FBI: Government conspiracy group may have helped fugitives escape

(CNN)John and Julieanne Dimitrion scammed good people out of their homes, the FBI says, and then they disappeared.

They were the "masterminds of a large fraud scheme," the FBI's Brandon Simpson told CNN's "The Hunt with John Walsh," which hit Tricia Dano's family especially hard


Dano blames the Dimitrions for the loss of their cherished family home in Honolulu's Kaimuki neighborhood.

For Dano, it started in 1999 when she moved from Washington state back to Hawaii to help her mother take care of her ailing grandmother. Her grandmother "felt that if she was going to pass, she wanted to be at home, right where she belonged," Dano said.

When the family began having trouble making house payments, they decided to refinance their mortgage. Seeing an ad for the Dimitrions' company, Mortgage Alliance on TV, Dano and her mother made an appointment.

The pitch

The Dimitrions didn't arrive until an hour into the meeting, Dano recalled. The couple made a memorable impression as they made their pitch wearing designer clothes and expensive jewelry.

The FBI said the Dimitrions pitched their scam like this: "We will have someone buy your property — but in name only. You'll continue to live there and we'll fix your credit and a year from now you'll be able to buy that property back. You won't lose it to foreclosure and you can keep your family home."

"I thought, 'These people definitely know what they're doing,'" recalled Dano. "So we signed over the title, thinking that, 'OK this is the first step to the rent-to-own process.'"

Then the Dimitrions found a "straw buyer" who purchased the Dano property in their name. That buyer was an acquaintance named Laura Cristo. "They explained it to me that it was a short sale, that I wasn't getting involved," Cristo said.

She thought the Dimitrions were good people trying to help others, so Cristo said "OK." "I just started initialing and signing," she remembered. "I never really read the papers."

'I decided to call the FBI'

Soon, people started coming by the Dano family home telling them it was either for sale or auction. That confused Dano because she'd been making payments. Now she wasn't sure what was happening to that money.

Then a mortgage company called Cristo asking why she wasn't making payments on the Dano family property. But that confused her, because she wasn't supposed to be paying anything at all.

So Cristo called Dano's mother to find out why the payments weren't being made.When they talked, they knew something was very wrong. "That's when I realized what kind of scam they were doing, and I decided to call the FBI," Cristo said.

The feds started digging.

The FBI learned that the Dimitrions were telling victims that their "money was going into an escrow account, but really that money was going into a Dimitrion slush fund account," said special agent Simpson.

Eventually, Dano and other victims found themselves being evicted out of their own homes by new owners who had bought the property at foreclosure auctions. Even after the scam had been exposed, there was little authorities could do. The property had been legally sold to someone else.

"None of these people were able to get their property back because it was for sale now at prices they couldn't afford," said Simpson. "I cried every night," said Dano. "I felt responsible because I made a promise to my grandmother."

'It was clear they had broken the law'

A grand jury indicted the Dimitrions for conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and making false statements on loan applications to obtain $1.3 million in new loans between 2005 and 2007, according to the Honolulu Star Advertiser.

"For both of them it was really a shock," said the Dimitrions' attorney Myles Breiner. "They wanted to explain themselves. From the evidence, in my opinion, it was clear they had broken the law. These loans were fraudulent mortgages and whatever explanation John or Julieanne was going to proffer was not going to change the fact that they had broken state and federal laws."

Under a plea agreement, they each pleaded guilty to one charge each of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, money laundering and making false statements on loan applications. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, but she did not, according to the Honolulu Star Advertiser.

They never showed up

At the sentencing hearing in 2010, more than 100 supporters waited in a courtroom for the Dimitrions to show up. But the couple never appeared.

Apparently, they'd decided to make a run for it rather than go to prison. Breiner, the Dimitrions' attorney, was stunned. "Julieanne could have ended up with little or no jail," Breiner said. "And John's amount of jail was under two years."

FBI tip: 'Conspiracy' group helped them escape

If you're a fugitive from justice, escaping an island located 2,400 miles from the mainland — especially when you appear in TV ads and your money and passports have been taken away — isn't easy.

So how did they do it?

Six to eight months after the sentencing hearing, the FBI got a very unusual tip. They heard that the Dimitrions might have had help fleeing the island from a group called the Republic for the United States of America (RUSA).

The group has a "certain paranoid belief that the government is controlled by some vast conspiracy," Breiner said.

"We believe that John may have convinced this group that he was a financial guru," said FBI special agent Nick Baron. "He was able to monetize natural resources and they were going to fund the new society that they wanted. This group hatched a plan to smuggle John and Julieanne off the island via a private jet."

RUSA sent "The Hunt" a response to the FBI's allegations, saying, it "does not advocate fraud or unlawfulness of any type and is solely dedicated to the ultimate, peaceful return of our nation to its original constitutional principles of government."

The Dimitrions left behind them a trail of sadness from their many victims who were scammed out of their homes, including Dano and her beloved grandmother, who never did return to her precious home.

"My grandmother passed Mother's Day weekend in 2010," said Dano. "She had her house on her mind until the day she died."