Chicago businessman Carlos Meza, right, leaves Cook County courthouse in Rolling Meadows with defense attorney Fred Dry last week after being arraigned on theft charges. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times
A group of 25 people gathered one evening in March at a Holiday Inn meeting room in Skokie. They were strangers for the most part, united mostly by their shared anger and embarrassment.
What they also all had in common was their belief they had been hoodwinked out of their money by a Chicago businessman named Carlos Meza, someone many of them once regarded as a friend.
The amounts ranged from thousands of dollars in some cases to hundreds of thousands in others — and totaled several million altogether. The alleged methods employed were similarly varied: a commodities investment scheme here, a real estate deal there and bad checks, among others.
Many came to the meeting in the improbable hope of learning how to recover their funds. By the time they left, they agreed on one course of action: to warn others about Meza before they lost their money to him, too.
That’s where I come in.
But before we go any further, I must offer a disclaimer.
Meza, 50, who lives in Lake in the Hills and formerly operated his business in Chicago from a building in the 2700 block of North Milwaukee, has no criminal convictions.
Just as important, he has only one relatively minor criminal case pending against him involving a $45,000 bad check.
In addition, Meza is the subject of a temporary cease-and-desist order filed last week by the Illinois Secretary of State’s Securities Department that accuses him of lying to three investors who had entrusted him with more than $1 million.
Although other law-enforcement agencies may be investigating Meza, most police departments have advised the victims to take their claims to civil court.
Indeed, Meza has been a defendant in numerous lawsuits brought against him over the years, from big banks foreclosing on million-dollar loans to the State of Illinois suing on behalf of employees he allegedly failed to pay, and from the lawyers he hired to represent him who say they didn’t get paid either.
But none of those suits has seemed to slow Meza.
What finally may have tripped him up is messing with an ornery old cuss named Andrew Lee, 77, who rounded up the victims for that March meeting and took his own case to the Prospect Heights Police.
“I’m the one who got him arrested,” Lee told me proudly.
Meza faces three counts of theft for allegedly repaying a loan from Lee with a $45,000 check he wrote and then promptly stopped payment on, causing it to bounce.
When he went to police, Lee found a more receptive audience than the norm because Prospect Heights investigators had previously encountered Meza after allegations of his financial mismanagement involving that suburb’s Old Willow Falls condominium complex.
Lee, who describes himself as a “hard money lender,” has been around the block a few times. But he said Meza snuck up on him with his disarming approach and promise of high returns.
“I’ve known him for four years, and I never dreamed of his background,” Lee said. “You know we all want to win the lottery. That’s one of the things he preys on.”
Meza deliberatively works his way into the confidence of people he knows, often moving quite slowly, as in the case of his fellow members in the Mormon Church.
“He said I was his best friend.”
“No, I’m his best friend.”
“No, I’m his best friend.”
This was part of a conversation last week outside a Rolling Meadows courtroom, where a dozen of Meza’s alleged victims had turned out to help persuade prosecutors that this was no ordinary bad-check case.
Their allusion to being Meza’s best friend was partly in jest after having had this talk among themselves previously upon first learning of the others’ financial dealings with Meza, which he had instructed them never to mention.
Scott Spencer, of Cary, the owner of a small manufacturing business, said Meza talked him into investing more than $700,000 total in one of his ventures in 2012, even persuading him to double down on his initial outlay after a promise of a quick payback with big returns went unmet.
“I feel like an absolute idiot,” said Spencer, who said Meza held himself out to be a multimillionaire entrepreneur with his own trucking business plus real estate interests here and in Mexico. Spencer said Meza “guaranteed” his investment. He has yet to recoup anything.
I am forever fascinated by the phenomena of individuals who can just talk other people out of their money, persuade them to hand it over gratefully as if they are doing them a favor by taking it.
That’s why it was particularly disappointing when the soft-spoken Meza declined to comment instead of trying to smooth me over.
Andrew Lee says anyone else who lost money to Carlos Meza should feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please copy me, too. Lee is wondering how many more people he can turn up before Meza’s next court appearance.