NORTH NAPLES — Marie and Ronald Rotunda were eating lunch at Olde Cypress golf club in North Naples one day in January 2006 — at the time a lawsuit says he was in an office more than 1,200 miles away, signing a lease-back agreement for a New Jersey home.
Court documents contend a Trenton broker forged Ronald Rotunda's signature in New Jersey that day, and that a notary swore Rotunda stood before her that day, signing a $368,000 mortgage on the New Jersey home.
The home in question was owned by a 41-year-old widow whose husband died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The fraudulent transaction on the home, which said Ronald Rotunda would lease the home back to the widow after she paid $92,000, staved off the widow's impending foreclosure, a lawsuit alleges.
The Rotundas say they had no idea what was going on in New Jersey that day in January 2006. It was two years later before the North Naples couple discovered the mortgage that Ronald Rotunda supposedly had signed and owed.
"We didn't know anything because we'd been living here (in Naples) since 2004," Marie Rotunda said. "It was through a credit report that we found out."
Since then, the Rotundas said, they've been hounded by two banks to pay up on the mortgage. They eventually were cleared by Countrywide Mortgage, which dropped the foreclosure against Ronald Rotunda after deciding it was a fraud. But the Rotundas were pursued again through phone calls and letters by Bank of America after it took over Countrywide.
Those are among the allegations in a tangled 2009 lawsuit and countersuit expected to head to trial early next year in Gloucester County, N.J. The North Naples couple also are defendants in a pending 2010 foreclosure lawsuit filed by Bank of America.
Jorge Sanchez, the Trenton broker, died in 2008. But Ronald Rotunda, Sanchez's company Landmark Mortgage Services, Sanchez's wife, and the 9/11 widow's lawyer are named as defendants in a lawsuit filed by the 9/11 widow, Charlette Thompson.
Ronald Rotunda filed a countersuit, seeking damages against Sanchez's estate, the 9/11 widow's lawyer, the notary and her title agency employer.
"(The 9/11 widow) is arguably a victim of a mortgage rescue scheme, but she's lived in the house for years without paying," said the Rotundas' lawyer, Daniel Graziano of Lawrenceville, N.J.
"You just don't know how to resolve the case," Graziano said of the many involved who relied on Sanchez's word that Ronald Rotunda signed the mortgage, lease-back and promissory note. "The judge understands the case has to be settled because it's too difficult to present to a jury … That's why it's dragged on so long."
The judge wants Bank of America added back as a defendant, said Graziano, who contends the bank should pursue the notary and title company, not the Rotundas.
Sanchez's wife and her lawyer couldn't be reached for comment despite multiple calls. The 9/11 widow's lawyer declined to comment as did lawyers for the notary and title agency, as well as other lawyers now involved in the various related cases.
Marie Rotunda said the Rotary honored Sanchez after he died.
"Nobody knew what he did," she said.
Mike Lavelle, an auto repair shop owner who lost his business after loaning Sanchez money, was the first to go to police. He said he then was asked by police to watch the 53-year-old broker in the hospital, where he died of respiratory disease after surgery.
"The second Jorge (Sanchez) died, creditors started coming after (his mother)," Lavelle said.
Jorge Sanchez, the Trenton broker, died in 2008.
It was after Sanchez's death that the lawsuits and countersuits began. Court records and interviews provide this account of how the Rotundas became involved:
On Dec. 28, 2005, the 9/11 widow agreed to sell her home to Ronald Rotunda for $460,000 and she then signed a mortgage. She agreed to provide $92,000 in financing and Rotunda supposedly signed a promissory note on Jan. 30, 2006.
The 9/11 widow alleges Ronald Rotunda failed to hold up his end of the financial deal and that she's a victim of a conspiracy between her lawyer, Rotunda, Landmark Mortgage, Sanchez and his wife, who deprived her of most of the equity in her home.
Ronald Rotunda's signature that he said was forged is about the size of the one on the expired driver license that Sanchez gave the notary.
"My signature is much larger," Ronald Rotunda said.
Rotunda, a well-known businessman, was a private lender who worked with Sanchez. Rotunda said he had no reason not to trust the well-known business leader. Sanchez was a licensed New Jersey broker who underwent criminal fingerprint checks, filed annual reports, was bonded, and routinely audited by state regulators.
Ronald Rotunda was a private lender on many loans with Sanchez and was receiving payments, but said "we later found out it was a Ponzi scheme." It appears Sanchez was using the money from business deals to maintain his lifestyle, Ronald Rotunda's lawyer said.
After the Rotundas flew to New Jersey to confront Sanchez, he listed them as a beneficiary on his insurance, but stopped paying.
"We made one payment for $1,400," Marie Rotunda said. "We were three days away from making another payment and he died. God was looking out for us."
Ronald Rotunda's countersuit alleges he had no knowledge of the mortgage and lease-back until Countrywide Mortgage sent a default letter in September 2008. The countersuit alleges it was a "fraudulent scheme concocted by Sanchez," accomplished with the cooperation of others Ronald Rotunda's now suing. The countersuit alleges Sanchez forged Ronald Rotunda's signature, the notary lied about witnessing him sign documents and that the 9/11 widow's attorney never contacted Rotunda.
"The most culpable party in this fraudulent transaction is dead," attorney Graziano wrote in a pre-trial statement of facts. "Jorge Sanchez, the mortgage broker who concocted and carried out this scheme, is not here to face the consequences ..."
In sworn pre-trial statements, the 9/11 widow's attorney and notary admit they never spoke with nor saw Ronald Rotunda. A receipt from the Club at Olde Cypress shows the Rotundas were in North Naples that day, eating chicken parmigiana sandwiches and sipping iced tea.
Marie Rotunda has a warning for people.
"Check your credit report and know who you're dealing with and don't trust anybody any more," she said. "We want people to know that it's important to do that so this doesn't happen to anyone else."