Alma Preciado was a prominent mortgage broker and a rising figure in Maryland politics who once served as a delegate for President George W. Bush, but on Tuesday she became a fugitive from justice.
Preciado, 59, faced up to 10 years in prison for her role in a fraudulent loan deal that cost a retired couple $350,000. Yet when Montgomery County Judge Michael Algeo began her sentencing Tuesday morning, Preciado was nowhere to be found.
The only clue came from her son, Carlos Vasquez. He said his mother had sent him an e-mail Tuesday morning in which she wrote that she had changed her mind about pleading guilty. He said he got a phone call from Preciado from a number he said he didn't recognize in the 915 area code, which covers El Paso, Texas.
"She said she couldn't tell me where she was," Mr. Vazquez said.
The call raised concerns from the victims in the case that Preciado was fleeing the country to Mexico, where investigators had earlier traced some of the proceeds in the loan deal.
"It's a total fiasco," said Roger Vales, who along with his wife, Lourdes, lost their savings in a deal that prosecutors said Preciado brokered. "I feel disappointed but not surprised."
"I think she's still playing us and playing the system," Mrs. Vales said. "There's no respect."
Ricardo Rodriguez, who said he lost money in an unrelated transaction that Preciado brokered, also attended the hearing.
Judge Agleo issued a warrant for Preciado's arrest. The move means Montgomery County authorities likely will issue a nationwide alert about Preciado's status as a fugitive, including informing the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Formerly a radio show host, vice chairwoman of the Maryland Hispanic Republican Caucus and owner of Metropolitan Financial Services in Silver Spring, Preciado was an alternate delegate for Mr. Bush at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000.
But her once-promising career unraveled as authorities began looking into a $350,000 loan deal that she brokered in 2005.
Under the deal, retirees Roger and Lourdes Valeses loaned $350,000 to a borrower Preciado knew who lived in Bethesda, according to court records. Prosecutors said the loan was supposed to be secured by real estate so if the borrower defaulted, the couple's money still would be safe.
Instead, no deed of trust securing the loan was ever filed. The Valeses' money landed in the bank account of a District-based company called Pidegro LLC, which Preciado helped found, records show. Pidegro spent much of the money on a development project in Mexico, but then closed after the deal collapsed, according to documents.
Preciado has previously said she was open with the Valeses about her involvement in Pidegro LLC and that she didn't spend the couple's money, with former associates depositing the funds and controlling the Pidegro bank account.
Neither of the Preciado's associates in the Pidegro company, Dorita Down and William Camp, was charged in the case and both deny any wrongdoing, according to court records and interviews. Still, they remain entangled in civil lawsuits filed by the Valeses arising from the loan deal. The Valeses have spent about $150,000 in legal fees to recoup their money, according to court records.
Jim Shalleck, Preciado's attorney, said at a recent hearing that the only reason Preciado pleaded guilty in the case was because she admitted mishandling about $6,700 in the loan transaction.
Judge Algeo wasn't convinced. At an earlier hearing, he called Preciado a "liar" and "our own little Montgomery County Bernie Madoff."