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The Maryland couple thought they’d found a steal.

The Honda Odyssey minivan they’d seen advertised in the Baltimore Sun classifieds was in fantastic shape. It was just 3 years old, fully loaded by soccer-mom standards, with relatively low mileage and hardly a scratch on it. The Blue Book would have valued the family ride at around $20,000, but the guy was asking only $12,500. And the price was negotiable, to boot.

The deal seemed so good that the couple probably would have been more suspicious if the seller hadn’t been so charming. He called himself Peter James, and he did them the courtesy of bringing the van out for a test drive near the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore. “He was chitchatting for a half-hour while we looked at it,” recalls the husband, who asked that he and his wife not be named. “He was very nice, very professional.” James seemed harmless enough, an affable, graying businessman in his 60s. He wore a nice suit. He said he’d just come from a game at Camden Yards, where his wife worked with the Orioles’ corporate office as a consultant. For any question the couple asked about the van, he had a quick answer.

The van performed perfectly well on the test drive, but James tried to sweeten the deal anyway: If the couple would pay him in cash, as his accountant recommended, James would be willing to knock the price down to $10,500.

They said they’d take it.

The wife worked in a bank, and she knew to be careful when handing over a pile of cash to a stranger. She had asked to see James’ license, which he produced for her, and she even had him sign his name on a piece of paper so she could make sure it was a match.

On May 9, 2004, her husband took a few thousand dollars out of his account and pooled the remainder of the 10 grand from his brother and father. At his Baltimore County home, he handed James the money in exchange for a District of Columbia auto title, a notarized bill of sale, and a fresh set of keys to the van. Both parties satisfied, the husband offered to give James a lift to the nearby Bennigan’s, where James said he was meeting his family.

But once her husband and James were on the road, the wife noticed something amiss with the title. When she held it up to the light, she saw that a name appeared to be whited out. On top of the white patch was the name Peter James.

She called her husband on his cell phone to tell him it was a scam, to tell him not to let James out of his sight. But her husband had left his phone at home and never got the message. Within minutes, Peter James was gone, and so was their $10,500. When they called the police, the cops told them what they had suspected: that the van had been stolen. It had been reported missing a week earlier, in Northwest Washington.

Peter James wasn’t who he claimed to be. In reality, he was Manuel Lopez, a then-64-year-old legitimate-businessman-turned-con-man from the District, who had probably met up with the Baltimore County couple only because they sounded Indian. Lopez had been reselling stolen cars to non-natives for months.

But as good a salesman as he was, Lopez merely served as someone else’s lackey. He was one of several pawns used in a sophisticated car-theft scheme allegedly orchestrated by Richard Lafontant, a 36-year-old D.C. native who’s now being held in jail in Maryland.

Through a scam that was part larceny, part document fraud, and part play-acting, Lafontant allegedly managed to lift roughly $300,000 worth of late-model sedans, SUVs, and minivans off Washington-area streets and resell them to unsuspecting auto shoppers. The scam bore many touches of criminal innovation, perhaps the most impressive of which was Lafontant’s apparent ability to pluck vehicles off the street without marring their windows or doors. The cars he allegedly stole showed none of the typical signs of auto theft, and they were in perfectly good condition for resale.

Lafontant was arrested at least three times on auto-theft-related charges over the course of two years, and each time, either the charges were dropped or he was given a suspended jail sentence and set free. The D.C.-area courts treated Lafontant’s transgressions as if they were isolated thefts rather than part of a widespread and lucrative scheme that stretched from western Virginia to Baltimore. In the end, he allegedly bilked mostly working-class families—almost all of them born outside the United States—out of over $120,000 in cash.

“There were three or four levels of fiction to go through,” says Sean Bryson, a former Arlington County detective who worked the case. And yet for all its technical savvy and con artistry, Lafontant’s scheme ultimately relied on a basic fact of life in ethnically diverse Washington: that many immigrants are willing to pay for their necessities—even those as expensive as cars—with cash.

***

Lafontant’s apparent victims often use the word “nice” when they describe him and his alleged co-conspirators. Squat, broad-shouldered, and nearly bald-pated, Lafontant is a genial former boxer with thick forearms and a trim beard. His chatty style undermines his intimidating build.

When Neda Tavafi inquired about a Nissan Altima advertised in the Washington Post in June 2003, the man who answered the phone, who called himself “Mike,” came off as a religious, family-minded kind of guy. It was Father’s Day, and Mike talked about heading to church with the family and having a holiday dinner to honor his dad. He asked Tavafi and her husband to meet him at his condo in the city. Mike never showed; instead, Tavafi was shown the Altima by a woman who said she was Mike’s sister.

After going for a test drive, Tavafi and her husband, who live in Woodbridge, offered the woman $4,000 for the Altima. The woman chatted with Mike on the phone as they all worked out the finer points. She made a purported trip to her mother’s house for the title, and the two parties completed their deal. As they were parting ways, the woman invited Tavafi and her husband to come back to her house for dinner. Tavafi politely declined, impressed by the generous offer. When Tavafi took her new car to a Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles office the following Monday, the clerk looked at her computer in shock.

“‘Oh my god,’” Tavafi remembers the clerk saying. “‘This car’s been stolen.’”

Tavafi went home and called Mike’s number. It was no longer in service.

“I guess he knew we were foreigners and thought we were stupid,” says Tavafi, who is from Iran.

Police now know of at least two women whom Lafontant enlisted to help him sell cars. In early 2003, his most prolific hired actor may have been Genevieve Farley. Lafontant apparently met her on the D.C. streets in January of the same year. According to Farley, Lafontant told her he was helping car owners make their rides disappear so that they could collect insurance money. Lafontant said she could do some work for him: He needed a name to put the cars under, and he could use an extra face when he was meeting with buyers. “I wanted the money,” says Farley. “I had no idea the cars were stolen. I figured he had this gimmick to hurry up and sell cars.” She assumed no one got hurt: The owners got their insurance money; the buyers got good deals on decent cars.

Lafontant tracked down Farley whenever he needed her. Two months before Tavafi bought her Nissan, the pair allegedly sold a stolen minivan to a couple in Virginia’s Shenandoah County for $11,000 in cash. Three weeks before that, they may have been forced to abort a $10,000 deal with a Middle Eastern man for a stolen Toyota Sienna in Prince George’s County, according to a police report: The man had asked Farley and her accomplice, “Christopher,” to come to the DMV to verify the title.

Lafontant seemed to revel in his act. According to the victims in rural Virginia, he had walked their five acres in the valley, taking in the mountain air, remarking that he could get used to life in the country. He brought them complimentary wine and doughnuts and talked about his job hobnobbing with Wizards players at the MCI Center. “He just loved it out here, he said. He thought he might come back and visit,” says Catherine “Kitty” Howard, one of the victims. Farley proved herself to be an able sidekick; the 54-year-old had outfitted herself with a walker to play Lafontant’s sickly old aunt in Shenandoah County. “[Lafontant] said the best way to sell a car would be to have the person have sympathy for you,” says Farley. “I was his aunt, and he did all the negotiating.”

Howard hit it off with Farley. The two talked about God and religion, and Howard felt comfortable enough to give a seemingly grateful Farley one of her copies of the Bible.

Farley was expendable, too. Recently released from prison, she says she was getting just a hundred dollars a pop on their deals. (Her rap sheet includes drug charges.) The problem was that she came with an inherently brief shelf life, given that Lafontant had her using her real name on the titles.

Hopping between jurisdictions to make his sales initially helped to keep investigators off Lafontant. But eventually he burned so many people that the story of a nice, bull-necked guy from D.C. helping his crippled aunt unload her car was starting to make the rounds among immigrant car buyers in the metro area.

***

In April 2003, a Loudoun County man decided to buy a late-model Camry from Genevieve Farley for $8,500. The way the buyer remembers it, Farley had come out to his workplace along with Lafontant and three other people, including a baby. The crew posed as a tightknit extended family.

When the man offered a cashier’s check, Farley told him she needed cash. To reassure the man that no scam was afoot, Lafontant engaged in a mock argument with Farley, telling her a check should be fine. But Farley persisted, and the Loudoun man, who requested anonymity for this story, came up with the cash.

Embarrassed, the man never told his family he’d been defrauded. But he swallowed his pride and told some friends at work so that he might spare another victim in the area. Word spread through his Virginia Indian community, and just weeks later, through a mutual Pakistani friend, he was put in touch with Krishna, a Fairfax County resident who was about to close a car deal with a guy from D.C. and his sick aunt. (Krishna would only offer his first name for this story.) The man told Krishna not to buy and called the police.

Elliott Taylor, then a special agent with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, had seen a handful of victims of similar scams pop up in the previous months. “I was kind of elated and astounded” when the call came in, says Taylor, now the chief of police for Seat Pleasant, Md. “The happenstance that these two people [the Loudoun man and Krishna] had a relationship…. That’s because these were the people that Lafontant was targeting.”

Krishna was grateful for being spared several thousand dollars, but his reprieve didn’t come for nothing. Taylor called Krishna and asked if he’d participate in a sting in Fairfax County to nab Lafontant. After some coaxing, Krishna came on board.

Krishna kept up his contact with Lafontant, and the two parties decided to close the deal at a gas station in Reston. Krishna showed up with Taylor, who was posing as a friend and mechanic. Lafontant showed up with Farley and two other actors. The Loudoun man sat with police in a restaurant within view of the gas station so he could finger Lafontant.

During the meeting, Taylor inspected the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) to make sure it was the stolen one. Krishna said he wanted a soda and walked off to the convenience store. As soon as Krishna was offstage, Taylor’s team swooped in and arrested Lafontant’s purported family. The whole thing was over in minutes, according to Krishna.

Farley says she was “dumbfounded” when she was locked up. She told investigators what little she knew, but Lafontant took another angle. “He said, ‘I’m a crackhead; I don’t know what’s going on,’” recalls Farley. “He was such a good talker. He had answers to everything.”

After the bust, Taylor figured he’d just foiled a prolific fraudster. But even though he had reason to believe Lafontant had pulled this scam before, the state’s attorney’s office decided to prosecute him merely for driving a car that didn’t belong to him—the euphemistically titled “unauthorized use of auto” charge. Taylor was disappointed with the lightweight prosecution, but he wasn’t surprised. “You have to understand Fairfax County,” he says. “They’re not used to paper-chasing.” Lafontant skated with a suspended sentence. Because of her previous arrest record, Farley ate a two-and-a-half-year prison term in the Virginia pen.

It bothered Kitty Howard, the victim in Shenandoah County, to see an apparent pawn go to prison while the fraud’s likely engineer walked free. “That’s kind of the sad thing,” she says, referring to Farley. Says Farley: “[Lafontant] preys on people who are on drugs. He knows the weakness of people, and he goes for it.” Farley says she took a call from Lafontant while she was being held in jail in Shenandoah. “What did he say? ‘Love is loyalty.’ In other words, ‘Shut your mouth.’”

Lafontant apparently continued to resell stolen cars even as he made his court appearances. In the Shenandoah case, the judge would essentially set Lafontant free so that he could pay restitution. Under the judge’s orders, Lafontant had to come up with $700 each month for Kitty Howard and her husband, but he had only one obvious form of income: selling pilfered cars. “It looks like he kept stealing cars to pay back his victims,” says Bryson, the former Arlington detective.

Now that Farley was off his payroll and his own name and face were on file, Lafontant needed a new shill to sell his cars. Sometime in the fall of 2003, he hooked up with Lopez, who’d apparently fallen on hard times. Lopez would later tell cops that his health was failing and that he was facing a financial crisis when he met Lafontant on Georgia Avenue NW. Lopez, the father of at least two women, was close to retirement age. His only brush with D.C. police until then was a decades-old drug charge.

On Oct. 19, 2003, Lafontant brought Lopez along on an apparent training run in Arlington. At a Food Star grocery store, they showed a Toyota 4-Runner to Rudy Estrada, a young barback from Guatemala. Estrada paid $3,600 in cash for the SUV. He says he’d worked nights for a year and a half to earn the money.

Lopez apparently picked up the con quickly. According to police documents, he allegedly sold three cars in December alone for a total of more than $13,000. He met his buyers along the wide-open commercial strips of suburban Washington—gas stations, fast-food joints—while Lafontant, who probably didn’t entirely trust his hireling, watched the transactions from across a parking lot. Lopez would later tell police that he was given merely a few hundred dollars a week for doing Lafontant’s bidding.

Like Lafontant, Lopez was ever-enticing but never pushy. He tempted buyers with discounts in exchange for cash payments. He liked to wear nice suits to come off as a stable businessman. He told stories about his wife and a daughter who was getting married. He invented a happy life for himself, while in reality he was living on his own in a low-rent boarding house on 8th Street NW.

“He always had an answer,” says one Maryland victim. “He was talking about his granddaughter, how he had a DVD player in the car for her…. You’d think he was a corporate guy, a good salesman.”

***

Around D.C. these days, car theft is handled a lot like public drunkenness. Cops haul the perp in, book him, and then have no choice but to set him loose. Because of the sheer volume of cases, charges are more likely dropped or reduced than pursued with zeal.

Lafontant had spread his scam across such a wide swath that no single county felt particularly stung. Arlington and Maryland’s Montgomery County each saw a handful of cases, nothing that amounted to an epidemic or warranted any serious resources. Still, it was the kind of phenomenon that would excite any engaged cop who was detailed to the often-mundane world of auto theft.

By November 2003, cops in auto units around the region had started working together in an informal Lafontant task force. The group included officers from D.C., Arlington, Montgomery County, the Virginia DMV, and the FBI. They got together whenever they could to brainstorm.

It was a pet project for Bryson. He’d heard of Lafontant that spring, at a Delaware-Maryland-Virginia meeting for auto-theft investigators, and he’d caught what appeared to be his first Lafontant case in Arlington in October. After that, new cases started to stack up each month—a $7,000 victim here, a $9,000 one there.

Between February and late May of 2004, Lopez allegedly sold 10 stolen cars for $68,600 in cash, according to police documents.

In a Feb. 29 deal, Lopez pawned off a Toyota minivan to Stanley Gomes, a Bangladeshi man from Maryland, for $8,500. Gomes says that Lopez, who claimed to work with a biotech company this time, treated his mark to some elaborate theater: When Gomes haggled over the price, Lopez pretended to call his wife and see if she could sacrifice the van for a little less. “‘Honey, I have a nice family with three kids here—can you do something for them?’” Gomes recalls Lopez saying into the phone. Gomes borrowed more than half the amount from his mother and cousins. When he tried to register the vehicle, he was charged with knowingly using false information to register a vehicle. After going through court proceedings, Gomes had to pay $60 to have the charge expunged.

A few months later, in May, Lopez sold a Honda minivan to a Korean man from Virginia for $6,500 in cash. According to police documents, Lopez ran from the man after he asked to see Lopez’s identification. The money and documents had already been exchanged.

So many victims were emerging that detectives even tried having a fellow officer who was of Middle Eastern descent respond to suspicious classified car ads, hoping they might get a nibble. No such luck.

What perhaps frustrated the detectives most was the fact that none of the new victims were describing Lafontant as the executor of their scam. In this respect, recruiting the racially ambiguous Lopez to carry out the con was a brilliant move; victims were telling cops that they had been defrauded by a senior citizen who could have been black, could have been white, or could have been Hispanic. And unlike Genevieve Farley, Lopez never used his real name. He was Robert Simms in one case, Onasis Douglas in another, Edward Lovelace in another. Bryson couldn’t believe that two guys could be running the same con in the same town. He would even show witnesses Lafontant’s photograph—Are you sure this isn’t the guy?—and no one ever fingered him. All the task force had to work with was the sketch of a bespectacled old man of indeterminate race.

To see if Lafontant had dropped out of the car-theft game, members of the task force decided to tail him. Bryson and his partner, Detective Wayne Vincent, started following him on May 28, 2004, outside the Prince George’s County Courthouse in Upper Marlboro, Md., according to court documents. Lafontant had shown up for sentencing on grand-theft charges. He had received what by now was something of a trademark sentence—10 years, all suspended, as in Virginia—and walked out of the courthouse a free man. He was now on probation in three different jurisdictions, each with its own life-altering prison term hanging over his head if he slipped up. But Lafontant had no plans to go straight. When Bryson and Vincent followed him out of Upper Marlboro, he was driving a stolen gold Mazda minivan with stolen D.C. tags.

The following morning, the surveillance team followed Lafontant as he drove the stolen minivan from his Oxon Hill, Md., apartment into the District. Just before 10 a.m., he picked someone up at a boarding house in Northwest and headed north toward Maryland. It was the guy from the sketch—Lopez. He hopped into the van with some papers and a legal pad. The pair then took the van through a car wash.

Lafontant stepped out of the van at Georgia Avenue and Spring Street in Silver Spring. Lopez drove the van to a nearby parking lot, where he met a Hispanic group of three who had $5,000 in cash waiting for him. The surveillance team videotaped the exchange. Lafontant was watching the sale from across the lot.

When the cops moved in, they found that Lopez had shown up with a counterfeit title and bill of sale. Lafontant took off on foot, but he was later arrested in Oxon Hill. Lafontant didn’t explain much for investigators; the cops who questioned him found that he could talk for hours without ever saying anything. Lopez, however, quickly started telling them what he knew. A detective with the task force also obtained a search warrant for Lafontant’s apartment. Members of the task force now believe they can explain just how Lafontant managed to steal undamaged cars and resell them with new keys.

***

Damaged door locks, scratched or mutilated ignitions. Such are the easy-to-read signs of a stolen car. Why did Lafontant’s treasures always look so perfect?

The answer may lie in one of Lafontant’s arrest reports. Months before he and Lopez were finally locked up, Lafontant had been caught driving a stolen Ford Expedition down Rhode Island Avenue NW in the District. More interestingly, Lafontant was leading a tow truck that bore a stolen Lincoln Navigator. Lafontant told police that he was a repo man with CarMax and that he was seizing the Navigator for failed payments. The tow-truck operator pleaded ignorance. Lafontant’s story quickly fell apart when police made a few phone calls, but it didn’t matter. The theft charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

Police don’t know whether Lafontant had a single tow company in his pocket, whether he managed to con 22 gullible tow companies, or whether most of the cars were stolen by traditional break-in. But how else could all of the cars have been resold with no visible damage? At least one auto-theft victim, Elizabeth Bryant, says she watched a tow truck haul her Civic away from a streetside parking space in Arlington in April 2004. “The car was never reported [towed] by a tow company,” says Bryant, “so we went ahead and filled out a stolen-car report.” A week later, Lopez sold the same car in Silver Spring for $5,000 cash. (Perhaps in a nod to the District’s laid-back prosecution of auto theft, the overwhelming majority of Lafontant’s stolen cars—17 out of 21—had been taken from D.C. streets.)

But even when Lafontant apparently managed to tow a car, he still needed several items to make the car ready for resale:

A car title. After having a car towed, either Lafontant or a co-conspirator would apparently forge a title, working from a template from the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. The titles weren’t the finest mock-ups, but they weren’t bad, either. Lafontant, however, unwisely used the same audit control number on every title he and his colleagues gave buyers; investigators would find it easy to identify his victims.

Car keys. Of the 20-plus cases police have built against Lafontant, every one included a fresh set of keys to the respective car; the original sets were still with the victims. Investigators still aren’t sure how Lafontant obtained them. Their best guess is that he used a crooked locksmith to fashion keys from door locks or ignitions. Another possibility is that he used unsuspecting car dealerships to burn duplicate keys upon show of a VIN and (fake) title.

A notarized bill of sale for the buyer. As Lopez told police, Lafontant would go to D.C. Superior Court to notarize his transactions ahead of time. A clerk on the first floor would stamp blank bills of sale for him, no questions asked, before he even entered a buyer’s name and sale price. A detective involved with the case chalks up this breach in notary protocol to general carelessness, rather than any conscious wrongdoing.

A broker. As investigators had long known, Lafontant would often go to the area’s best-known intermediary for selling used cars: The Washington Post’s classifieds department. He paid cash and penned his advertisements under fake names, offering concise descriptions of his cars with a salesman’s flair. He placed this ad just days before being locked up for trying to steal the Navigator: “Nissan ’99 Maxima—Auto, like new, AC/64K, 1 owr, ex cond, pw/pd, cloth. A reliable wintry commuter. Stylish & quiet. $5,500/obo.”

A safe phone line for potential buyers to reach him. Lafontant’s scheme wouldn’t have lasted if, in the advertisements, he provided the rubes with his home or cell-phone number; investigators would have been able to track him down after a single sale. So to distance himself, he allegedly took known prostitutes and homeless drug addicts to a Sprint cellular dealer in D.C. and registered temporary phone plans under their names—a simple and effective ruse commonly employed by drug dealers. When cops started looking into the contact numbers provided by victimized auto shoppers, all the cell phones were leading them “back to nowhere, or maybe to Shirley Under the Bridge,” says Bryson.

Most officers who worked the case say they’d never seen anything quite like it. “I don’t think we ever had the volume of autos that were transacted in this manner,” says Detective Daniel Straub, a D.C. auto-theft cop.

When they seized Lafontant’s notebooks—he apparently enjoyed doodling on the covers; one of them depicted a finely detailed Rastafarian—detectives found classified-ad drafts, telephone numbers, and rendezvous points scribbled throughout them. A crime technician with the task force collated two spreadsheets: one filled with numbers from the notebooks, the other with victims’ home and cell numbers. Detectives saw one match after another pop up. Inside the notebooks, Lafontant had also jotted down some victims’ first names, along with car models and their potential prices. He sometimes scratched out one price and replaced it with one slightly lower: “$6,400. $6,300. $5,500.”

Lafontant apparently preferred to low-ball the prices on his cars to as little as half the Blue Book value. The price would keep his temporary cell phone ringing steadily for days after the ad’s appearance—sometimes prompting more than 20 calls, which he let pass through to his voice mail. The bevy of inquiries offered him the luxury of cherry-picking likely victims he could meet with—people who didn’t seem to grasp the language of used cars, auto titles, and bills of sale. Or, for that matter, the English language. Inside the notebooks, police found stars etched beside buyers’ names that appeared

Hispanic, Asian, or Middle Eastern.

Of 22 victims allegedly defrauded by Lafontant and his cohorts, 21 of them appear to have been born outside the United States.

***

When he appeared in federal court in Alexandria last September, Lopez made it clear to the gallery that he’d already begun his penance. His hands trembled when he rose to speak to the judge on his own behalf, and the white Styrofoam cup of water he raised to his lips shook as if it were going to spill over onto the podium. He said that he was taking nitroglycerin for a heart condition, in addition to other medications, and that he’d been attacked by other inmates twice since he’d been jailed. Clearly out of his element, he seemed vaguely to hope that a judge might have mercy on an old man. When it came to mitigating his crimes, he merely offered the fact the he possessed a bachelor’s degree. “I’m sorry,” he said weakly, “because I don’t want to be here.”

He wasn’t there for long. Lopez pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and was shipped to a federal prison in Allenwood, Pa., where he’s now serving a little more than three years, with credit for time served. He was also ordered to pay restitution to victims in the amount of $152,893.98—a tab that he’s not likely to clear while working kitchen duty for pennies in prison. Lopez declined to speak about the circumstances of his involvement with Lafontant for this story. But when a reporter wrote him a letter, asking if it were true that a financial crisis had driven him to do what he did, Lopez responded with a brief letter that said, in part: “You surmise what happened quite accurately, that’s all I’ll say for now.” He continued: “I sinned against my Saviour, and hurt innocent people and hurt my family….My sister, daughters, nieces…are all embarrassed by my actions.”

Lafontant isn’t speaking the same language of atonement as his alleged former partner. Over the course of two hourlong interviews with a reporter at the Anne Arundel jail in Annapolis last fall, Lafontant’s ruminations ranged from the self-righteous to the self-pitying. Careful never to incriminate himself, he insisted on the notion that he was not a mastermind but simply a pawn in somebody else’s enterprise. Investigators had heard him say as much before. “You have to be able to see through the proverbial bullshit that he feeds,” says Taylor. “Even part of his sentence in Fairfax was that he would cooperate and give us intelligence on other players, and he never came through. I think that he was giving us

a runaround.”

In jail, Lafontant spoke in lawyerly fashion about his situation: “I want to talk with people and help them get to the bottom of this. It’s not fair that I’m being held and pointed at as the head of this criminal entity.” Investigators should not place “this sophisticated operation on the back of one individual,” he said. “There’s more to it than some poor kid from the District.” He acted exasperated, and by the end of the talks he grew morose. “I’m dead to the world, to my children,” he said.

Currently held in jail in Prince George’s County, Lafontant has bided his time and watched as prosecutors with Anne Arundel, Prince George’s, and the federal government have wrangled over his custody for the last year. When he’s through with Maryland, Lafontant will have to finish his business with the feds in Alexandria, where he was charged with conspiracy last year.

As for the compensation of his alleged victims, they’ve received either a small percentage of what they originally paid or nothing at all. And with the alleged fraudsters behind bars and penniless, the victims aren’t expecting to see any money soon. “I haven’t gotten anything back yet,” says Tavafi of her $4,000. “It’s been almost two years. And that was big money to me.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Ilana Kohn.