Convicted house-flippers now face rent fraud charges

More trouble for former real estate agent Vivian Rodriguez and husband

From left: Yovany Serna and Vivian Rodriguez (Circuit Court of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in and for Miami-Dade County, Florida, iStock/Illustration by Steven Dilakian for The Real Deal)
From left: Yovany Serna and Vivian Rodriguez (Circuit Court of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in and for Miami-Dade County, Florida, iStock/Illustration by Steven Dilakian for The Real Deal)

A Miami couple found guilty this month in a $1.8 million house-flipping scheme now has more trouble.

Vivian Rodriguez and her husband, Yovany Serna, were slapped with new charges, this time over an alleged rental fraud, less than two weeks after their conviction.

Rodriguez, 53, and Serna, 52, ran the house-flipping ploy from June 2016 to December 2017, targeting a Hialeah Gardens man, according to their arrest affidavit. The duo earned his trust and promised him profits. Rodriguez, who was a real estate agent at the time, had worked on the deal in which the victim bought his own home, the 2018 affidavit says.

Rodriguez told him she would help him pick out cheap fixer-uppers to buy and Serna would repair them, the affidavit says. Then they would sell the properties and share the profits.

The Hialeah Gardens man put in $1.8 million to purchase about 30 homes, but they were not even for sale, according to the affidavit.

Rodriguez was an agent with Hialeah-based Trex International Realty. She lost her license in March after failing to renew it, not because of the charges, state records show.

Once the victim became dubious and concerned, he retained an attorney and sued in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in December 2017.

The criminal charges followed. After a trial that ran from Dec. 6 to 10, a jury found Rodriguez and Serna guilty of money laundering, organized fraud and grand theft in the first degree. Each count carries a maximum sentence of 30 years.

Jorge Alonso, Rodriguez’s attorney in the criminal case, said the trial uncovered that she returned $400,000 to the Hialeah Gardens man and his wife but the remainder was misappropriated. The affidavit also says the victim was fleeced out of just over $1.4 million.

“I tried my best to have Vivian not testify and plead the Fifth, but she insisted,” Alonso said. “She basically admitted that she owed these people the money. So there was not much I could do for her.”

Rodriguez and Serna remain in custody and awaiting a scheduling of their sentencing date. Serna’s attorney did not comment.

More trouble

Rodriguez and Serna allegedly took up a different scam in November. A man told police that, desperately needing an apartment, he found Rodriguez through a Facebook Marketplace ad for a Hialeah efficiency, according to a Dec. 22 arrest affidavit.

After a walkthrough of the property with Rodriguez, he agreed to rent it and paid the $1,000 cash deposit Rodriguez requested and received a handwritten receipt. When his move-in date was delayed twice, he grew suspicious and went back to the efficiency where he found other apartment hunters with the same story as his, the affidavit says. On the spot, they looked up Rodriguez and Serna online and found news reports of their house-flipping charges.

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Another arrest affidavit says Rodriguez and Serna paid back another victim’s deposit with $360 in cash and the rest with a check, which bounced. Property records show neither Rodriguez nor Serna own the Hialeah home.

The wife and husband were each charged with organized fraud and grand theft in the third degree. Rodriguez was also charged with unlawful use of a communications device, and Serna with conspiracy to commit grand theft of between $5,000 and $20,000, records show.

The public defender representing Rodriguez and Serna did not immediately return a request for comment.

The attorney suing the pair for the house-flipping scheme says their convictions help his case. The suit claims the fraud was a family affair that also involved Rodriguez’s son, Hotniel Crespo, and his wife, Marbelis Crespo, a real estate agent. Trex, the brokerage for which Rodriguez and Marbelis Crespo were independent contractors, is also a defendant.

The family portrayed the house-flipping as a team effort, with Hotniel Crespo telling the purported victim he and his wife also had put money into the real estate, that he had gone to see the properties and that they all would be “very wealthy,” according to the complaint.

The suit claims that Rodriguez was trained in Trex’s “high-pressure sales tactics” and that the brokerage lent her credibility. Some of the meetings between the victim and Rodriguez were at Trex’s offices and she had Trex-issued business cards.

In a statement, Trex’s attorney said the brokerage did not know about the dealings and received no money from them.

“Trex had nothing to do with any of the fraudulent real estate transactions,” the attorney, Jesus Bujan, said. “Trex was not the listing agent nor the cooperating agent in any of the real estate properties involved.”

Court records show a fraud claim in the civil suit against Trex was dismissed. The suit also accused the brokerage of breach of fiduciary duty, and negligent retention and supervision.

The attorney for the Crespos did not immediately return a request for comment. Hotniel Crespo, reached by phone, hung up. He filed for bankruptcy in May.

In a September court filing, the Crespos denied the allegations against them, saying they were also duped into thinking the investments were legitimate and that they were victims of a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Rodriguez.

Marbelis Crespo has sued Rodriguez, saying she sunk $400,000 into the house-flipping venture, leaving her and her family homeless. Crespo’s real estate license remains active, state records show.

Douglas Jeffrey, the attorney who first looked into the alleged fraud and filed the civil case, is asking the bankruptcy court to not discharge any debt Crespo allegedly owes the Hialeah Gardens victim. The motion argues Crespo knew or should have known that he was leading the victim into a fraudulent scheme.

Rodriguez, meanwhile, has tried to get the Crespos off the hook. She signed a court affidavit in August saying she induced them to put in $400,000 and they believed it was a legitimate investment, knew nothing of what happened to the money and did not knowingly play a role in the alleged fraud.