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Sarasota business owner sent to prison for real estate fraud

  • Manatee-Sarasota
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A Sarasota construction firm owner, in what officials call a case of unbridled greed, faces prison time after orchestrating a complicated scheme to use homeless people to commit multiple counts of real estate fraud going back at least four years and spanning at least four states.

Jose “Jay” Manuel Santiago, 43, owner of Santiago & Sons Construction at 4030 Sawyer Court in Sarasota, pleaded guilty to multiple federal fraud charges earlier this year. 

That fraud case — prosecuted in Virginia and involving homes in that state as well as in Tampa and Sarasota — came to a culmination May 3, when Santiago was sentenced to 36 months in prison. Santiago was also ordered to pay $553,028.33 in restitution. Santiago pleaded guilty to mail, wire and bank fraud in federal court in Virginia in February for the scheme that involved selling houses that did not belong to him, court documents show. 

Currently in custody on that case, Santiago is also awaiting trial in Sarasota connected to another alleged fraud scheme, for which he was charged by the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office. 

Multiple properties

Investigators in the Virginia prosecution say Santiago had homeless people pose as the owners of vacant homes in Virginia, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, then pocketed the profits if he sold the properties. Officials said he used the pandemic and its reliance on remote transactions to further his scheme.

The FBI became involved in the investigation after a Virginia homeowner in August 2020 found out while he was caring for his ailing parents in New York that his home was for sale – and had actually been sold, according to prosecutors involved in the case.

Federal prosecutors say Santiago sold the home in Fairfax, Virginia, in May 2020 for more than $250,000, by having a homeless panhandler pose as the homeowner using a fake ID to close the deal before a notary and a fake bank account to accept the funds. The homeless man, who said in court filings he received a “few thousand dollars” and a new suit for his role in the scheme, served seven months in prison for wire fraud, according to prosecutors.

What was lost in the sale was priceless, investigators said. The real homeowner was in the U.S. Army for more than 20 years: his fully furnished house included military uniforms and two bedrooms full of military memorabilia, including irreplaceable photos of military bases that no longer exist and combat photos he took serving as a photographer during the Vietnam War, according to court filings. After the home was sold, its contents were conveyed to the buyer, who upon closing used a junk hauler to dispose of everything inside, according to Santiago’s indictment.

The Virginia property was not the only one that Santiago targeted.

“Throughout the conspiracy, Santiago and others knowingly attempted to fraudulently sell at least 10 properties,” federal prosecutors say in a statement of facts. The properties included homes with equity in Sarasota and Tampa as well as Fairfax, whose owners lived in other states or were unable to supervise the properties because they were in assisted living, were nonverbal or were, in one case, deceased, according to Santiago’s indictment.

In all, Santiago obtained $581,808.63 and tried to make an additional $758,175.37 from sales of the homes, prosecutors say.

“The conspirators took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic as businesses pivoted to allow transactions to proceed remotely and with more limited face-to-face interaction,” Santiago’s indictment contends. “The conspirators would offer to sell the properties at favorable prices, even well below assessed or market value, in order to entice potential buyers to close quickly.”

Preying on homeless

Santiago and his partner also recruited homeless people to appear before notaries with fake IDs so they could pose as homeowners and close real estate deals, prosecutors say.

“In order to shield himself and [co-conspirator Rosson Dwayne] Hamilton from detection, Santiago recruited individuals without fixed addresses and individuals struggling with addiction, including panhandlers on the street, to pose as real homeowners and to conduct banking transactions in the names of other persons without their lawful consent,” the indictment says. “Santiago paid these individuals in cash or supplied them with illegal narcotics as payment for their services.”

His co-conspirator Hamilton was also homeless from 2016 to 2020 as he battled addiction, according to court filings. For his role, mainly setting up phony email addresses and bank accounts, he received a one-day sentence and was ordered to receive mental health treatment and pay restitution. He says in a court filing he is working on a “Say No to Fraud” blog, designed to help victims of fraud.

Hamilton says he received $30,000 from the real estate scheme, with the bulk of the money going to Santiago.

Santiago, on the other hand, used accounts created for the scheme to buy $40,000 in luxury jewelry and spent more than $5,700 at a hotel and casino resort, Hamilton says in court filings. He also used the money to buy material and equipment for his construction business “to improve the profit margin on existing projects,” according to court documents from Hamilton, who said Santiago paid for both their attorneys before his partner’s initial appearance.

‘Successful businessman’

What appeared to be missing was a motive in the case, prosecutors said.

“Santiago did not need to commit this crime. He was a successful businessman, legitimately earning around $200,000 per year,” federal prosecutors said in a pre-sentencing statement. “Of those involved in the scheme, he had the least reason to participate. He has a number of children and even grandchildren. He had a house and legitimate business complete with capital equipment and an office. None of the others were so stable or so financially secure.”

Santiago faced up to 30 years in prison but was sentenced to 36 months in a Florida facility in the Virgina case. He had a prior narcotics conviction and jail sentence, prosecutors said in a pre-sentencing filing. He has been in custody since Dec. 18, 2023, and will be credited for time served, according to his sentencing minutes.

"Greed, an easy buck, a disregard for others, and perhaps a sense of thrill or adventure has put him back into the criminal life he has led and for which he now faces consequences," prosecutors said.

HOA scheme

Even with his federal trial being over in Virginia, charges remain pending against Santiago at home in Sarasota.

In 2022, Santiago was president of the Beneva Ridge Condominiums homeowners association when its new treasurer — Esther Quiles, wife of Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith — became “wary that HOA funds are being misappropriated by the HOA president,” according to an affidavit from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.

The subsequent Sheriff’s investigation led to a host of new charges against Santiago, who appeared to have been involved in the same type of activity as he was with the house scheme — using another person's account to receive someone else's money for his own personal gain, according to police.

Investigators allege Santiago used an unknowing maintenance employee who had previously been homeless to create a bank account where he would deposit homeowners association funds then transfer them. Santiago’s phone number was listed on the employee’s account as the contact number for all notifications, officials say. Surveillance footage from September and October 2022 showed Santiago using the ATM at the bank to access the employee’s account, according to the affidavit.

Santiago is charged with felony fraud of over $50,000 in that Sarasota case. Police allege he was also involved in an elder abuse case in which he took control of an older woman’s finances, became her power of attorney and sold her house, then put the money into the maintenance employee’s account. In that case he is charged with money laundering of at least $100,000; fraudulent use of personal identification, for using the employee’s account; and two counts of exploitation of the elderly of $50,000, court records show.

A trial in that case is scheduled for Sept. 9 in Sarasota County, according to the county clerk website. Santiago’s defense attorney did not reply to a request for comment on the case.



Elizabeth King

Elizabeth is a business news reporter with the Business Observer, covering primarily Sarasota-Bradenton, in addition to other parts of the region. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, she previously covered hyperlocal news in Maryland for Patch for 12 years. Now she lives in Sarasota County.

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