Retired dream: Naples businesswoman loses nest egg, now embroiled in legal maze

Greg Kahn/Staff 
 Helen Valent, who just won a battle against foreclosure, stands inside her home on Vanderbilt Beach Road in North Naples on May 25, 2012. Valent is in a legal battle with Fifth Third Bank over her home because she says her money was improperly invested by the bank, causing her to possibly be liable for $14 million in foreclosure judgments involving other properties.

Photo by Greg Kahn

Greg Kahn/Staff Helen Valent, who just won a battle against foreclosure, stands inside her home on Vanderbilt Beach Road in North Naples on May 25, 2012. Valent is in a legal battle with Fifth Third Bank over her home because she says her money was improperly invested by the bank, causing her to possibly be liable for $14 million in foreclosure judgments involving other properties.

Michel Fortier/Staff 
 Maria Elena Giraldo of Cape Coral contends she was a pawn of Fifth Third bankers and wants to prove herself innocent at trial. But she had to turn herself in to a federal prison in Texas, where she will be drugged as part of a criminal defense to prove she's incompetent to stand trial.

Michel Fortier/Staff Maria Elena Giraldo of Cape Coral contends she was a pawn of Fifth Third bankers and wants to prove herself innocent at trial. But she had to turn herself in to a federal prison in Texas, where she will be drugged as part of a criminal defense to prove she's incompetent to stand trial.

— After operating a successful Canadian nursing home for 18 years, Helen Valent sold it for about $2 million and moved to Naples a decade ago.

The Czechoslovakian geriatric nurse opened a small adult-care home in 2002, Helen's Retirement Inn in Golden Gate Estates, the Deli Bohemia in Bonita Springs six year later, and was living comfortably while dreaming of retirement.

But her dreams were shattered after a banker introduced her to a real estate agent and she got involved in land deals that court papers allege were set up by the agent, the loan officer and bank vice president. From September 2004 to June 2005, court papers say, more than $1.3 million in Valent's bank account dwindled to nothing after it was debited 15 times.

The loan officer and vice president left the bank, the real estate agent was indicted in 2009 on charges that still are pending, the multimillion dollar projects Valent invested in were foreclosed on — and last summer, the bank tried to foreclose on her roughly $1 million North Naples home.

Financially drained, Valent turned the tables on Fifth Third Bank a few weeks ago. She countersued.

"I lost everything," 63-year-old Valent said. "I trusted him because he said, 'Don't worry, don't worry,' " she said of the loan officer. "'You're like a sister to me. You can trust me.'"

The bank dismissed the foreclosure and a week ago, its lawyers filed an answer to her countersuit, denying Fifth Third or Fifth Third Mortgage was involved in criminal conduct and contending Valent was to blame — not the bankers she says she relied on.

Valent's attorney, however, calls her story "a John Grisham novel in real life."

"It is impossible to imagine how this happened at this bank," said attorney Frederick "Rick" Bateman of Morgan & Morgan in Orlando. "It has completely ruined our client."

"It is impossible to imagine how this happened at this bank," said attorney Rick Bateman of Morgan & Morgan in Orlando. "It has completely ruined our client."

"Fifth Third denies that it engaged in criminal activity ..." states the bank's response in court papers. " ... The relationship between a bank and a creditor is an arms-length transaction and does not give rise to a fiduciary relationship."

The counterclaim, filed in Collier Circuit Court, brands Valent an innocent pawn of Fifth Third Bank, Fifth Third Mortgage Co. and former employees, Ennio Alonso, the loan officer, and J. Trent Byrd, a vice president, and blames them for her financial woes.

"Fifth Third Bank and Fifth Third Mortgage allowed their agents to repeatedly write themselves checks on Ms. Valent's accounts," the counterclaim alleges, contending they also induced her to co-sign fraudulent real estate loans for customers in Collier and Lee counties.

It alleges her account was debited for amounts ranging from $2,000 to $218,963 for land deals that failed, making her potentially liable for $14.69 million in foreclosure judgments.

"A bizarre case of the bank employees luring our unsuspecting client into an investment in which the bank employees participated, then suing her when the deal went sour," Valent's attorney Bateman said. "They breached their fiduciary duty to her."Valent's six-bedroom home in the 6800 block of Vanderbilt Beach Road, once filled with furniture for five elderly residents of her future business, A Paradise Retirement Inn, is nearly vacant because she feared imminent eviction and sold most it.

"I lived with the stress. I developed diabetes and had a heart attack on Christmas Eve. I'll never forget that," Valent said in a recent interview, sobbing in her kitchen. " ... No one was listening, no one."

* * * * *

Although the bank has dismissed the foreclosure and lien, that doesn't affect her pending counterclaim, which seeks compensation for her losses, damages and debt forgiveness on $14.69 million in judgments.

According to court papers filed by Fifth Third's attorney, Thomas M. Wood of Tampa, Valent's claims for breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, conspiracy and violations of Florida's RICO statute are barred by the statute of limitations, which ended four years before she sued, while others ended after five years.

"Fifth Third denies that it engaged in criminal activity ..." states the bank's response in court papers. " ... The relationship between a bank and a creditor is an arms-length transaction and does not give rise to a fiduciary relationship."Wood declined to comment because the case is pending.

Loan officer Alonso's response in court papers, filed by Naples attorney Fitzgerald Frater, also makes the same denials and claims. Casey Weidenmiller of Naples, the attorney for former bank officer Byrd, declined comment.

The indicted real estate agent, Maria Elena Giraldo, 56, of Cape Coral, contends she also was an innocent pawn of the bankers. She faces money laundering, wire and loan fraud charges involving $4.695 million in loans for six properties.

The indicted real estate agent, Maria Elena Giraldo, 56, of Cape Coral, contends she also was an innocent pawn of the bankers. She faces money laundering, wire and loan fraud charges involving $4.695 million in loans for six properties.

A week ago, she was forced to go to a federal prison in Texas, where she says she will be drugged against her will for up to four months as part of her lawyer's defense — that she's incompetent to stand trial. The drugs are intended to make her competent, but she's already gone through it once and said they made her tired, unable to think.

"I spoke to her (Giraldo) for several hours in Spanish. She is very intelligent and seemed quite sane," said Carlos Real, one of Valent's attorneys.

And co-attorney Bateman asked: "If she (Giraldo) is so incompetent, how did she defraud the bank?"

* * * * *

Fifth Third Bank appraised Giraldo's projects at nearly $94 million, her records show. Her urban renewal work was heralded by the Cape Coral City Council, which proclaimed Aug. 14, 2006, Maria Elena Giraldo Day because she was developing four large projects and had created Top Two Cultural Group to feature Latin talents.

The projects came to a halt after loan officer Alonso placed a lien on them.

Her tangled tale is laid out in federal and Circuit Court cases in Collier and Lee County, where Alonso sued Fifth Third, and the bank sued Giraldo's company, Top Two Development, the target of about 10 other lawsuits.

Giraldo's public defender, Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Donna Elm, declined comment, but court papers show she hopes to win a dismissal by showing Giraldo suffers from a mental illness and isn't competent. Giraldo disputes that, noting she's in her third semester of college, studying to be a paralegal, and the prosecution's expert deemed her competent.

Giraldo's first lawyer, Assistant U.S. Public Defender Martin Der Ovanesian, said he felt sick after Valent told him what happened and had hoped someone would "champion her case."

"She's somebody's grandmother," Der Ovanesian said. "It made me feel she had been duped and cheated, not by our client, but by the bank. … I was just outraged."

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