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There were quiet misgivings about the investment from the start, but Mr. Vales said Preciado assured him that a lien would be placed on the borrower’s property to make sure the couple’s money was safe.

He said he felt better about the deal the more he learned about it.

He said Preciado made the $350,000 investment more and more attractive as time went on, steadily increasing the interest rate from 12 percent to 15 percent and finally to 17 percent — an account she denies.

He also said a loan application, appraisal, proposed HUD-1 settlement form and other documents seemed to be in order, though he did ask why the husband of the borrower hadn’t signed off yet.

Mr. Vales said that Preciado told him the title company would handle “everything,” quoting her as saying, “Don’t worry about it. You worry too much. That’s bad for your health.”

At Preciado’s request, Mr. Vales said he made the check, dated April 5, 2005, payable to Dorita Down and that he wrote “bridge loan” on the check, an account Preciado also disputes.

“I was totally depending on her because for the 10 years or eight-year period that I knew Alma, she had always instructed us how to do things,” he said. “And up to that date, we were happy. From that day on, everything collapsed.”

But after the couple returned home to Florida, where they had retired, Mr. Vales said his phone calls to Preciado went unanswered and documents he was expecting never arrived in the mail.

Within weeks, the couple drove back to Maryland to check county land records for proof of a lien securing their loan, but they found nothing.

What’s more, an official at the title company purportedly handling the transaction said a settlement never took place, Mr. Vales said.

“When I called [Preciado], she’s sort of at a loss, her voice, for a minute, you know,” he said later. “And I told my wife, ‘Something went wrong here.’”

The discovery soon gave way to years of still-unresolved lawsuits, counterlawsuits and depositions. Filing charges against Preciado, the Valeses also became the target of a defamation suit by Preciado, who also sued Mrs. Down and another associate in Pidegro, alleging fraud in connection with the Vales loan.

Amid all the lawsuits, the Valeses made frequent drives up and down Interstate 95 from Florida to Maryland and back, talking to any law enforcement agency that would listen — the Montgomery County police and the State’s Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission, Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s office, the Secret Service and the U.S. Postal Service, among others.

“We were fighting the agencies, we were begging them to listen,” Mrs. Vales said. “Mentally, it’s drained us. It’s been a nightmare.”

Montgomery County prosecutors eventually took the case. But even with criminal charges filed in the case, Mr. Vales isn’t celebrating.

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