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Con man looked for more than good location

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By Richard Byrne Reilly
Sunday, Jan. 30, 2005
 

A con artist who posed as a wealthy businessman to steal jewelry under the noses of unsuspecting real estate agents has shaken the realty industry and forced its members to reassess how they show homes to buyers.

The crimes have prompted agents to focus more on their clients' backgrounds, and some victims want the agencies that showed their houses to be held accountable.

"Everybody is a little more guarded because of what he did," said Jane Compagonone, manager of the Prudential Preferred Realty office in Mt. Lebanon.

Darius G. Maaghul, who spent the proceeds from the stolen jewels as fast as he could pawn them, has a criminal record that could fill an entire newspaper column. He fancied button-down Polo shirts and treated himself to lavish dinners and round after round of Absolut on the rocks.

Police say they have placed Maaghul at 18 upscale houses where jewelry had been reported stolen -- in Mt. Lebanon, Robinson, Upper St. Clair, Moon and Mt. Washington. He has been convicted in five of those cases.

Many agents have been left to wonder whether they are showing houses to legitimate clients or career criminals.

Maaghul, 41, hired Marcy Parrish in 2003 to sell his Mt. Washington home, then stole jewelry from homes she showed him.

"The moral to this story is that the seller should make sure that their valuables are locked up while their house is being shown," said Parrish, an agent with Coldwell Banker.

But don't tell that to Margie Hinds, who says she is "on a mission" to make Re/Max Realty, and its agent, take responsibility for allowing Maaghul into her Robinson home on four occasions.

She eventually recovered some of the stolen wedding rings, necklaces and bracelets -- a few of the items belonged to her late mother -- but she is still fuming about having to buy them from a Pittsburgh pawnbroker.

"Re/Max wouldn't talk to us, (the agent) wouldn't return our calls, so we got a lawyer," said Hinds, herself a former real estate agent.

A Mt. Washington couple who lost more than $20,000 in jewelry hired a private investigator to see whether the realty company that showed the home can be held liable for the loss, said Pittsburgh police Detective Brian Rodgers.

State law does not require real estate agents to stay with a potential buyer at all times during a tour, said Brian McDonald, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees realty licensing.

"There is nothing in black and white," he said, but agents must "conduct themselves in good faith, trustworthiness and competency" during real estate transactions.

Jim Mentzer, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Realty Association in Harrisburg, said agents need to be aware of who they are dealing with.

"Common sense dictates that agents keep an eye on potential buyers, especially if the house being shown is occupied and there are valuables inside," Mentzer said.

"A smooth talker"

Although he hails from a family that has succeeded in legitimate businesses, Maaghul (pronounced MUH-GOOL) chose to use his smarts and people skills for a life of theft and fraud in four states, according to former friends, business associates and law enforcement officials.

"Darius Maaghul is a true con man bordering on the sociopathic," said Upper St. Clair police Lt. James Englert.

Even after police finally caught up with him him on Sept. 26, 2003, Maaghul tried to con his way out of the handcuffs.

"He was telling us, 'This isn't right, you got the wrong guy,'" said Robinson police Chief Dale Vietmeier, who helped arrest Maaghul in the parking lot of a BP service station on Route 60.

He then told officers he might be having a heart attack, persuading them to take him to three different hospitals for tests. With the exception of slightly elevated blood pressure, the tests were normal.

"He was a smooth talker, a very smooth con man," Vietmeier said.

Maaghul, who is expected to be sentenced Thursday by Common Please Judge Lester Nauhaus, was convicted Nov. 5 on five counts of receiving stolen property.

Other people's money

Maaghul passed himself off as a successful fund-raiser, real estate investor, money manager and president of a promising dot-com.

In 1999, at the height of the Internet boom, Maaghul helped launch Simplybizness.com, which purportedly helped companies achieve incorporated status.

As president, he became known as a free-spender, using company money for and rounds of drinks, tickets to Penguins games, lunches and dinners at the ritzy Monterey Bay and Cliffside restaurants in Mt. Washington, according to Alex DeFrancisco, a former company executive who said he lost $15,000 to Maaghul's investment schemes.

"He was living the life of a millionaire with everybody else's money," DeFrancisco said.

Simplybizness flamed out in 2000.

Maaghul, his wife and their two young sons lived in a six-bedroom home on Grandview Avenue in Mt. Washington, which was sold in October at a public auction. He and his wife are estranged, and she has returned to her native Buffalo, N.Y., with the children, police said.

At the time of his arrest, Darius Maaghul was broke, homeless, unemployed and on probation. He had pawned the stolen jewelry for pennies on the dollar and his wife had thrown him out, police said.

The rap sheet

Maaghul has been in trouble with the law since his adult life began.

As a teenager in 1981, he was charged with car theft, forgery, passing bad checks, theft by deception and escape in Maryland, Connecticut, Florida and Pennsylvania. In November of that year, the FBI arrested him in Connecticut on a fugitive warrant, records show.

In the mid-'90s, authorities across Florida arrested Maaghul for theft, passing bad checks and other offenses.

Maaghul, a native of Bronx, N.Y., has been arrested more than a dozen times in Allegheny and Butler counties for fraud, writing bad checks and theft. He usually served a month in jail for each conviction and almost always managed to violate the terms of his parole by moving to a new city or state, records show.

Sentenced in March 1994 to two to four years in prison for a theft conviction in Butler, Maaghul was paroled six months later but failed to check in with his probation officer, said LeAnn Halfast, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole in Harrisburg.

He was picked up 18 months later and sentenced to 2 12 to five years in the state prison at Greensburg, Westmoreland County. He was released in less than a year.

David Scaff and his wife were on vacation in 2003 when Maaghul and an agent visited their Robinson home. After they returned, the Scaffs noticed about $7,000 in jewelry had vanished.

"One of the rings taken was the first one I ever gave her," Scaff said.

It was never recovered.

"Darius Maaghul is the last thing I ever want to remember," said Parrish, the Coldwell Banker agent.

Protect yourself

The Pennsylvania Realtors Association offers home sellers these tips:

  • Store all valuables and sensitive papers in a safe deposit box or a locked storage facility or leave the items with relatives or trusted friends while the house is being shown.

  • Have the listing agent pre-qualify a prospective buyer with either a credit check or determine the buyer's credit history and assets through a credit or lending company. This will help to weed out "lookers," people who have no intention of buying -- and those looking to steal something.

  • Secure and store prescription drugs.

  • Homeowners should request that agents obtain personal background information on everyone coming through their homes.

  • Always work with a state-accredited agent whom you know and trust.

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