My Civic Duty: The Chaos

Last week I completed eleven days of jury duty. I had delayed my service over and over. This time, if I didn't show up, I would receive a bench warrant. I showed up.

My fellow jurors and I are prohibited from making money by sharing the story of our experience for the first ninety days after the trial. I will remain on the right side of the law and earn no money in the telling of this story.

Phoebe and Peter Chao are a married couple who are in the real estate and finance business in the Southern California town of Arcadia. In 2009, they manufactured a fake loan program, primarily targeting Chinese women who were not fluent in English. These women were lured in by the promise of fast money courtesy of an Obama Economic Stimulus Program.

Victims were told that they could qualify for these loans simply by having high credit scores. The Chaos promised to repair victim's low credit and then broker their loans. Then they began the process of asking the victims for more and more money, with the explanation that the victims had a problem with their banks that needed to be fixed, or more loan application fees were required. The Chaos explained that if they weren't given more money immediately, the loan would be dropped.

The victims paid. They wrote checks, they deposited money into accounts held by the Chaos, and they handed over cash by the thousands. Once a victim ran out of money, the chaos became elusive. They could not be reached by phone or said they were out of the country or would state that the loan had been cancelled.

The Chaos were facing criminal charges of eleven counts of theft by false pretenses. Additionally, Phoebe was facing a perjury charge for making false claims to the DMV. She had used two drivers licenses to create two identities for herself. One using her Chinese maiden name, the other with her married last name and the first and middle names she had chosen for herself: Phoebe Chanel Chao.

Phoebe claims to be involved in fashion. She reminded the court a number of times that she wasn't really in the loan business, she was in the fashion business. She dressed for court like she was walking down a runway: boots, sequins and always, one of her signature chokers.

After the prosecution presented the court with pages of evidence, fake loan documents, false e-mails, and meaningless applications, they presented witnesses who could prove the validity of the evidence.

The first victim took the stand, dissolving in tears when relating that she had given the Chaos $40,000. for a loan that never materialized. A newly divorced mother of three, she had handed all of her savings over to the scam.

Another victim was a long-time friend of Phoebe's. She had applied for a loan and even referred other friends to the loan program. She and all of her referrals were duped as well. Friendship meant nothing to the Chaos.

One victim shook her finger at Phoebe and Peter and repeated, "Bad people. You are very bad people."

There was a victim who, after applying for her loan, returned to China to be at the bedside of her cancer stricken husband. Phoebe Chao called and informed her that she needed to come into the office immediately to give more money and sign another document or her loan, and the subsequent thousands she had already spent, would be lost. This woman, left her sick husband behind and made a special trip, flying from China to Los Angeles for the sole purpose of giving the Chaos more money and signing a meaningless piece of paper.

A victim who spoke no English, testified through a Cantonese interpreter. She followed up her testimony by pointing at Phoebe in the courtroom and hissing, "God is watching you."

When it came time for the Chaos to testify they were caught in lie after lie. Even in the face of irrefutable evidence they would still not acknowledge the facts. They blamed the scam on "Guillermo," a colleague in their office. They alleged that Guillermo had masterminded the whole scam and they took no responsibility. They held close to what the prosecution described as the "Guillermo Defense." They spoke in circles, imagining that they could charm the jury into believing their story. Each time another lie was told, the prosecutor's face turned bright red. He was losing patience.

On the final day of closing arguments, Peter Chao turned his chair away from the court proceedings and facing the wall, proceeded to cry. The trial was over.

On the eleventh day, the jury deliberated.

I was incredibly fortunate to be on a jury with friendly, interesting, smart people representing many different ages and backgrounds. We were a tight group. We ate lunches together and enjoyed each other's company. On more than one occasion, Girl Scout cookies were passed around the jury box during an attorney sidebar. Yet, we all took our jobs very seriously. We understood the gravity of the situation and that there were people's lives hanging in the balance.

Once in the jury room, we examined the evidence, talked through each individual count, and ate doughnuts and oranges. I was honored to be the jury foreperson. Our deliberations took a little more than two hours. The Chaos were multi-millionaires, they weren't desperate for money. They set out to cheat these vulnerable women. They defrauded them simply because they could. We found the Chaos guilty on all counts.

After we were released from service, our group had an opportunity to speak with the Deputy District Attorney in charge of the case. He told us that the victims understood that they might not see their money again, but went to trial to get justice. He let us know that the Chaos had been offered a plea deal and going against the advice of their counsel, they did not accept it. Con artists to the end, they believed they could outwit the court as they had done their victims. Sentencing will take place later this week. The Chaos are likely facing multiple years in prison. They have children. The whole situation is sad, unfortunate, and messy.

It was a fascinating few weeks. I came away with a new appreciation for our legal system. Jury duty is completely inconvenient. Trials can get tedious. There is a lot of waiting around in empty hallways. Yet, the next time I receive a jury notice in the mail, I won't try to get out of it.