The Master Bilkers

How a Valley development scheme ripped off investors, contractors and homeowners while bank, building and bar officials watched

Los Portones doesn't look that different from all the other beige subdivisions sprouting from the desert of northeast Scottsdale.

Lying just north of Pinnacle Peak Road, homes in the 100-unit complex are priced from the low- to mid-$100,000s. Mesquite trees and cactuses flourish in small, neatly landscaped front yards. In the evening, as shadows fall across narrow, winding streets and footlights illuminate the sidewalks, all seems serene.

But all is not as it seems. For the past two years, Los Portones has been in an uproar. The dozen or so unfinished homes at the subdivision's western edge--some of which are little more than pipes sticking up through the ground--stand as testament to as much as $2 million in money squandered from investors. Contractors who were never paid lost another $1.1 million. And behind many of those salmon-colored stuccoed walls, homeowners are seething.

Sharon Anton has fiery red hair and, when riled, a matching temperament. Like many who have flocked to the Valley from the East Coast and the Midwest, she has embraced the Scottsdale lifestyle. Native American motifs cover her walls and, on this evening as she tells the story of her arrival at Los Portones, she wears a blue denim dress sporting a stylized sheriff's badge.

Anton recites the particulars with the weary air of someone who has done so many times. She describes how she heard about Los Portones from a Realtor and drove out to take a look.

She liked the models, which were airy and spacious. What impressed her most, though, was the development's quiet desert surroundings--a far cry from her native Chicago.

She met with a representative from the subdivision's developer, selected a floor plan and signed the paperwork to set things in motion. She even agreed to spend $5,000 extra to buy a "premium" lot--one where she could take in the unspoiled desert from her back porch.

After months of hectic negotiations via phone and fax, Anton flew out to close the deal. Afterward, she returned to Illinois, packed up her things and headed west.

Just days after moving in, while unpacked boxes still lined her hallway, Anton was slapped with nearly $50,000 in liens from workers who had never been paid for the work they performed on her house.

Then the rains came, and Anton discovered that a closet-size atrium in the side of her home had been built without a drain. Once the water rose above the level of the foundation, it began to gush through her garage and into the street. Some of it began seeping in above the baseboard in her living room.

More trouble followed. Anton quickly learned that her home's electrical wiring had been hopelessly botched, with dozens of outlets wired into circuits meant to handle a third as many.

"And I swear--although you'd have to drill through the walls to prove it--I swear they built this front room without insulation. Even with the double-paned glass, the place turns into a furnace the second the sun hits it."

Today, many in Los Portones utter the name of its developer like a curse: Ronald Gregory Orians. It's probably not much of an exaggeration to say that if Orians were to visit his bastard stepchild of a subdivision today, he'd be lucky to escape.

Orians, however, isn't the only one homeowners like Anton would like to make run the gauntlet: They also wonder why the City of Scottsdale approved, at every step, the shoddy work they now find themselves living with.

Likewise, the investors who lost millions bankrolling Los Portones--some of whom have ruefully started to call the subdivision "Lost Portones"--and four other Orians developments across the Valley feel just as betrayed, and not just by Orians.

"This wasn't like some get-rich-quick scheme," says Bill Flanigan, a retired engineer who lost $100,000 on the deal. "Everyone we were dealing with was supposedly in good professional standing."

Now, all of the principals Flanigan dealt with are under indictment for fraud and theft. And there is evidence that all of them should have--and could have--been stopped long before things reached such a critical point.

Take Brian Winski, the lawyer who was supposed to have watched over investors' money. At the time Orians' subdivisions began to hemorrhage, Winski was a member in good standing of the state bar association.

Yet as far back as 1988--the year Winski took the bar exam--the bar had proof that he was not to be trusted, especially around money. In 1994, in fact, Winski even pleaded guilty to fraud in an unrelated case. Though indicted along with Orians, Winski continues to practice law today.

Likewise, the state Banking Department knew the mortgage company working hand-in-hand with Orians was the financial equivalent of a ticking time bomb; that Brian Winski's wife, Amy, served as the company's president and had used her inside knowledge of the mortgage industry to help her husband commit fraud in 1994; and that Winski's father, Carl, and brother, C.J., both of whom had reputations for brokering shady deals, played key roles in the company.

The Banking Department finally shut down the mortgage company once Carl and C.J. Winski were indicted. By then, though, it was too late.

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