Courts & Crime

Feds say California realty ring defrauded $16 million from banks

The collapse of the housing bubble exposed Sacramento as one of the nation's centers for mortgage fraud. Yet even here, prosecutors say, their latest case stands out for its scope and the number of people involved.

In the past six months, 25 Sacramento-area residents have been indicted on charges of defrauding $16 million from banks, most of it from a single subprime lender now owned by Bank of America. Prosecutors say more indictments are on the way.

"This is certainly one of the biggest cases we've done in the Sacramento area," said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner. "There are a lot of properties involved."

The case is also notable because so many of those charged belong to the Sacramento area's Russian American community. Some are related. Prosecutors said some of the people they describe as key players have said they knew each other through their families' involvement in the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church on Jackson Road, the region's largest Slavic Pentecostal congregation.

All of those charged have pleaded not guilty. Some defendants contacted by The Bee complained that federal prosecutors are unfairly targeting them based on ethnicity.

"If you took a poll, many would feel that this (investigation) is clearly against the Russian community," said Vera Zhiry, who faces fraud charges.

Those charged include Pyotr Bondaruk, 40, son of Bethany's co-founder and head pastor, Adam Bondaruk. Vera Kuzmenko, who was indicted along with her brother Peter Kuzmenko and sister Nadia Kuzmenko, told The Bee that her uncle was a deacon at Bethany and that her father worked in the church's funeral operations.

A Bethany official said the people charged in the case are not actually members of the 3,000-member church.

The federal probe, a joint operation of the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. attorney's office, provides a look into the murkier side of the housing-boom years, when middle-class buyers bought million-dollar homes with no money down, and when lax lenders churned out massive numbers of risky loans they immediately unloaded on Wall Street.

Investigators say they are focusing on the purchase of more than two dozen homes in 2006 and 2007 that later went into foreclosure. The homes ranged in price from a two-bedroom house that sold for $280,000 to new homes that topped $1 million.

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