Last of 8 accused home swindlers convicted

The last defendant in a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud case that officials say swindled four Westchester County families out of their homes was convicted of theft, fraud and conspiracy today.

A jury found Mildred Didio of Manhattan (left) guilty of four counts of second-degree grand larceny and one count each of first-degree scheme to defraud and fourth-degree conspiracy. All the charges are felonies.

She faces a maximum of 15 years in state prison when she is sentenced on Jan. 25. She also could be sentenced to a minimum of five years’ probation.

Prosecutors said Didio was involved in a group of eight who stripped homes from families in Croton-on-Hudson, Yorktown, Cortlandt and Mount Vernon; and scammed two mortgage lenders out of $1.4 million. All were arrested in 2009.

The group told victims, who they found through notices of public auction and foreclosure, that they could transfer their deeds to an investor, who would hold the titles while they saved money to reclaim their home.

But once the “investor” took title, the group’s members got inflated mortgages, which they used to pay off the original mortgage and kept the remainder for themselves. The former owners have filed lawsuits to try to reclaim their losses.

Didio, 46, represented the straw buyers or acted as a settlement agents for the lenders, according to prosecutors.

Hubert “Phil” Hall, a former editor at a precursor to The Journal News, and his wife, Doreen Swenson, are serving two to six years in prison after pleading guilty to grand larceny and fraud. Prosecutors said the Tarrytown couple helped set up the phony mortgages.

David Reback, an attorney from Rye Brook, and Amerigo DiPietro of Brewster, who owned Interstate Monetary Concepts in Briarcliff Manor, pleaded guilty to their roles in the scam. Prosecutors said they were the principal players. They  were sentenced to a year in jail.

Eileen Potash of Queens was convicted at trial of fourth-degree conspiracy but acquitted of grand larceny and fraud charges. She is serving five years’ probation.

Wilma Shkreli of Westwood, N.J., who posed an an investor, is to be sentenced Nov. 22 after pleading guilty to grand larceny.

This was Didio’s second trial for her role in the scam. Her first ended in a hung jury. Frank Corigliano, a lawyer from Newtown, Conn., was acquitted of all charges by the jury that convicted Potash and was hung on Didio.

Trial begins in fatal DWI case in Westchester


There is no discernable proof that George Kiaha (left) was drunk when he caused the head-on crash that killed a retired auto worker from Peekskill, Kiaha’s defense lawyer told a jury today.

“Respect the presumption of innocence,” attorney Ted Brundage said during his opening at Kiaha’s felony trial for vehicular manslaughter in Westchester County Court.

Kiaha, a Garrison resident, is also facing a felony charge of criminally negligent homicide and misdemeanor counts of drunken driving and assault for the Sept. 4, 2009 that killed Ralph Wood, 55, and injured his family on Route 9 in Cortlandt.

Police said Kiaha, now 25, was driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.11 percent that night. The legal threshold for driving while intoxicated is 0.08 percent.

Brundage suggested that sloppy police work puts the blood-alcohol report in question. He said the case had “some of the most egregious gaps in evidence in terms of a New York State police investigation” that he has seen in his 20 years as a lawyer.

But Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Strongin argued that police handled the evidence properly, and that an ambulance worker smelled alcohol on Kiaha’s breath as he was taken to Westchester Medical Center.

“Ralph Wood died on Sept, 4 because the defendant chose to drink and drive,” he said in his opening statement. Kiaha is free on $50,000 bail.

Wood, a retired General Motors assembly line worker, was headed to dinner at the Wapppingers Buffet in Dutchess County with three of his grandchildren, his daughter Gloria and her fiancee. The family usually went to dinner together every Saturday night, Strongin said, but they headed out a day earlier because they had other plans the next night.

“This would be the last time the six of them would ever be together again,” he said.

As the family approached Susan Lane on Route 9, Kiaha smashed into the silver GMC driven by Javier A. DeJesus of Cortlandt, Wood’s future son-in-law.

Everyone in the GMC was injured, and Wood’s daughter was trapped inside. Wood, unbeknownst to those at the scene, had a ruptured spleen and was bleeding internally. He went into cardiac arrest and died.

Kiaha was seriously hurt in the crash and was taken to Westchester Medical Center.

Wood was described by friends and relatives as a fun-loving man dedicated to his five children and grandchildren. Several family members were in the courtroom to show support for the family patriarch.

The trial, before Westchester County Judge Barbara Zambelli, will continue Friday.

Accused bomb maker pleads guilty; will serve no jail time

A Cortlandt man who, officials say, offered an undercover officer homemade bombs in exchange for gun silencers last year admitted today to having illegal weapons and fireworks.

Gary Burstell, 53, (left) pleaded guilty in Westchester County Court to one felony count of third-degree criminal possession of a weapon and a misdemeanor count unlawfully dealing with fireworks.

Burstell, a retired carpenter, will be sentenced to probation with time served on Jan 6, according to acting state Supreme Court Justice Richard Molea. Burstell spent several days in jail after his arrest on Sept. 17, 2009 and is free on $500,000 bail.

Burstell got caught up in a cigarette smuggling sting, and investigators who raided his home in September 2009 said they found guns, ammunition and five “suspected homemade explosive devices.”

His lawyer, Kevin J. Kitson, had argued that Burstell only wanted the silencers to shoot at critters in his back yard without scaring the neighbors. He also said the “explosive devices” were smoke bombs to clear animals. Neither Kitson or Burstell had any comment after today’s plea bargain.

According to the indictment, Burstell offered to make bombs on July 30 to an officer posing as a cigarette smuggler. They didn’t speak again until Sept. 9, when Burstell allegedly agreed to see the silencers. Burstell handed the officer a homemade bomb the next day at 400 Nepperhan Ave. in Yonkers, where cops had set up an undercover warehouse for the cigarette case.

Four days later, on Sept. 14, the indictment alleges, Burstell arranged to meet the officer so he could collect the silencers.

According to court papers, on the day he was arrested, Burstell admitted to making the bomb but later recanted that statement, saying he’d bought the device three years earlier. He also told authorities that a .22-caliber handgun he had taken to the undercover warehouse on Sept. 10 was now in the Hudson River.

Kitson had said Burstell was guilty of nothing more than poor judgment and that the devices in his home were made in China and used on construction sites. He said the device shown to the undercover officer — and the basis for the criminal charge — was a “super blockbuster” purchased 15 years ago in Pennsylvania for $25.

Burstell’s guilty plea satisfied an eight-count indictment that included additional weapons charges and conspiracy. The felony weapon charge was punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Lippe’s son testifies against him — again — in wife-slay trial

It’s awful to have to testify against your own father when he’s charged with murdering your mother.

Andrew Lippe has had to do it twice.

Lippe, the 16-year-old son of accused killer Werner Lippe, took the stand for the second time this year in Westchester County Court, where the elder Lippe is charged with second-degree murder in the disappearance of his 49-year-old wife, Faith.

Faith Lippe, a nutritionist for Ossining schools, was last seen alive on Oct. 3, 2008. No one has heard from her since. Her husband of 18 years allegedly knocked her unconscious with a piece of wood during an argument Oct. 3, dragged her behind their home on Little Lake Road in Cortlandt and burned her body in a 55-gallon barrel for 24 hours until her remains were nothing but ash.

He told as much to a friend and later to police but recanted his confession, saying he made up the story in a misguided attempt to be left alone. His first trial ended with a hung jury, who voted 7 to 5 for acquittal.

The teenaged Lippe was calm and composed today in front of the jury, as he was in January at his father’s first trial. He testified about the strife in the family’s home because his parents were divorcing. He said that two days after his mother vanished, his father lit a bonfire behind their home, spread new topsoil over the area when the fire went out, and sprinkled the same area with spices when police dogs showed up.

Prosecutors contend Lippe’s actions are evidence that he was trying to cover up all traces of his wife’s remains.

Under cross examination, Andrew Lippe said his mother could be controlling and that his father had problems with his eyesight — a reference to Werner Lippe’s insistence that he last saw his wife leaving the house and getting into a mysterious dark vehicle that he couldn’t describe further.

Also testifying against Lippe today was Meryl Learnihan, the wife of one of the prosecutions star witnesses, James Learnihan, who had worn a police wire that recorded Lippe’s confession. Meryl Learnihan told the jury that Faith Lippe, who she described as a devoted mother, was making “serious plans” for a new life after her divorce. She said Werner Lippe had left a message on their answering machine saying that Faith was missing and that he was felling overwhelmed by the situation.

Werner Lippe, a 68-year-old jewelry designer whose celebrity clients include Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey, has been held without bail at the county jail in Valhalla since his arrest on Oct. 30, 2008. His trial continues next week before county Judge Barbara Zambelli.

Andrew Lippe and his 14-year-old sister, Stephanie, continue to live with Andrew’s longtime tae kwon do instructor and attend school.

Jury selection underway in 2nd trial of Werner Lippe

Potential jurors poured into the Westchester County courthouse this morning to learn if they will be among the 12 jurors chosen for the retrial Werner Lippe in the death of his wife, Faith, nearly two years ago.
The jury pool is huge — about 300 people, court officers said — in part because of all of the publicity the case received in February, when Lippe’s first trial ended in a hung jury.
Eight jurors were chosen today.
Lippe, 68, has been held without bail on a second-degree murder charge since October 30, 2008, when he confessed to killing his wife during a bitter divorce fight and disposing of her remains in a burn barrel behind their home in Cortlandt. Faith Lippe vanished on Oct. 3, 2008 and has never been seen or heard from since.
He confessed twice to a friend who was wearing a police wire and then once to state police. He testified at the first trial that those statements were false and were made in a misguided attempt to get his friend to leave him alone, and then to have state police take him to a judge who would see how ridiculous the confession was.
Prosecutors say Lippe incinerated his wife in a 55-gallon drum and dissolved her bones and teeth in acid he used in his jewelry-making business. The burn barrel has never been found.
The first jury was deadlocked, with seven jurors voting for acquittal and five for conviction.
Jury selection is expected to continue through the end of the week. The second trial is expected to last about three weeks. Assistant District Attorneys John O’Rourke and Christine O’Connor, who prosecuted the case, have returned for the retrial. Defense lawyer Andrew Rubin continues to represent Lippe.

Lippe jury selection to start April 12

werner lippeWell, that was fast.

Accused wife incinerator Werner Lippe goes on trial again before Westchester County Court Judge Barbara Zambelli in mid-April, less that two months after a deadlocked jury caused a mistrial in the prosecution’s first attempt at a conviction. Click here to read the story.

The first trial got a LOT of press, so jury selection may be tougher this time around. I’m planning to pop in to see what questions they’re asking to get jurors that could be favorable to their side. Opening statements will be interesting as well, seeing if either sides change their strategy.

With Lippe mistrial, what’s next?

werner lippeIf you haven’t already heard, the Werner Lippe murder trial ended in a hung jury on Friday. Click here to read the story.

What seemed on the surface to be a slam-dunk case — he confessed three times to killing his wife — turned into an uphill battle for prosecutors, thanks in no small part to defense lawyer Andrew Rubin, considered one of the best (if not the best) in Westchester County. His argument that Lippe was coerced into confessing, and his skills preparing lippe before taking the witness stand, created reasonable doubt in the minds of at least one juror (and from what I heard, several).

I called a few criminal justice experts on Saturday to get their thoughts about what happened and what needs to happen to avoid a second deadlock. To my surprise, they all took time out of their weekends and called me back. Thanks, guys! Click here to read that story.

So now everyone is wondering …. when is Lippe going on trial again? From what I hear, it may not be for several months. Rubin has another trial about to start, plus he and his partners have other clients to defend. Assistant District Attorneys John O’Rourke and Christine O’Connor also have other cases to prosecute. But both sides will meet this Thursday in the Trial Assignment Part court to discuss scheduling. As soon as I know more, you’ll know more.

Jury gets the Lippe case

After more than three weeks of testimony from dozens of witnesses and five (!) hours of closing arguments today, the seven women and five men on the Werner Lippe jury began deliberating if he was guilty of murdering his wife, Faith, and burning her in a backyard barrel behind their Cortlandt home.

Click here to read my stories from the trial.

The jury sent out a note at 6:45 p.m. — a little over an hour into their deliberations — asking the judge for clarification on involuntary statements and about Miranda rights. Defense lawyer Andrew Rubin, in his three-hour closing statement, insisted that Lippe gave an involuntary confession to state police investigators because Lippe asked to speak to his lawyer twice and they kept talking to him. Lippe was given his Miranda warning (“You have the right to remain silent ….”) and asked point-blank if he really wanted a lawyer, to which he replied, “No, no hold on a minute.”

Westchester County Judge Barbara Zambelli called it a night at 7:30 p.m. and sent the jurors to a local hotel for the night. She is known for sequestering juries in murder trials. They will resume deliberations around 9:30 a.m. tomorrow

Lippe takes the stand

werner lippeInteresting day in the Westchester County Courthouse … Cortlandt jeweler Werner Lippe spent all day testifying in his own defense, namely that the confession he gave to police — the one about knocking his wife unconscious, dragging her body into a backyard burn barrel and incinerating her remains — was a great big lie.

Click here to read my update of this morning’s testimony.

Lippe, wearing a navy suit and white mock turtleneck, was calm and confident as he explained — at times in lots and lots of detail — what he was doing when he last saw his wife leave their home (make that mansion, I saw the pictures) and what he said and did with friends and police in the weeks following Faith Lippe’s disappearance.

His attorney, Andrew Rubin, had to keep Lippe in line, telling him several times to answer only his questions and not to go off on tangents. The nearly six hours of questioning ended with Rubin asking, “Did you kill Faith?” and Lippe replying, “No!”

Prosecutors will get their chance at Lippe on Thursday. The judge declared Wednesday a snow day based on the weather forecast and hears her other non-jury cases on Tuesdays.

The emotional impact of the Lippe trial

Members of Faith Lippe’s family went through an emotional wringer today as they listened to a tape of her husband, Werner Lippe, admit to police that he knocked Faith unconscious with a stick in the kitchen of their Cortlandt home, shoved her body in a backyard burn barrel and incinerated her.

Faith’s cousin, Shari Caradonna, left the Westchester County courtroom red-faced and sobbing, literally leaning on a family member for support. Others in the courtroom hung their heads or placed a hand over their mouths while listening to a state police investigator goad Lippe to confess, eventually driving Lippe to tears. Lippe then admitted to hitting and burning his wife, but said that Faith “didn’t suffer in pain.”

Assistant District Attorney Christine O’Connor had warned the family that the recordings this afternoon were going to be tough to handle. The prosecution plans to rest its case this week, possibly as early as Wednesday.