It seemed like an answer to a prayer for people facing hard times.
The sales pitch sounded too good to be true, and it was.
One of the largest mortgage frauds in living memory began with a small-town lay minister and her daughter, a hairdresser. They gathered friends, neighbors and clients, and pitched a get-rich-quick scheme tinted with religion and targeted specifically at African-Americans.
"'This is what the white man has done to get ahead their whole life.' .... That was their exact words," said Barry Moore, a resident of Virginia who found himself the unwitting owner of two houses in Indiana.
Federal authorities are still investigating, but it appears the fraud ensnared more than 100 people, as many as 400 properties and as much as $80 million.
"Fannie Mae ... believed it was the mother of all mortgage fraud," said Robin Pickett, an Indiana real estate agent working with the fraud's victims.
Mortgage fraud has become an "epidemic," according to an FBI report issued last year. According to the report, the value of total fraud ballooned from about $400 million in 2004 to more than $1 billion in 2005 -- and is on pace this year to go even higher.
Outline of a Fraud
Beulah Penn was a lay minister in Martinsville, Va. Her daughter, Sharon, worked in a beauty salon in the town, which had lost thousands of factory jobs in recent years. Bealuh's son, Robert Penn, was a successful property speculator who lived -- literally -- on Easy Street, in Indianapolis. One evening in 2005, Beulah Penn and her daughter gathered friends and neighbors, and Robert Penn came into town for a dinner that Moore said felt "like a festive celebration."
According to investors, the Penns offered the opportunity to join what they called a "real estate investment group" as a blessing from God. They emphasized that no individual would bear responsibility. Instead, each would have a stake in a portfolio of properties that one of Robert Penn's companies owns. When the properties were eventually sold, the profit would be returned to the members. And according to the group, all that Robert Penn asked for was their Social Security numbers so that he could verify their credit ratings.
Many of the investors were reluctant to join, and did so only after months of persistent urging. Once they had been persuaded, the next stage required signing some documents. And on this point, Beulah and Sharon Penn always seemed to be in a hurry, investors said.
"You get over there and you get to signing, everything was highlighted, where you need to initial it, initial here, sign here, initial here, sign here, date here, put yesterday's date on here or what not," Moore recalled. "Literally standing over me, flipping the pages for me."
The investors expected the next they would hear of their investment would be a check in the mail. It wasn't until months later that they realized they had been swindled, they said.
Kelvin Thompson went to his credit union for a small loan, "a little extra money for the holidays," he said, and was surprised to find that five Indiana properties were registered in his name. He owed nearly $1 million on the mortgages.
The victims of the alleged fraud found their credit ratings, in some cases nearly perfect before they signed those documents, ruined. Small or simple transactions had suddenly become arduous.
Robin and Tony Pickett, real estate agents in Indianapolis, discovered a large number of big mortgages registered in the names of people living outside Indiana. They became suspicious.
"Once we saw the values that they had been sold for we immediately thought there was something a little strange about this," Tony Pickett said. "So the next day I went over to the properties and did an assessment myself. And what we found was most of them were abandoned. Most of them were in total disrepair."
Robert Penn had secured appraisals of the properties, which the Picketts said were as much as four times their value. One of the five properties in Thompson's name was worth only $29,000, but the mortgage issued was for $139,000.
According to the Pickets, Robert Penn pocketed huge sums of money by purchasing dilapidated homes at market value, while arranging mortgages of far greater value in the names of his investors. The difference between the two became his profit.
In June, New York-based Countrywide Home Loans Inc., the nation's largest home lender, filed a lawsuit in Indiana's Marion Superior Court, charging Robert Penn with masterminding the fraud.
When Beulah Penn was deposed by another lender involved in the case earlier this week, she decided to invoke her right to silence, even refusing to answer when asked if Robert Penn was her son.
"Nightline" has learned that federal investigators are now interviewing members of other investment groups started by Robert Penn in Michigan and Indiana. Sharon Penn has closed her hair salon.