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Real estate dealer, who preyed on Christians, found guilty

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

A 54-year-old real estate broker was found guilty of securities fraud and sentenced to seven years in prison and 33 years probation.

Richard Dale Lavigne, of Henry County, took about $140,000 from two men in a land deal, but instead of investing the money, he spent it, a Clayton County jury found on Wednesday.

"He played a con game using Christianity as a means to get to these people," said Jeff Lacy, a Clayton County assistant district attorney.

Lacy told the jury that Lavigne was an old-fashioned scammer, a flim-flam man or charlatan, who played a "big, huge, shell game" hiding and stealing other people's money.

Lavigne represented himself as a upstanding church member, who attended Sunday school, tithed generously, and asked people to pray for him, Lacy said. He owned a construction company, a real estate company and a number of other corporations, and regularly solicited area church-goers for investments in real estate deals.

On July 29, 2004, Lavigne approached Brad Zimmerman, a Forest Park mechanic who knew Lavigne through regular attendance at a McDonough Baptist church, and Kennon Baily, a mechanic who worked for Zimmerman, with a proposition. Asking them each for a $65,000 investment, he said he was going to buy two empty lots in a Riverdale-area subdivision, and move pre-exisiting houses on the lots.

Baily had done something like this before, according to Lacy, and the two men looked at the offered deal and thought they stood a good chance of making a good amount of money. Zimmerman gave the real estate broker and long-time fellow church member $65,000. Baily gave him $75,000.

The two would-be real estate investors signed Lavigne's paperwork, entering into an agreement for the purpose of purchasing homes, not noticing the paperwork said the money will be deposited to an "operating account," rather than an escrow account or something specifically dedicated to the land deal.

"He's playing this shell game, like a good swindler does," Lacy said. "They don't realize he swindled them. They don't have an indication that he's not on the up and up with them."

Paperwork presented as evidence in the trial shows the large investment was deposited in the operating account of one corporation, and spent on a wide variety of things. Lavigne wrote checks to fix a Volvo, send his wife to the dentist, to the optometrist and to buy a new pair of glasses. He also wrote checks to "cash," paid a large number of credit card bills, and gave liberally to a number of area churches and ministries.

But he didn't buy the agreed-to lots and didn't buy the pre-existing houses.

At trial, Lacy kept track of the financial paper trail with an extensive spread sheet and admitted 180 documents into evidence. During opening and closing arguments, though, he demonstrated the financial fraud with a shell game made out of Walnuts and a white bean, equating the real estate deal with the classic con game which makes a sleight-of-hand trick look like a fair bet.

Baily became suspicious when, six months after giving Lavigne $75,000, he drove by a piece of land he thought was his and found someone working on it. When he talked to the man, Baily found he didn't own the property he had paid Lavigne to buy. At the same time, Lavigne sold the property which Zimmerman thought he owned, while telling Zimmerman the lot would never sell.

When Zimmerman and Baily confronted Lavigne in early 2005, Lacy said, he told them he'd moved the money, purchasing a house in Atlanta.

"Now they think all of their money is tied up in a house," the county prosecutor said. "They both want their money back, but now it's tied up in a house ... They don't know he's spent all their money."

The two mechanics, suspicious, hired a lawyer to run title checks, discovering the seemingly upstanding Baptist and experienced real estate dealer doesn't own any of the three properties he has claimed to own.

At a meeting with church ministers, Zimmerman and Baily confronted Lavigne. He told them they had looked up the wrong address. Asked to account for their money, he hemmed and hedged, making promises and excuses, citing the Bible and assuring them he would pay their money back.

Zimmerman later said it was like a light went on in 2005, and he realized Lavigne was a liar.

On the witness stand this week, Lacy said, Lavigne continued to protest that he hadn't actually stolen anything, but was just getting lost in a host of elaborate and complicated business deals. The prosecutor told the jury to follow the paper trail, "because actions speak louder than words."

The jury, deliberating for a little more than an hour, found the 54-year-old guilty of theft by deception and theft by receiving. Judge Deborah Benefield sentenced Lavigne to seven years in prison, 33 years probation, and financial restitution.