The Master Bilkers

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

The next year, Winski and a man named Donald Mowery became partners in a company called Insurance Marketing Services. Among other things, the pair acted as mortgage brokers--middlemen who arranged commercial and residential loans, often to people who wouldn't otherwise have qualified.

In 1986, Winski and Mowery were hit with a pair of lawsuits accusing them of securities fraud for grossly overstating the value of properties they had convinced investors to finance.

One of those was a piece of land in Yavapai County that was supposed to have been transformed into a resort called Grey Copper Ranch. When the development never materialized and borrowers stopped making payments, lenders foreclosed--only to find that Grey Copper Ranch was little more than a few acres of near-worthless dirt that was, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere.

"The land was a joke," says David Ramras, who represented the Grey Copper Ranch investors. "There were these old, abandoned mine shafts all over the place--there wasn't even a road leading to it. It was completely landlocked."

Winski's sons, Brian and Carl III, or "C.J.," also were named in the suits. In 1988, Ramras questioned Brian, then a newly minted 25-year-old law school graduate, about his role in the family business.

Even though Brian had been listed as the company's qualifying broker, he claimed his law studies kept him too busy to participate in the business's day-to-day affairs. He explained how he would fly to San Diego several times each week to attend classes at the California Western School of Law, then return home to spend time with his wife, Amy, and the family.

Brian Winski also used the occasion to trumpet his own achievements, explaining how he had finished high school in just three and a half years and received his Realtor's license while still a senior. And he told how he had worked his way through Arizona State University while running his own vending-machine business.

The wunderkind would soon be able to add a far more dubious honor to his list of achievements: the Arcadia High School grad would be on the losing end of a lawsuit alleging securities fraud.

In 1988, Grey Copper Ranch investors were awarded more than $3 million against Mowery and the Winskis. Another group of investors, who had brought a similar suit arising from a separate string of deals, won a $4 million judgment against the elder Winski and Mowery. Both judgments were tripled because the lawsuits fell under the state's racketeering laws.

Mowery promptly declared bankruptcy, dissolved Insurance Marketing Services and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, while Winski shuffled his assets to protect them from creditors. Ramras says he is still trying to collect against both of the men. Jim Nicgorski, who represented the second group of investors, says he has collected about $150,000 from Mowery so far, but has gotten little from Winski.

Ramras says he negotiated a separate settlement for Brian and C.J., because neither had significant assets at the time.

The suits never resulted in criminal charges, but Grey Copper Ranch piqued the interest of the state Banking Department, which conducted its own hearings into IMS' dealings in 1988.

Meanwhile, even while embroiled in the Grey Copper Ranch lawsuit, the Winskis were moving on to more fertile financial hunting grounds. Carl Winski had founded a new mortgage firm, and Brian Winski was listed as its president; his wife, Amy, was its vice president, while C.J. served as a broker. The new company's name, "Cambria," blended the first several letters of Carl, Amy and Brian Winski's first names.

Brian wouldn't remain the firm's president for long. During one of the Banking Department hearings on Grey Copper Ranch, Brian acknowledged that, contrary to what he had said in a sworn deposition, he was involved in the family business at every stage.

The state Banking Board ordered Brian to resign from Cambria immediately and prohibited him from acting as the company's lawyer for five years. Brian Winski pleaded for leniency.

"My intention in going to law school," he wrote to the board, "was to become a lawyer so that I could be an even more effective manager of the firm and to help ensure our compliance with the law."

The board didn't buy it. It even wrote to the bar association's character and fitness committee, which at that time was considering Brian's bar application, outlining the prospective lawyer's shortcomings. Despite the Banking Board's warnings, the state bar deemed Winski to be acceptable lawyer material. Bar officials now say they have no record of the warning from the Banking Department.

"We purge those files every seven years," says Carolyn DeLooper, who heads the bar's character and fitness committee.

Brian remained in exile from the family business but went about practicing law and living his life. He and Amy had two children and, in 1992, took out a loan to purchase a home in north Scottsdale.

But they lied on their loan application to get it, inflating the value of the house by $100,000, faking the sale of a phony business to show money for a down payment and recruiting a Winski employee to help trick the lender. Later, the employee found himself in trouble with the IRS and tipped the FBI to the whole scam.

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