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A fugitive makes her way back to Denver.

Five months after Jay Schlaks was sentenced to prison for conning more than 200 people out of $3.2 million in a land-investment scam, his wife and partner in crime, Rebecca Ann Romero, will also face punishment.

Romero returned from a thirteen-year self-imposed exile in New Zealand on May 9 but didn't seem surprised when she was greeted at DIA by the police, says Detective Dennis Chavez, an officer with the airport's narcotics task force. "She kind of gave up," he says. A friend of Chavez's, who works for U.S. Customs, tipped him off after Romero arrived in Los Angeles, where she left her two children with a sister. "She said she knew we'd be waiting for her. She looked pretty drained; she was down to 92 pounds, and she fell asleep in the holding cell."

In 1983, at a time when the economy was sunk, Schlaks placed ads in local newspapers promising tempting returns on investments in development projects in Colorado and New Mexico through his company, First Territorial Mortgage. But the company was nothing more than a front for a Ponzi scheme, and the land in which the mostly middle-aged and elderly people were investing wasn't even suitable for development ("Take the Money and Run," February 3). Nevertheless, Schlaks fooled them for several months by using money from new investors to pay the interest due to others.

Phil Feigin, Colorado's then-deputy securities commissioner, saw the ads and began investigating First Territorial Mortgage. Schlaks and Romero fled to Florida and eventually to New Zealand, where they lived until the Colorado Attorney General's Office extradited Schlaks in January 1999. Upon his return to Denver, Schlaks pleaded guilty to one count of theft and one count of securities fraud; on December 17, 1999, he was sentenced to four years in prison (which was reduced to 34 months for the time he had already served) and twelve years of probation. Schlaks was also ordered to pay his eight surviving victims $306,000 in restitution.

Romero, whom authorities regarded as an accomplice to the scam and who was named as a co-defendant in the case against Schlaks, was stranded in New Zealand. She couldn't apply for residency in New Zealand because of the outstanding warrant for her arrest, nor could she return to the United States without being arrested. She couldn't go to another country, either, because her passport had expired. "She's a woman without a country," Victor Reichman, a senior assistant attorney general, told Westword in an earlier interview. Prosecutors in the attorney general's office were content to leave it that way; after all, they said, they didn't want to go through another international extradition.

Instead, Romero came to them. After Chavez arrested her, he says, he felt sorry for her because of her physical condition and gave her a can of Lipton iced tea. He knew she'd been away from the United States for a long time when she said, "Wow, they make this in a can now?"

Currently in Denver County Jail on $100,000 bond, Romero faces nine felony counts of securities fraud, theft and racketeering. If convicted, she could spend up to twelve years in prison. A trial date has not been set.

 
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