions of dollars.
One by one, Tampa area brokers pointed the finger at Orson Benn.
Last year, statewide prosecutors charged Benn in Polk County with racketeering. At least seven others have been arrested in the same scheme, including the other Tampa area brokers.
Argent succumbed to the troubles of the subprime market and was bought by Citibank last year.