3 Calif. moms accused of using PTA in Ponzi scheme

Three former PTA mothers used their connection with a suburban elementary school to recruit investors in a phony $14 million get-rich-quick scheme, authorities said Wednesday.

Three former PTA mothers used their connection with a suburban elementary school to recruit investors in a phony $14 million get-rich-quick scheme, authorities said Wednesday.

The alleged Ponzi-style scam lasted more than two years before an irate investor filed a complaint last year, sparking an investigation that led to the arrests Tuesday of three women, said Lt. Steve Katz of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The alleged swindle started in 2008 when the women told fellow PTA members they had the exclusive right to sell products from a well-known local dairy to Disneyland, Disney hotels and other small retailers.

They said they needed capital to expand the business and promised returns of up to 100 percent, adding that even if there was no profit, investors would get their money back, Katz said.

"It was billed as no way to lose," he said.

Investments, which had to be made in cash, ranged from $5,000 to $208,000. The 40 investors dipped into their life savings, maxed out their credit cards and took out second mortgages on their homes to come up with the money, Katz said.

Maricela Barajas, 41, and Juliana Menefee, 50, both of Diamond Bar, were arrested on 22 felony charges, including grand theft and securities fraud. The third woman, Eva Perez, was already behind bars, serving a nearly 10-year sentence on grand theft charges related to a similar swindle in neighboring San Bernardino County.

Calls to the homes of Barajas and Menefee, who were being held on $500,000 bail, were not immediately returned. Their arraignment scheduled for Thursday was continued until Aug. 4.

The women belonged to the PTA at the Neil Armstrong Elementary School in Diamond Bar until school leaders became aware of the complaints and ended their membership, Katz said.

The fact that they were PTA members was key in leading the investors to trust the women and to recruit their own acquaintances as far away as Salt Lake City, he said.

School Principal Cynthia Sanchez did not return a phone call for comment Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the Pomona Unified School District said the district was unaware of the investigation until the sheriff's department announced the arrests. No PTA funds were involved in the fraud, Gabriela De La Cruz said.

Shortly after the scheme started, Perez was arrested in San Bernardino County on 28 charges of grand theft and one charge of writing a check on insufficient funds. In December 2010, she pleaded guilty to 10 of the charges and was sentenced to nine years and eight months in prison and ordered to pay $151,600 to 33 victims, according to court records.

Meanwhile, Barajas and Menefee are accused of collecting a total of $14 million in Diamond Bar, of which about $10 million was repaid.

Investors last year started demanding the rest of their money, leading the women to hold impromptu meetings to allay investors' fears by saying the money was being delayed due to an internal audit, Katz said. One investor, however, grew suspicious and filed a complaint with the sheriff's department.

Investigators believe the women spent about $2.5 million on lavish vacations, expensive hotels, new cars, and gambling trips to casinos in California and Nevada, while $1.5 million was actual financial losses, Katz said.

If convicted of all charges, the women face 20-year prison sentences.

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