A climactic chapter in Bakersfield's long-running Crisp & Cole saga may have closed with last week's verdict in the trial of Julie Dianne Farmer, but the larger mortgage fraud case is by no means resolved.
Still to come are sentencings for nine of the 15 remaining defendants, including Farmer, the former office manager found guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Fresno of five of 12 counts against her.
But even those decisions, scheduled to be dealt with by Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill by mid-July, go only so far in putting to rest a case that shook Bakersfield's real estate industry and which federal prosecutors say cost lenders about $30 million.
Some questions were never fully answered publicly, such as why Farmer took the stand in her own defense, why it took a federal investigation to uncover what many locals were aware of and what it will take to keep such extensive fraud from happening again.
In Farmer's case, prosecutors alleged she helped run a mortgage fraud ring in which conspirators at Crisp & Cole Real Estate used straw buyers to secure home loans fraudulently, then flipped the properties multiple times at ever-higher prices to extract the equity. But Farmer denied knowing about the fraud, let alone being part of it.
Her decision to testify at her own trial was viewed by Bakersfield criminal defense attorneys as a questionable tactic -- especially after she briefly broke into sobs under tough cross-examination.
Lawyer H.A. Sala said jurors tend to scrutinize a defendant's testimony, and especially her demeanor on the stand, more than they do other witnesses. In cases where the defense has no other choice, though, the defendant must undergo hours, if not days, of practice with an attorney answering harsh, leading questions.
Sala added that Farmer's brief breakdown did her no favors, especially because it was followed by her statement she did not "know how to answer" the prosecutor's repeated question about why she ordered a bank deposit verification after depositing $22,000 into the account of one of many of Crisp & Cole's straw buyers.
"If it was a gotcha moment, that's the ball game," he said.
Farmer's Bakersfield attorney, Scott Howry, said this was one of those cases where it actually was in the defendant's best interest to testify.
"I think she had to go on the stand," he said. "The case was always about credibility."
Howry also addressed the issue of what kind of sentence his client may face when court reconvenes July 14.
He said it may never come to that because four of the five "guilty" counts against her dealt specifically with Farmer's 2006 purchase of a home in Shaver Lake. Howry said he and Fresno attorney Tony Capozzi have moved to strike all the guilty counts based on a lack of evidence.
Even if Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill disagrees, Howry said, any sentence should be light given that lenders lost no money on the Shaver Lake transaction.
"All the sentencing is based on the amount of the loss," he said.
Still, it was unclear how big a role the Shaver Lake transaction played in the jury's guilty verdict on one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud or bank fraud. That crime carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
That was also the only crime to which Farmer's bosses -- business owners David Crisp and Carl Cole -- pleaded guilty before they were each sentenced earlier this year to 17 1/2 years in prison.
Bakersfield defense attorney Michael Lukehart said the judge could come down hard on Farmer simply because she demanded a jury trial instead of accepting a plea deal.
But, he said, "It would be sad if someone got slammed for exercising their constitutional right to trial."
Sala added that Farmer's defense attorneys will likely tell the judge before he sentences her that she played only "a relatively minor role in the effectuation of this offense and its consequences." That could play well with O'Neill, he said.
Another issue from Farmer's trial, and for which there is still no answer, is whether she will face perjury charges.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorneys' Office said prosecutors threatened to bring such charges against Farmer as a way of persuading the judge to have her taken into custody after the verdict was announced.
The question arose because Farmer said in court she had consulted two people, including a lawyer, about whether it was appropriate to give 99 percent of the proceeds from her sale of the Shaver Lake property to a business entity controlled by Crisp and Cole.
While the judge declined to have Farmer remanded to custody pending her sentencing, he did give the defense until Friday to either name the lawyer who provided advice about the transaction or assert her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.
Howry said he could not say which way the defense would go on that point.
After Farmer's trial, several observers of the Crisp & Cole case since the mid-2000sput the overall mortgage fraud scheme into perspective.
They said it was a different time back then: Banks used much looser lending standards than they do now, and local law enforcement agencies had only a tenuous grasp on mortgage fraud.
As a result of the case, Bakersfield now has a committee composed of industry representatives, the Kern County District Attorney's Office, and police and sheriff's departments. The group's primary purpose is to review any hint of potential mortgage fraud.
Because of that group's existence, "I think we would probably have a better shot of mitigating something like (the Crisp & Cole case) in the future," said committee member Scott Tobias, a Bakersfield real estate broker and owner of Prudential Tobias Realtors.
Tobias said he and others in the industry knew "some shady stuff" was going on at Crisp & Cole -- "but what do you do about it?"
One of the case's first whistle-blowers, local real estate appraiser Gary Crabtree, is still asking questions about how the case was pursued.
He criticized what he saw as sluggish action on the part of law enforcement he first alerted to the fraud in 2006.
"When you look back at the case, why did it take 7 1/2 years?" he asked. "I mean, that's a question that needs to be answered, because the strategy of the Department of Justice and FBI on mortgage fraud was to select the most egregious fraud cases from across the country and prosecute them vigorously in a timely manner."
That strategy was supposed to send a message to the real estate industry, he asserted.
"If that was the goal, it failed miserably," he said.
He further accused former Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels of ignoring the mortgage fraud when Crabtree presented him with accusations against Crisp & Cole in 2006.
Jagels told him he "did not see any victims here and this was a civil matter, not a criminal matter," Crabtree said in an interview Friday. He added that the former district attorney explained he had a close personal friend among Crabtree's list of alleged culprits.
But Jagels on Friday sharply disputed Crabtree's account of their conversation, saying he never called it a victimless crime or said it was a civil rather than a criminal matter.
Jagels did acknowledge disclosing to Crabtree that he had a friend involved in the case, though he declined to identify the person and said the person was never implicated.
The main reason he chose not to open an investigation, Jagels said, is that Crabtree told him the FBI had already opened an inquiry.
"I explained at great length to Mr. Crabtree that the DA's office was a prosecutorial, not an investigative, agency," he said.
Jagels added that although the office sometimes conducts its own investigations, "I certainly did not intend to replicate" work already being done by the FBI.