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PTA moms accused of bilking investors out of more than $1 million

July 5, 2011 |  7:00 pm

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department investigators have arrested three former Diamond Bar elementary school PTA members in connection with an alleged ponzi scheme that defrauded more than 40 people out $1 million.

Maricela Barajas, 41, and Juliana Menefee, 50, both of Diamond Bar were arrested Tuesday at their homes. Also arrested in the case was Eva Perez, 51, who serving an 11-year state prison sentence after pleading guilty in San Bernardino County court last year to multiple felony counts of grand theft in connection with the same scheme.

Barajas, Menefee and Perez each face at least 20 counts of grand theft and securities fraud. If convicted on all counts, each faces up to 20 years in state prison, authorities said.

As members of the the Armstrong Elementary School PTA, the women were able to gain the trust of many of their victims during school events and at social functions, said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. Mike Parker.

The victims believed they were investing in the AltaDena Dairy company, a firm the women said would get high rates of return because they had exclusive rights to distribute those products at Disneyland, Disney Hotels and to small retailers, Parker said.

For their investment, victims were told they would receive returns of up to 100%, authorities said. They were assured that even if they did not get the promised return on their principle, their cash investment would be guaranteed.

Besides Chino and Diamond Bar, the victims include residents of Gardena, Granada Hills, Lawndale, Los Angeles, North Hollywood, Norwalk, Pacoima, Pico Rivera, Pomona, Rancho Cucamonga, Redondo Beach, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Fe Springs, South Gate, Torrance, Whittier, Wilmington and Salt Lake City.

One person invested $208,000 in cash, Parker said. He described the victims as "good, hard-working people" who didn't want to miss out "on the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families."

The suspects racked up investors and cash between 2008 and 2010. But eventually people began to ask questions and began demanding payment. The suspects called meetings and attempted to "pacify investors by explaining the delays in payment were a result of an internal audit of the business," Parker said.

But there were not enough new investors to help cover the ruse and the scheme imploded as investors began to go to authorities, Parker said.

"Like all ponzi or pyramid schemes, they ran out of people to provide an infusion of cash to keep things going and they collapse."


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-- Andrew Blankstein


Photos: Left to right, Eva Perez, Maricela Barajas, Juliana Menefee. Credit: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.