State - INACTIVE

44 claim fraud to the tune of $3.2M

People who say they invested $3.2 million with Nafeel, Amel and Haythem "Mike" Attalla thought the brothers were successful south Modesto car dealers. The investors, including close friends and family members, were promised exorbitant returns, they said.

But several claim to have lost their life savings when the car lots closed.

Authorities confirmed multiple investigations into the defunct dealerships, all on Crows Landing Road, and their owners face eight lawsuits.

Nafeel Attalla, 34, of Ceres, who owned Car Zone, filed for bankruptcy protection in December, claiming $1.2 million in assets and $5.7 million in debts. He also lists 44 individuals or couples as creditors with unspecified "potential fraud claims."

Haythem Attalla, 33, of Ceres owned Car Mart Auto, and Amel Attalla, age and residence unknown, owned Crows Landing Auto Center, according to court documents. Haythem Attalla filed for bankruptcy protection in 1999, when he lived in Modesto, according to documents.

Nafeel and Amel Attalla agreed to meet with The Bee but failed to attend two appointments. The Bee was unable to reach Haythem Attalla.

"People said (Haythem Attalla) was a good guy, real smart and had a lot of money and property to secure the loan," said Susan Snyder of San Jose, who was introduced to Attalla by a mutual friend. "He was a smooth talker, and it all sounded great. But he was always in a hurry for the money, which should have told me something."

Snyder couldn't believe her good luck, she said, when she received a $25,000 "interest" check soon after loaning $250,000. She ultimately mortgaged her home and drained her retirement fund to invest a total of $350,000 -- and never saw it again, she said.

Plumber Satish Sharma of Modesto said he invested $50,000 with Haythem Attalla in August and received a $5,000 check the first month, so he put in another $50,000. The deals were arranged through a friend who in- vested $200,000. Both were burned, they said.

"I thought I was moving up, with five grand in interest every month," Sharma said. "Now we've lost all the money we saved. And we might lose the house.

"I'm very upset. I wish I'd never been involved in this."

'I guess greed got to us'

Modesto businessman Dan Monterosso said an accountant arranged his $200,000 investment, also long gone.

"We were all trying to get a better return," Monterosso said. "All of us are stunned. If it were one or two of us, we were stupid. But it's organized thievery, a planned theft. All three brothers should be hung."

Snyder, now disabled, worked in marketing for a Silicon Valley computer company during the dot-com boom.

"I consider myself a fairly smart woman with a good career," she said. "How could I be so stupid? The interest was unbelievable. I guess greed got to us."

Nazik Meledonian, who owns a Los Angeles real estate firm, refinanced many homes owned by the brothers, their friends and family members, she said. Haythem Attalla begged for a $40,000 personal loan to keep his business afloat, she said, then paid her back with bad checks.

"These guys became my clients and my friends," said Meledonian, who, like the Attallas, speaks Arabic. "They trusted me with their lives, their assets and their businesses, so I trusted them and they took all my money and screwed me."

Family members said they also lost money.

Nahrain Youhana, Amel Attalla's mother-in-law, confirmed that she gave him $485,000. "But I have nothing against them," said Youhana, 66, of Modesto. "I gave it to them, so it's my fault. We're going to work it out."

Leonard Isaac, a cousin, said the brothers gave him two checks totaling $11,000 for his Acura TL. A $5,000 check cleared, Isaac said, but the $6,000 check bounced.

"Mine is small fish" compared with others, Isaac said, "but I'm still disappointed. Nobody wants his money to be gone just like that."

Asheur Warnso, 32, who owns a used car lot in Man-teca, said he was the best man in Amel Attalla's wedding. He loaned his friend money a year ago and was repaid, Warnso said, so he didn't balk when asked recently for $40,000.

"Basically, he was my best friend, so I trusted him," Warnso said. "I was going to help him and he'd return the money. But he never did.

"I would have never thought he would do that," Warnso continued. "He was very close to me. I guess money changes people."

Martin David, 62, of Mo- desto told authorities the brothers swindled millions from more than 100 people, including $220,000 from David. Most had no clue that the car lots were about to fold, he said.

David said he comes from the same area in Iraq as the brothers. They enjoyed a sterling reputation as benefactors in the Assyrian community and at church, and were featured on TV for donating $2,000 to an Assyrian school in Australia, David and others said.

One of the brothers showed David a computation outlining a plan to achieve an $85,000 profit with his $220,000 loan, he said. Before investing, David said, "I called the priest of the Assyrian Church of the East. He said they were the most decent, honest people, always giving us money.

"I thought, 'God bless America, this is great. Go make your $85,000,' " David recalled. "But all of us were being defrauded and now we're losing our homes."

In a written plea to federal authorities, David said Haythem Attalla offered to give him 14 cars "in exchange (for) my silence" after David photographed cars parked at Nafeel Attalla's house. David said he refused and reported the "hidden assets" to authorities. A bankruptcy trustee, however, directed David to remain silent when he tried to ask questions at a Feb. 12 meeting of Nafeel Attalla's creditors; the trustee said David had his chance to speak at a previous meeting.

"Now we know that we all were greedy and blinded with their promise of a very good monthly return," David wrote in a report to state authorities. He sued Haythem and Nafeel Attalla in December, claiming breach of contract and fraud, and asking for $1 million in "punitive and exemplary damages," per the court filing.

Checks bounced

Younadim Shamon, 56, who owned EZ Auto Sales on Yosemite Boulevard in Modesto before it closed, said the brothers paid him for several cars he furnished -- but the checks bounced. Shamon was bilked for more than $375,000, he said.

Robert Kolia believes he may have lost more than anyone. Haythem Attalla approached the former towing operator with a business partnership pitch, Kolia said, but Kolia didn't have cash to invest. So he transferred half the ownership of his Modesto commercial property, worth $1.2 million, to Attalla to secure a loan.

Attalla subsequently persuaded Kolia to give him the entire deed because Kolia's questionable credit prevented the loan from going through, he said. Attalla initially agreed to return the property shortly, according to a copy of a crude contract, but later refused, Kolia said.

"I trusted him," Kolia said. He also "sold" Attalla a 2007 taco truck worth about $50,000, Kolia said. But he was never paid for the truck or the property, he said, and the land was sold at public auction in late January, according to foreclosure documents.

"All my life I've been working hard and I have nothing now," Kolia said.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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