California PTA Moms Accused of Collecting $14 Million in Alleged Ponzi Scheme

Women befriended more than 30 alleged victims in two years.

July 7, 2011 — -- Three former PTA members in California have been accused of running an alleged Ponzi scheme defrauding more than 30 people, many of whom they met at school functions, in the span of two years.

Maricela Barajas, 41, Juliana Menefee, 50, and Eva Perez, 51, were former members of the Armstrong Elementary School PTA in Diamond Bar but now face 22 counts each of grand theft of personal property and securities fraud.

The three mothers allegedly told victims they were investing in a contract with Alta Dena Dairy, a company based in southern California owned by Dean Foods, to sell milk exclusively to Disneyland, according to Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney James Belna.

Dean Foods spokeswoman Marguerite Copel said the three women "are not associated in any way with the Alta Dena facilities."

The DA's office said the women befriended their investors and allegedly collected millions in cash, ranging from $2,000 to $100,000, between June 2008 and August 2010. The victims, who reside throughout Los Angeles County, were allegedly promised "extraordinary" rates of return, according to Belna.

"Initially, I believe they received over $14 million in cash and returned as much as $10,000. There's still an outstanding amount of $1.4 million that was not returned to the victims," L.A. County Sheriff's Department Deputy Jeffrey Gordon told ABC affiliate KABC in Los Angeles.

It's unclear how much of the alleged financial gain they've returned in total.

Police said most of the alleged victims are "hard-working" people, some of whom took out second mortgages on their homes and invested their life savings in what they thought was a legitimate business. But the alleged Ponzi scheme began to unravel when the women could not return money to the investors, officials said.

If convicted on all counts, each woman faces up to 13 years in state prison, deputy DA Belna said.

Arraignment for the three has been postponed until Aug. 4, according to Sandi Gibbons, public information officer for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

Barajas and Menefee, arrested in their homes in Diamond Bar Tuesday, were in Ponoma Superior Court Wednesday.

Perez is already serving a 10-year prison sentence, according to the DA's office. Perez pled guilty in October and was convicted in San Bernadino County court for grand theft in connection to the scheme.

Gary Meastas, attorney for Barajas, said his client and Menefee will also appear in court for a bail motion July 13.

"While we don't expect the judge to release her on her own recognizance, we are hopeful the judge will reduce her bail," Meastas said of Barajas. "I am going to vigorously represent her in this matter."

The attorneys for Menefee and Perez could not be immediately reached for comment.