Criminal Charges Filed Against Real Estate Company At Center Of LAist Studio's 'California City' Podcast
In my podcast California City, I told the story of a small town in the Mojave Desert where, for more than six decades, salespeople have been peddling nearly worthless desert land to unsuspecting people. Now, the California Attorney General has charged nine of those salespeople with felonies.
All of the defendants are affiliated with Silver Saddle Ranch & Club, a remote desert resort in California City about an hour and a half north of L.A., where salespeople offered free weekend vacations to Latino, Filipino and Chinese consumers in exchange for sitting through a high-pressure sales pitch. Many of those consumers ended up spending tens of thousands of dollars on land they were made to believe would be worth much more in the near future. It wasn’t.
Prosecutors charged Thomas Maney, the 83 year-old owner of Silver Saddle, Marian Ducreux, 68, one of the company’s top sales people, and seven other former sales agents, managers and employees of the ranch in late May.
The charges include conspiracy to commit a crime, grand theft of personal property, securities fraud and use of a scheme to defraud a consumer regarding the sale of securities. All the defendants have entered not guilty pleas.
The allegations against the defendants include that they:
"...deliberately targeted investors from the Chinese, Filipino, and Latino communities, many of whom spoke little or no English and were not able to read the sales documents that accompanied their investment, by having raffles at local markets in Los Angeles County for free dinners that eventually led them to the Silver Saddle Ranch for a sales presentation filled with misrepresentations."
Ben Perez is one of the more than 2,000 people who invested money with Silver Saddle. He spent a free weekend there in 2017, and ended up forking over $30,000 for a confusing, desert-land investment product.
He was shocked to hear the news of the criminal charges.
“I wish (the salespeople) realize how much they cost all the families,” he said. “I wish they would give the money back to us.”
When I interviewed Thomas Maney for the podcast in early 2019, he told me, “Well, first of all, we've never misrepresented. We just don't do it. I mean, it’s the way I live my life.”
In my reporting, I learned that Silver Saddle’s land sale scheme was essentially an open secret in Kern County. It had been going on for years.
Consumers had filed almost three dozen complaints with various agencies: the Kern County District Attorney, the California Department of Real Estate, even the Federal Trade Commission, but the company continued to operate until 2019.
That’s when the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation raided Silver Saddle’s headquarters, halted all sales operations and took control of its bank accounts. The agency accused Silver Saddle, Maney, Ducreux and other defendants of securities fraud and selling unqualified securities. That case, which is a separate civil lawsuit unrelated to the new criminal charges, is set to go to trial in September.
The Attorney General’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Deep in the Mojave Desert, there is a little town with a big name and a bizarre history: California City. For decades, real estate developers have sold a dream here: if you buy land now, you’ll be rich one day. Thousands of people bought this dream. Many were young couples and hard-working immigrants looking to build a better future. But much of the land they bought is nearly worthless. In this new podcast from LAist Studios, host Emily Guerin tells a story of money, power and deception.