PEOPLE How John Spano (Almost) Conned Me

My house had been on the market for nearly a year. How could I know the bidder was scam artist John Spano?

The Seduction

Late November 1997. Our Preston Hollow home had been on the market for almost a year and was probably overpriced. We had shown it to so many people I was dizzy. The neighborhood was overwhelmed with tear-down fever, but our home-a stately, traditional two-story listed for S 1.05 million-was moving like Geritol in molasses. By November, my husband and I had dropped the price to $990,000, eager to move on.

We showed it at least five times the week our real estate agent called with good news: We had a contract. Our first question: “How much?” It was, he said, “A great start.” (Translation: Don’t call the movers.) More specifically, it was for $875,000. My heart sank. But it was a cash offer. (Translation: The buyers aren’t poor.)

Our agent rushed over with what was a pretty clean contract: The buyer wasn’t asking for anything unusual and didn’t have to diddle with financing. We discussed our counter offer, then signed and initialed everything. For the first time in months, I got kind of excited. My husband’s birthday was coming up, and I told him my present would be the sale of our house.

A cash offer did seem unusual to us. But then, I thought, maybe this is just a very wealthy person who had no need to impress mortgage companies with his balance sheet, no time to fill out all those dreary financial statements. My agent said it was not necessarily uncommon for buyers to pay cash for a large home. The cash offer rather tempted us as the negotiations heated up; if we had a hot buyer, maybe we should be extra-negotiable on the price. For a while, I fancied myself a roaring entrepreneur: Would we get our equity in hundred- or thousand-dollar bills?

Then I noticed the buyer was a woman: Shelby Spano. The name sounded vaguely familiar. Was she planning on living here by herself? Our 5,5(K)-square-foot home on 1.2 acres seemed to be a lot for a woman to manage alone. My agent promised to get the story.



Check’s in the Mail

Meanwhile, as we considered the offer on that Sunday night. Shelby Spano asked if she could come back to the house one more time with her husband. (So there was a spouse!) They had already seen the home twice, The first time she saw it, according to my agent’s assistant, Shelby got so excited she called her husband right from our house and told him to come over immediately.

“He works close to here,” she explained.

Nice guy, I thought, buying his wife a home and putting it in her name. But why in the world would he want to do that?

I wasn’t home for the first two visits; nor was 1 there when they returned the next morning with camera in hand. But my agent’s assistant raved. My husband and I scribbled in our counter offer ($975,000) and sent the contract back on Wednesday.

Little did we know-little did our agents know-we were dealing with a con man.

At this point, neither of us had seen a copy of the $ 15,000 earnest-money check. That should have been my first clue: A xeroxed copy usually comes with the contract. 1 asked Susie Swanson, assistant to Allie Beth Allman, the Spanos’ Realtor, to fax me a copy of the check. Mr. Spano wouldn’t let her, she said. He was concerned about giving out his checking account number. Very private person. Swan-son said. I suggested he conceal the account number on the check. No, Spano told her, he’d wire the $15,000 to Republic Title Company, Tomorrow.

Because we were talking a cash sale here, 1 wondered what the source of this cash might be since one of the Realtors had already told me that the Spanos had not yet sold their University Park home. Swanson told me John Spano would get us a letter of credit from his banker. She was a very shrewd real estate agent: Maybe, she suggested, I should take a look at his home and we could finagle a trade. He’d buy our house; we could buy his.



What Lovely People

The Spanos lived at 3806 University Blvd., creekside, across from Highland Park Presbyterian Church. The first thing I said to Swanson when I walked into the house was, “How can she possibly want to buy my house?” We have a lovely home on rambling, treed acreage. But the Spano house was twice the size and exquisite: 11,681 square feet on a 204-by-420-foot lot, with a pool and a huge foyer hung with deer, elk, and bison trophies. (Spano must be quite the hunter, I thought.)

The home was beautifully decorated in English/French country style-exactly what I would do if my decorating budget were limitless. The kitchen featured hand-painted tiles and a gas cooktop, long counters and antique wood beams. That’s where I found Shelby, sitting at a planning desk in the kitchen.

Tall and pretty, she looked tike a cross between a Breck girl and a trophy wife. But then most trophies would have been freshly bleached and wearing their daytime Escada. Shelby looked more like she was ready to meditate in the woods. I felt sorry for her. Having to leave her three-story home to move into mine seemed like downward mobility. But she told me she was from Oregon and our lot and trees reminded her of home.

I loved everything about the Spanos’ house, from the three huge living areas to the sunken bar, where a man I presumed to be John Spano was talking on the phone. Short, stout, beefy, with a receding hairline and a lump on the middle of his forehead, he didn’t say much besides hello.

The master bedroom was enormously grand, located at the top of the staircase. A silver-framed photo of John with the Duchess of York sat on the dressing bureau. A fire burned in the fireplace. A wedding photo of the couple sat inside an antique armoire. Such lovely people.

The asking price: $3.2 million. Not exactly an even trade, but Susie Swanson said the price was negotiable. We would have to come up with about $2 million to pull this off. Swanson said she’d wanted me to see die Spanos’ home so that I could see how they could afford ours. Yes, it certainly seemed that way.

Stall for Time

My agent, meanwhile, had been doing his homework. He happened to have lunch with someone who remembered reading about John Spano in the newspaper. Spano tried to buy a sports team, my agent told me, and didn’t have the money. Well, so what? Deals go bad all the time. If this guy wanted to buy our house and had the means to do so, we had a deal.

It was getting near the end of the week- five days since the Spanos entered our lives-and we got back their counter offer, They inched up $25,000 from their $875,000 offer. Now it was our turn to inch down from our $975,000 asking price. Just how low did we want to go for the Spanos?

As I began to research my D column, “Tale of the Sale,” for that month, other real estate agents and brokers who knew about the contract supplied bits of information. One source told me he had no beef with the guy and yes, he paid his bill on time. Another told me that Spano owed a friend about $80,000. Maybe he thought we were as desperate to unload our house as Norm Green was to unload his hockey team in 1995. Maybe we were.

It wasn’t until I found out that he had lied on loan applications, forged letters, bounced major checks, and may have taken down a vice president of our bank, Comerica North-Park, that I figured it out. In a complex financial maze spanning more than two years, this guy had managed to con some pretty savvy people in his quest to buy Dallas’ hockey team-Stars president Jim Lites, investment banker Robert Innamor-ati, Staubach Company president Jim Leslie. In nearly every case, Spano displayed wealth, promised to wire money, and produced phony bank letters assuring funds that never materialized. Just like our earnest-money check.

And where was the earnest-money wire? By Friday of John Spano week, we’d flipped our contract back and forth: The ball was now in our court, but there was still no sign of earnest money. Every time I asked about it, the Spanos’ agent said, “First thing tomorrow morning.”

According to Section 15 of the contract, our only recourse would be to keep the earnest money as liquid damages-a check that never materialized.



The Bubble Bursts

That same Friday, Allie Beth Allman was back in town. She advised us to go ahead and continue to show the house since we were still negotiating price. My growing unease with the people we were dealing with deflated my sales vigor as much as the cash offer had inflated it. I said as much to Allman. She said she understood my concerns, but John Spano had told her they were going to buy a house by the end of the week.

If he had the cash, why worry? My husband and I were concerned that if our house were bought with funds that were later found to be stolen or tainted, we’d have to give the money back and would end up with nothing. But a criminal attorney assured us that, worst case scenario, we’d have to hire an attorney and prove there was no collusion.

Collusion? We’d never seen these people before. But who knows? If the government wanted collusion, maybe they could create collusion. Maybe I was being paranoid.

In the end, we treated the Spanos the way we’d treat any other buyer and held firm to our last counter: $966,000.

They walked away.

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