day during the summer of 1997, a woman walked into Fremont's LG Travel
to buy a pair of airline tickets to the Philippines. Her name, at least
for this article, is Soledad, or "solitude." She chose that
name for herself because the events that unfolded are still a terrible
secret she hides from her husband and parents. Her secret digs at her,
embarrasses her, cuts her off from the ones she loves most. She doesn't
know how to tell them she lost her life savings to a total stranger.
Soledad was greeted at the travel agency by Nimfa Montes Beredo, a likable
woman who goes by the nickname "Patricia." Like Soledad, Beredo
is Filipina; she had come to the United States from the Philippines just
two years before. Now 39, Beredo had -- and still has -- the face of a
college student, tiny and cute, with long dark straight hair, full lips,
and a snub nose. But to Soledad, she looked every inch the successful
businesswoman. She had the well-coifed hair, manicured nails, luxury car,
designer outfit and shoes, and expensive gold jewelry. And Beredo's manner
-- bubbly, expressive, girlish -- made it easy to relax in her presence.
Following a pleasant conversation, the travel agent made Soledad an unexpected
offer. She had a business plan to buy bulk airline tickets at a discount
and resell them at a substantial profit. All she needed was a partner
to cover the cost of the tickets. Might Soledad be interested?
A customer-service employee at a high-tech firm, Soledad was enticed by
the promise of a 10 percent return in just one month, and felt reassured
when Beredo buttered her up in Tagalog, the principal Filipino dialect.
"She said, 'I see you as a good person,'" Soledad remembers.
"In our dialect she said she likes me and we can be good business
partners." The agency they were standing in certainly looked legitimate:
It had cubicles, computers, and customers. Beredo had a business card
identifying her as the manager and her desk was at the very front of the
building, which Soledad thought made her look important. In truth, Beredo
was simply renting her cubicle from LG Travel's owners, but Soledad couldn't
have known that. The two kept in contact and, that August, Soledad decided
to invest. "I took $10,000 out of my savings," she recalls.
"I gave her a check and right away she gave me $1,000 cash, just
Ten grand was only the beginning. Beredo kept asking for more. Still without
telling her family, Soledad borrowed from her credit union and her 401(k)
until she had invested about $60,000. Then Beredo hit her up for something
really big -- she said she wanted to buy LG Travel, and asked Soledad
to take out a $50,000 business loan for its purchase. "She said she
cannot take a loan by herself," Soledad remembers. "She doesn't
have good credit and she's not a US citizen and I am both." Moreover,
Beredo promised her the loan was temporary -- as soon as the travel agent
transferred the business into her own name, she would take it over. Soledad
agreed, and when Bank of America granted her the money in the name of
"LG Travel," she rolled the entire $50,000 into Beredo's personal
account. "I never even saw the check," she says.
For the next two years, things seemed to go smoothly. Soledad loaned Beredo
more money and received some payments. Sure, Beredo wasn't paying out
quite as much or as frequently as she'd promised, but whenever Soledad
asked about it, Beredo always had what seemed like a good excuse. In the
meantime, they were becoming friends. Although Beredo was in fact married
with two daughters, she told Soledad she was single, childless, and younger
than she truly was. The pair would go shopping and out to eat. Beredo
confided her boyfriend troubles, called Soledad her best friend, and gave
her free airline tickets and gifts like Louis Vuitton purses and roses
on her birthday. She would sometimes regale her friend with stories about
her high-flying lifestyle, about how she had rented a boat while vacationing
in Tahoe, or had taken her friends to the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas.
"She was a very nice person to be friends with if you don't know
she's doing all these bad things," Soledad recalls.
Before long, however, Soledad began picking up some hints that Beredo
was up to something very bad indeed. In 1999, Bank of America complained
that Beredo had stopped paying off the interest and demanded Soledad repay
the loan. When Soledad asked her new friend about it, Beredo admitted
to having money problems, but used the opportunity to hit her up for more
funds. "She told me that the business of buying LG Travel didn't
go through," Soledad recalls. "So she told me, 'I'm going to
form another business, and if you can help me form it it's the only way
I can pay you. '" Beredo offered to list Soledad's name as CEO "in
name only" on the incorporation papers as a show of good faith. The
woman took the bait, and Beredo dubbed the new agency Fremont Cyber International
Travel Services. It was in the same office as LG Travel.
The new business didn't make things any better. Soon there was a letter
from the state Employment Development Board asking Soledad why she hadn't
paid any taxes on the business she thought she owned "in name only."
There were calls from people who said they were investors and wanted to
know where their money had gone. A mutual acquaintance let it slip that
Beredo was actually married, and when Soledad confronted her about it
Beredo claimed it was a marriage of convenience and that her children
were actually her husband's. Things were getting confusing and scary as
more of Beredo's investors threatened to hold Soledad responsible. "I
was worried," she remembers. "What's going to happen? Are they
going to put a lien on my property?"
By early 2001, Beredo confided to Soledad that she owed people who'd invested
in her airline ticket business a lot of money, that she wasn't able to
make payments, and that the interest was accumulating too quickly. Soledad
tried to remain supportive because she didn't want to jeopardize her chances
of getting repaid. She recalls one afternoon when Beredo seemed to break
down. "She was telling me, 'Let's go to a church. Help me pray,'"
she says. They drove around looking for a church, but couldn't find one
that was open.
And anyway, by then it would have been hard to find anyone left in the
East Bay's Filipino community willing to pray for Patricia Beredo. Soledad,
it turned out, was just one among many dozens of marks who had together
sunk millions of dollars into Beredo's bogus business. Con artists often
play on a common thread they have with their victims. In this case it
was a shared Filipino heritage and close community ties that allowed her
scam to spread among family members and co-workers, and from one family
to the next.
It hit Eugene Mankinen's family like a virus. Mankinen isn't Filipino,
but his wife and in-laws are. The semiretired electrical engineer from
San Jose was brought into the scheme by his unwitting brother-in-law,
who had been recruited by his sister-in-law and also had gone on to solicit
funds from his mother and sister -- at least nine friends and family members
eventually invested. It's this aspect Mankinen finds the most repugnant:
"You've got sister selling brother on this scam. It's pretty slick,"
The con followed a formula. The mark would invest after being promised
extraordinary returns, receive one or two payments, and excitedly invest
more and bring in new victims. Then the checks would start to bounce.
Sometimes investors would give Beredo access to their credit cards to
cover airline ticket purchases, only to later receive exorbitant bills
for personal expenses. When they tried to complain, Beredo would magically
slip away. She'd stop taking their calls, and always seemed to be absent
when they showed up at her office. Only then it would dawn on them: There
was no bulk airline ticket business. All of the trappings used to win
their trust -- the cars, the suits, the gifts -- came straight out of
their own pockets.
This is what's known as a Ponzi scheme, and what makes it illegal is that
little or no real commerce is taking place -- the money is simply shunted
around in such a way that most, if not all, of the investors will lose
their shirts. Using the new investors' cash, the swindler makes modest
payouts to prior investors, keeping them in the game; the con artist,
meanwhile, takes a substantial cut. It's the sort of white-collar crime
the Internal Revenue Service investigates when it's not auditing people's
taxes. In fact, at just about the same time Soledad was driving Beredo
around looking for a church, the agency's Criminal Investigations Unit
had quietly begun looking into Beredo's activities.
The feds eventually estimated that Beredo had bilked her victims, mostly
East Bay Filipinos, out of $3.1 million, a conservative estimate based
on the losses of 27 people the IRS agents used to build their case. But
the Fremont police, California Attorney General's office, and state's
bankruptcy courts documented dozens of additional complaints from Beredo's
targets, some of whom had sold or refinanced their homes, cashed out their
stocks, emptied their retirement plans, or depleted their children's college
funds in order to invest.
Official inquiries, however, move at a snail's pace. When the authorities
were slow to respond, the frustrated investors began to find one another
and launch investigations of their own. Individually and in small groups,
they chipped away at Beredo's complicated web of financial transactions.
Sometimes the sleuthing led to dead ends or left them accusing each another
of complicity. But it was ultimately their efforts that got law enforcement
agencies to take the case seriously. In the process, they uncovered evidence
that would be instrumental in putting their nemesis behind bars. In the
end, the very bonds that Beredo exploited to make her con a success would
lead to her undoing.
Mankinen was among the first to take a hard look at Beredo's activities.
He started investing in 1998, and for a time things seemed to be going
well. "She was paying what she promised," the engineer recalls.
"At first it was 20 percent returns, then it was 10 percent."
He and his wife invested at a feverish pace, together giving Beredo more
than $200,000 in just a few months. "I was really getting carried
away," he says, flipping through a stack of Beredo's worthless promissory
But some things about Beredo and her business didn't smell right. For
instance, Mankinen could never cash her checks without approval from a
certain bank teller. Then a few checks bounced. After that, he says, "She
would meet us in the parking lot to pay us cash. You'd see a stack of
$100 bills. She had a purse full of them -- she must have had ten or twenty
grand in her purse all the time." Sometimes Beredo would offer to
reinvest Mankinen's profits. She wouldn't hand over a dime, but it left
him with the impression that he was making money.
The breaking point came after a party at which Beredo introduced Mankinen
to her husband, Edgar Beredo, saying that he was an engineer for General
Motors. "I tried to talk engineer talk to him and it was clear he
was not an engineer," Mankinen says. "He didn't have any technical
knowledge at all. Zero." The encounter left him deeply suspicious.
He decided to stop investing and asked for his principal back. Initially,
Beredo agreed. But each month she would fail to pay, and would lower the
interest rate. "She signed an agreement for monthly payments, but
she kept rewriting it, until we were down to zero percent. I said, 'Okay,
just give me my money back. I'll be happy to break even,'" he recalls.
As 1999 dragged on, Mankinen launched a one-man investigation. He started
with the luxury cars Beredo drove. He ran a license-plate check and discovered
they were all rented. He also found that she was listed at a half-dozen
addresses. He wrote to the owners of LG Travel complaining about her tactics,
which he claims led to her being given the boot. He printed up "wanted"
posters accusing Beredo of fraud. And he got the records for his brother-in-law's
credit cards, which Beredo had been authorized to use to buy plane tickets
-- instead she'd racked up expenses at beauty salons, clothing stores,
luxury hotels, flower shops, fitness centers, and voice coaches.
Finally, Mankinen took his case to the courts. He hired an attorney to
represent himself and five family members who had lost a total of $430,000.
During the discovery process, Mankinen subpoenaed some of Beredo's bank
records and discovered something that made him wonder if she had an inside
accomplice: Her account information contained no Social Security or driver's
license number, and no dates. During the time Mankinen had been her investor,
she'd written checks to people he would later come to recognize as fellow
victims, as well as to her husband, one of her boyfriends, and herself.
"If you look at the bank records, you can see the day she got a check
from me she took it to the bank and wrote checks against it," he
says. "There was no check clearing or anything." He correctly
surmised that Beredo was paying out small amounts to her investors to
hold them off. "In the meantime, she's bleeding the account for about
five to ten grand a week," he says.
But the civil suit ultimately went nowhere. Beredo failed to show up for
many court appearances, and although the judge ordered her to pay back
the $430,000 plus $500,000 in damages, she never did. Mankinen would later
share his information with government investigators and fellow victims.
But for now, there was little he could do but return to work and try to
earn his savings back.
In the grand scope of Patricia Beredo's activities, Caroline Carrion was
small fry. The Hayward accountant, who had met Beredo while buying a plane
ticket in 2000, had invested only $10,000. But unlike Soledad, Carrion
didn't keep her loss a secret. "When I want something done, I'm just
basically a go-getter," she says. "I'm focused. I felt that
she shouldn't be able to get away with this."
After Beredo failed to repay her, Carrion took her case to the Fremont
police, as others had before her. The investigators duly recorded the
complaint, but claimed they didn't have enough evidence to make an arrest.
Many potential fraud cases are stymied by the difficulty of drawing a
clear line between a legitimate investment that went bad and a genuine
scam -- investigators need to show deliberate malfeasance to get the district
attorney's office to prosecute. "It was a dead end," Carrion
remembers. "The police couldn't move forward because you need proof."
But Carrion didn't stop there. On a trip to the Philippines, she inquired
with that country's National Bureau of Investigation to see if Beredo
had a record. It was a clever impulse, but ultimately fruitless, since
Carrion didn't know what city Beredo was from or whether she'd used another
name back home. She returned empty-handed, but still determined.
Back at Beredo's office, the con woman stonewalled her. "She was
giving me attitude and shouting at me and banging the phone, and she really
pissed me off," Carrion recalls. So, in a moment of pique, Carrion
spirited the receptionist's phone message log off the desk and copied
down all of the names and numbers she found there. At home, she called
everyone on the list, and discovered other angry investors to whom Baredo
owed money. Carrion's idea was that they would share their stories, piece
together the scam's common elements, and present their case to the authorities
en masse. "If you go as a group, perhaps it will have an impact on
the police," she figured.
The newfound five-member alliance first met to compare horror stories
in a Denny's restaurant, and later at people's homes. At first it was
mostly women, including Soledad and a Fremont woman, who asked to be identified
by the pseudonym Christine Day. Day had invested $20,000 and Beredo charged
another $25,000 to her credit card. "She always targeted women and
told them not to tell their husbands, so that the women would be scared
and not make a big thing out of it if they lost the money," she says.
The women wanted to close the net on Beredo. Not knowing where to start,
they tried the media. They mailed a letter to Fox affiliate KTVU, Channel
2, as well as "7 on Your Side," a consumer segment on KGO-TV,
Channel 7. No luck. "They said they didn't have the manpower to do
an investigation," Day says. They also filed reports with the Fremont
Police Department, and with the state Attorney General's Seller of Travel
Program, which regulates travel agencies.
Although they found comfort in numbers, members of the anti-Beredo club
were dispirited when they realized how large her debt truly was. As new
members joined, each member's chance of being repaid seemed to diminish.
They began to feel that hiring a lawyer would just be throwing good money
after bad. Then, in 2001, Beredo filed for bankruptcy, giving her victims
a new way to confront her. The court appointed a trustee to examine her
assets, which were to be liquidated and distributed to creditors. The
creditors were allowed to publicly question Beredo about where their money
had gone, which led to heated interrogations by her victims.
None of them, however, got anything from Beredo but a "doey-eyed"
look, according to Tevis Thompson, the court trustee. "We asked her
about her receipts, her bills, her canceled checks -- anything that would
really show some trail of where money might have gone -- and she would
look at us with this strange, confused look and say 'I don't know what
you're talking about, I don't know much about business,'" he recalls.
"She wouldn't understand what a check was, what 'income' or 'expense'
was. It was very frustrating."
If Beredo had money, she kept it well hidden. The fancy cars, as Mankinen
had previously discovered, turned out to be leased. An upscale house had
been rented, not owned. "There was an evidence of high living,"
Thompson says, "which doesn't translate into assets, personal property."
Likewise, an attorney hired by the courts to research Beredo's financial
holdings came up empty-handed. "If all this money was flying around,
where did it go?" Thompson asks. "There was no real answer to
that. [Beredo] just kind of said it was gone."
Dissatisfied with the way the hearings were going, Christine Day decided
to launch her own sting. In bankruptcy, the debtor must shutter the failed
business. Day was convinced Beredo had simply closed one office and started
a new one, a Fremont agency called Travel Unlimited. To prove it, she
walked into the office and pretended to price tickets. She asked the man
at the front desk to write down his boss' name. It was "Patricia
Beredo." Then the phone rang, and Beredo herself was on the line;
Day asked her about tickets and was quoted a rate. Now convinced, Day
obtained a copy of the agency's business registration from the city. Her
hunch had been correct. "She had mentioned in the bankruptcy papers
that she wasn't an employee for Travel Unlimited, and in the business
registration she was employee number one," Day exclaims. "She
was lying under oath!"
Day produced this new evidence in the midst of a questioning session,
handing over the incriminating papers to Thompson and provoking quite
a reaction. "Oh, everybody was shocked," Day recalls. The revelation
indicated that Beredo was hiding her assets from the court. "It seemed
to us that she'd taken all the assets -- furniture and fixtures -- and
moved it to another spot and called it a different name and was working
under someone else's travel license because hers didn't work anymore,"
The court, however, could find little else that Beredo owned. In the end,
it distributed a mere $21,350 to her creditors -- and most of that came
by way of her attorney forgoing his fees. Despite the victims' court attendance
and all the reports they'd submitted to the authorities, they felt ignored.
"We thought that nothing is happening," Carrion says. "When
we would follow up with the police and Seller of Travel office, they would
say there is something working out but we cannot divulge what is going
on. It was frustrating."
Discouraged, the group gave up.
What the victims' alliance didn't know was that the Fremont cops and state
Attorney General's office, which had initiated a civil investigation,
had taken their complaints seriously enough to quietly pass along the
case to the IRS. Indeed, Thompson had been about to get a court order
that would have forced Beredo to turn over more evidence, but was told
to back off and let the feds take over.
The tax cops, after all, had the tools to scrutinize Beredo's financial
history, and they wanted this case. "The IRS doesn't often get a
chance to be the good guy," says spokesman Mark Lessler. "We
have a lot of cases where the government is largely the only identifiable
victim. But in this case you had victims who were living, breathing people
who lost in some cases their life savings."
Special Agent Cecilia Braga, a soft-spoken and tenacious Filipina investigator,
was put in charge of the case, which would take nearly two years to complete.
She immediately recognized Beredo's business as a Ponzi scheme, and saw
how she was taking advantage of her targets' ethnic background. "I
know that when Filipinos do immigrate to the United States, it's always
scary," she says. "You're in a new country and you're a little
bit skeptical of other races, because in your homeland everybody was pretty
much Filipino. They tend to trust more people from their own ethnicity."
Braga's investigation didn't turn up much about Beredo's past. According
to court documents, her parents had died and she'd been raised by an aunt
and uncle. She came to the United States in 1995 and was allowed a temporary
stay thanks to her husband's employment here, but she had overstayed her
legal welcome. In the States, Beredo created quite a paper trail. Braga
uncovered at least 29 bank accounts and six different travel agencies
-- many registered in the victims' names -- linked to the con woman. If
trouble arose at one office, Beredo would simply open a new one. These
offices did some legitimate ticket sales, but their real purpose, apparently,
was as a setting to attract new marks.
Beredo had boasted to potential investors that she had ticket-buying agreements
with many of the Bay Area's biggest companies -- Applied Materials, Boeing,
Bechtel, Oracle, the Oakland Raiders -- as well as a dozen major air carriers,
claims Braga found to be false. "There were no contracts whatsoever,"
The agent also conducted weekly trash runs at Beredo's house to learn
how she was spending her money. Sifting through coffee grounds and banana
peels, Braga collected $60,000 in receipts for shops such as Neiman Marcus
and Saks Fifth Avenue. "The cash receipts of her shopping habits
were astonishing," she recalls. Through her rubbish recon, Braga
also stumbled upon a crucial piece of information: Beredo was a fugitive
from the Philippine justice system.
This discovery, in fact, was first made by two of Beredo's victims who
still lived in the Philippines, a husband and wife named Jun Arcilla and
Jovina Obiacoro. In an attempt to pressure the con artist to return their
money, the couple had faxed Beredo court documents showing that she had
been charged with estafa (check fraud) in 1995; she'd fled the Philippines
shortly thereafter and was convicted in absentia in 1996. If they didn't
get their money back, the couple threatened, they would alert US authorities.
Beredo simply tossed the incriminating fax in the trash, where Braga recovered
it. In a circuitous fashion, Arcilla and Obiacoro had achieved their goal.
To really prove Beredo's guilt, Braga had to catch the swindler red-handed.
So in December 2001, the IRS sent in an undercover agent wearing a wire.
One of Beredo's victims agreed to introduce the agent as a "rich
and frugal" friend who wanted to buy tickets to the Philippines.
Sure enough, Beredo made her usual pitch. The agent invested $5,000, and
was promised a 10 percent return in four days. There was no payout. In
January, the IRS sent him back with another $5,000. Again, Beredo didn't
pay. The agent continued to demand repayment until May 2002. "We
have to give her enough time, give her plenty of opportunity to do the
right thing if this was a legitimate investment," Braga explains.
It was a delicate choice: Braga knew the longer the operation took, the
more victims Beredo would snag. And she'd gotten better at it than ever.
By 2002, Beredo had left trails of sorrow through nearly every city in
southern Alameda County, as well as San Jose, South San Francisco, and
even Southern California. Nobody had a better view of the scam than Rosemarie
de Vora, whom Beredo had hired to run a Fremont office she dubbed World
De Vora doesn't speak Tagalog, and she thinks Beredo hired her because
she couldn't eavesdrop on the parade of upset people coming into the office.
But de Vora was no fool. She quickly realized that Beredo knew little
about running a business. "She never paid her bills; she did not
know how to set up a ledger for bill-paying; she never kept track of ingoing
or outgoing checks; there was no record for taxes," she says.
As Mankinen had, de Vora saw things that aroused her suspicion, such as
Beredo's tendency to deal in cash. "She said Filipinos don't like
to pay checks," the office manager recalls. Beredo also claimed she
ran a string of travel agencies, but de Vora couldn't find their phone
numbers listed anywhere. And the boss would frequently call herself "Maria
De Guzman," particularly when dealing with the landlord. "She
would lie about things she had no reason to lie about, like what she was
wearing or what time she came into the office," de Vora says. "I've
never met anybody who was that adept at lying."
Or at shopping. De Vora took phone calls from Beredo's personal shoppers
and booked her hotel reservations. "She must have spent $4,000 or
$5,000 a month on clothes, minimum," she says. "She had her
hair done just about every day." She'd also visited Beredo's three-bedroom
home in Fremont, decorated with designer furniture that had been purchased
in layouts straight off the showroom floor.
Then there was Beredo's whirlwind romance with an American named David
Grech, a manager for an auto insurance company. They married in early
2003 after knowing each other only a short while. De Vora recalls that
around the time of the wedding, Beredo had been asking her questions about
whether marrying somebody meant she'd get a new Social Security number,
or if Grech would still be obliged to pay alimony to his ex-wife if he
Unbeknown to her betrothed, Beredo was still married to Edgar Beredo.
Grech, who has since annulled the union, is reluctant to say much, except
that it lasted less than a month and he now believes she married him to
get her citizenship. During their marriage, he knew nothing of her investment
scheme or her victims. "I'm sure I was just one sucker of a different
version along the way," he says.
For de Vora, the final straw was seeing what looked like Beredo's distinctive
handwriting on checks belonging to other people. "It was a bad feeling;
to me, it looked like she was forging checks," de Vora says. So she
began keeping a file of copies of documents that looked suspicious to
her, just in case they would come in handy later.
Beredo's ploy had her flying high for at least five years, but the endgame
was approaching. As angry investors pulled out and spread the word to
other potential targets, the con began to lose its momentum. "That's
probably what brings down the Ponzi scheme," Braga says. "It
slows down the incoming money, and then no one gets paid." Beredo
had approached three final sets of victims, who would provide the final
evidence the feds needed to finally make an arrest.
It turned out Beredo's alias belonged to a real Maria De Guzman, who worked
at a Mercedes dealership in Fremont. They'd met when Beredo had come into
the dealership to ask about buying an E-Class, and then pitched her usual
De Guzman invested $20,000 with Beredo, who returned two weeks later and
used what De Guzman now suspects was her own money to put a down payment
on the car. At Beredo's urging, De Guzman continued to invest, and in
less than two months was in it for $80,000. "She works pretty fast,"
De Guzman recalls. "She likes to take money from people right away,
because sooner or later you're gonna figure out what she does."
Beredo played the same game as she had with Soledad, going out of her
way to befriend De Guzman. The con woman gave her gifts and took her to
expensive restaurants. And, much as she had with Soledad, Beredo registered
her World Destiny Travel under De Guzman's name as a show of good faith.
But the saleswoman quickly grew wary. Weird things kept happening; once,
when Beredo called her at home, De Guzman's own name showed up on the
caller ID. Beredo, De Guzman realized, had put her phone bill in her name.
De Guzman had authorized Beredo to use half a dozen of her credit cards
for ticket purchases -- instead she ran up charges of about $125,000 at
places such as Nordstrom, Louis Vuitton, and Macy's. Meanwhile, she began
missing payments on the new Mercedes. Then, out of the blue, De Guzman
received a phone call from Jun Arcilla, who had seen her name on an American
Express bill at Beredo's house, and warned her to have nothing to do with
Like Soledad, De Guzman remained friendly in an attempt to recover her
investment. Shortly after she became disillusioned, however, she was contacted
by Braga. De Guzman shared her story with the agent, then helped the investigators
draw up an interior map of Beredo's house in preparation for an upcoming
Beredo, meanwhile, had moved in on her last known victims, the Abads and
the Carandangs, both Fremont couples. The Abads were approached by Beredo
at a birthday party -- they both had daughters at the same elementary
school. Ferdinand Abad, a kitchen supervisor at a nursing home, and his
wife Donna had eagerly invested $400,000, hoping to use the profits to
finance an addition to their house. Ferdinand even helped out at World
Destiny Travel, delivering legitimate plane tickets to customers.
The charming con woman then hit up Henry and Nenita Carandang, who run
a real-estate business, as they were eating in a restaurant. They ultimately
invested almost $120,000, and agreed to rent her a cubicle in their Hayward
office for a new travel agency Beredo said she planned to open. Beredo
decorated the cubicle with model airplanes and posters advertising trips
to the Philippines, Africa, and Mexico, but never officially opened for
As usual, Beredo greased her new marks with gifts such as free airline
and football tickets. The two families didn't know each other at the time,
but later discovered that they had in essence paid for one another's treats.
"She'd be giving you gifts using your own money," Henry Carandang
sighs. "It's like you are being cooked in your own oil." Nenita
Carandang says everything had seemed so promising that she'd been on the
verge of telling her siblings to join Beredo's investment deal.
Then Ferdinand Abad made a troubling discovery. Beredo had loaned him
the Mercedes to deliver tickets. She'd previously told him the car was
a bonus from Philippine Airlines for being such a great saleswoman, but
when he opened the glove box, he found the sales papers from De Guzman's
dealership. It was clear the car was not a gift. Then came the bounced
checks, outrageous credit card bills, and elusive behavior.
Abad knew that Beredo was cheating him and thought she had an accomplice
-- Maria De Guzman. After all, World Destiny Travel was rented in her
name, and her name was on the Mercedes documents. He strode, fuming, into
De Guzman's dealership, where he accused her of being Beredo's partner.
The two quickly realized they were victims of the same scam, and De Guzman
told him everything she knew. Abad promptly went to the Fremont police
authorities -- he figures that the evidence he provided must have been
decisive, because the very next day the IRS arrested Beredo at home and
raided her office.
"I went into the office at 8:30 to open it up," de Vora recalls.
"Five minutes later, there is a knock on the door and six armed FBI
and IRS agents in flak jackets walked through the door. The first thing
they said is 'Are there any guns here?' The look on my face must have
said everything, because they said, 'It's okay, calm down.'" As soon
as de Vora caught her breath, she handed over the stack of evidence she'd
The con was finally over.
The next time any of Beredo's enemies saw her was at the federal courthouse
in Oakland. The proceedings stretched on for a year, as her public defender
sorted through sixty boxes of evidence and Beredo cooled her heels at
Santa Rita Jail. In person, Beredo seems much younger than her booking
photo, which shows a middle-aged woman with puffy eyes and a haggard look.
Her face has filled out. Her dark hair, peroxided a brassy orange at the
start of her incarceration, has grown out and is now only yellow at the
tips. In court, she wore her bright-yellow prison-issue jumpsuit and denim
jacket with the sleeves jauntily rolled up to the elbows, and her hair
in French braids or perky little ponytails atop her head. Her behavior
was girlish and demure. When she entered the courtroom, she would peer
eagerly and shyly at the gallery, as if to see who had come to her surprise
Many had. Agent Braga and several of Beredo's victims could frequently
be spotted in the audience. Some of the onlookers were there simply to
gawk, others to see justice carried out. At Beredo's bail hearing, Henry
Carandang remembers overhearing her tell her attorney that the audience
was really there to urge her release so she could issue them their airline
tickets. Carandang was so outraged he burst out yelling. "I couldn't
control myself," he remembers. "I just stood up, and said, 'No,
Your Honor! We are here not to ask for her release! We are victims!'"
Judge Wayne Brazil later remarked that in his more than eighteen years
on the bench, he had never seen a courtroom full of people assemble to
demand that he keep someone in jail. He called Beredo a "relentless
liar" who seemed "incapable of honesty" and had "quite
a facility with fake documents." If released, the judge reasoned,
Beredo could easily con a new investor, get some money quickly, then "write
her own passport and her own airplane ticket and she's gone. To anywhere!
Tahiti! Iceland!" With that, he denied her bail.
Beredo pled guilty on all counts -- which included charges of money laundering,
credit card fraud, and wire fraud. At her sentencing last month, the con
woman mostly remained quiet. She offered a few words of apology and meekly
accepted her prison term of 57 months, which will likely be followed by
deportation to serve time for her offenses in the Philippines. Public
defender Joyce Leavitt would say only this on behalf of her client: "Ms.
Beredo has made some bad decisions and I know she deeply regrets what
Her victims doubt it. "She will do it again," Nenita Carandang
says firmly. "That's all she knows how to do." Just as bad,
they say, maybe she'll just retire on their money. "In the Philippines
there is really no justice like here in the United States. She can get
away with a lot over there," De Guzman says. "Maybe all the
money she took from people is there, so she can really have a good life
Nobody, after all, can figure out where the money went. The judge ordered
Beredo to pay $2.5 million in restitution, but the IRS dredged up only
$17,000 to be divided among the victims. After all of their efforts, most
of Beredo's investors will reclaim only a few hundred dollars. Not only
that, many now must contend with damaged credit, delinquent loans, bills
their credit card companies won't forgive, and higher mortgage payments.
Even the IRS lost the $10,000 it sent in with the undercover agent.
Some of the money was clearly cycled from one victim to the next as part
of the scam. And some went to pay for Beredo's lifestyle. As for the rest,
the victims have their theories: Beredo sent the cash back to the Philippines
with her husband, who flew there with their children shortly after her
arrest; or perhaps she salted it away in trust accounts for her daughters.
Maybe she had an accomplice who worked at a bank who hid it in a secret
account for her; then again, she might have gambled it away during frequent
trips to Las Vegas and Reno.
The most popular theory, however, is that she simply spent it all. As
de Vora puts it, despite Beredo's illusion of wealth, "she lived
from day to day, week to week. She was always on the search for one dime
to cover the next dime. There is no cache of money."
Special Agent Braga says she hopes the victims will find solace in knowing
Beredo can't continue her scam; the Beredo-investigation clubs have now
morphed into something more like support groups. "I guess it's part
of the healing process to be in touch with each other and have some type
of closure," Braga says.
The Carandangs and Abads, now friends, are considering a civil suit, not
that it would get them anything. The Carandangs still keep Beredo's cubicle
in their office as a sort of tongue-in-cheek memorial to their loss. But
Henry Carandang concedes that what they all really need to do is move
on. "If you don't go back to your normal life," he says, "you'll
There are some victims who believe Beredo is actually crazy, a compulsive
liar with no conscience or empathy. Others think that she is simply very,
very clever. Regardless, she remains something of a contradiction, a woman
who lived at the center of a vast network of people and yet was so totally
alone -- as she is now.
On a late April morning, Beredo gets out of her cell for a jailhouse interview
deep in a wing of Santa Rita that is painted a garish pink. She is reluctant
to discuss certain topics without first consulting her lawyer, but she's
clearly happy to have some company and chat about the less controversial
aspects of her life.
She boasts of having graduated with honors in communications at Far Eastern
University, and says she worked as a television newscaster and then as
a flight attendant for Philippine Airlines. She's never been in trouble
with the law before, Beredo adds. Given this bit of fiction, you can take
the rest with a grain of salt.
Beredo claims she'd planned to pay investors back eventually, but they
were too skittish. "Probably the bad thing I did is all my investors
are not businesspeople," she says. "They are not used to taking
risks. They're not really investors, so I don't blame them." It is
counterproductive for her to be in jail, she says, when she could be out
earning back people's money. "I told them, which do you want, to
see me in jail or for me to continue working?" she says.
When she does get out, she says, she hopes to go into publishing or advertising.
Her dream, she notes, has always been to work for an advertising agency
-- she wants to be someone else's employee now. No more running her own
business. "I always have Plan A and Plan B," she says. "I
know for sure that I have something to look forward to." She seems
oblivious to the fact that she'll likely be sent to serve more time in
Does she have anything to say to her investors? "I am deeply distressed
and so very sorry for my actions, and I hope they can find it in their
hearts to forgive me," Beredo replies in a contrite tone. "I
can assure them I have learned greatly and can live up to my full potential
after this experience."
Time's up, and a guard comes to return Beredo to her cell. With the same
sincere tone, she promises to confer with her attorney and then call the
next morning to discuss the more intricate details of her investment scheme.
The next morning I wait by the phone.
There is no call.
There will never be a call.
Even behind the electronically gated walls of Santa Rita, Beredo has slipped
away once again. Like so many of her victims, I am left waiting for a
payout that never comes.