By: Yuritza Arroyo
Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin today announced the guilty pleas of two impostors who pretended to be sellers of Atlantic City properties, using bogus deeds to deceive and defraud real estate investors out of over half-a-million dollars.
According to officials, Richard Toelk Jr., 54, who also went by the name “Richard Donato,” of Atlantic City, and his business partner, attorney Keith Smith, 60, of Egg Harbor Township, accepted plea offers as their trial was about to begin.
Officials say after a bench warrant was issued for his arrest when he missed his January 17 court appearance, Toelk, the primary orchestrator of the fraud, accepted a plea deal the next day, admitting to second-degree theft by deception
His co-conspirator, Smith, pleaded guilty to third-degree conspiracy. The charges were filed as a result of an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA).
“These investors spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and did not get what they bargained for,” said Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin.
“This was a lucrative scheme, with the scammers posing as the owners of what was, in fact, public property, some of which was along Atlantic City’s famous boardwalk. Their ruse, along with the paper trail manufactured to support it, were convincing enough that experienced real estate investors became victims.”
“This was a brazen scheme to fraudulently obtain title to properties belonging to Atlantic City and then dupe unwitting investors into financing the bogus purchases,” said Thomas Eicher, Executive Director of OPIA.
“This type of outright fraud, which victimized Atlantic City and the investors, cannot be tolerated, and the victims deserve to be made whole.”
According to authorities, the investigation revealed that Toelk and Smith produced at least 20 fake deeds for real estate in Atlantic City and filed them with the Atlantic County Clerk’s Office from November 2018 through January 2019.
Authorities say Toelk retained some for himself while marketing and selling others to unknowing investors in New York City and Philadelphia.
But investigators found that most of the properties were owned by the municipal government of Atlantic City, while a handful were privately owned. The land was not up for sale, plus the defendants had neither lawful title nor legal authority to sell any of the tracts.
The fake deeds said otherwise, though. They purported to transfer the ownership of the various properties, in several cases for just a dollar a piece, from the rightful owners to limited liability companies owned by the defendants.
According to officials, among the properties was a parcel owned by Atlantic City along the boardwalk, worth more than $1 million.
The fraudulent deeds, meanwhile, had no value or legal weight. Out-of-state investors gave the scammers an estimated $580,000 combined, thinking they were acquiring real estate when they were gaining the title to nothing.
Prosecutors will recommend a three-year prison term for Toelk during his sentencing, scheduled for March 23.
Smith’s sentencing is set for April 6. The recommendation will be probation, conditioned on his serving up to 364 days in the Atlantic County jail.
Both defendants agreed to be jointly liable for full restitution.