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UNGUARDED: How a tight-knit network of Miami real estate players bought and sold Guardianship homes for profit

WLRN's Unguarded investigation
Katie Lepri Cohen
Camila Kerwin
WLRN's Unguarded investigation

With Miami−Dade officials continuing their investigation of the Guardianship Program of Dade County and its real estate transactions, WLRN has learned that two companies — linked to Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez — purchased and sold for hefty gains nearly three dozen properties that were once owned by the nonprofit, through a network of businesses or individuals.

WLRN previously reported that Miami’s Guardianship Program — the largest in Florida — sold 14 properties to Express Homes and six properties to Gallego Homes over a 13−year period.

Express Homes is owned by Miami City Attorney Méndez’s husband, Carlos Morales. Gallego Homes was owned by her mother, Margarita Méndez. Victoria Méndez was registered as the vice president of Gallego Homes from its founding in 2010 until 2018.

Gallego Homes was legally dissolved weeks after WLRN reported on itsreal estate transactions earlier this year.

In analyzing sales data of all real estate transactions in Miami-Dade County dating back to 2009, WLRN found that the two companies and their officers bought a total of 33 properties that originated from the Guardianship Program — 13 more than what was found in our initial reporting — and business associates of Morales bought six other homes sold by the nonprofit.

The Guardianship Program cares for those deemed by a court to be incapacitated, who don’t have the money to afford a private guardian and who have no friends or family willing to take care of them. The staff takes control of their assets — including vehicles and real estate — and sells them to help pay for future care and living expenses.

Proceeds from the sale of an incapacitated person’s property goes toward their long-term care, but profits made on resales do not.

Reached via email, Victoria Méndez declined to answer questions for this story. “My family has done nothing wrong,” she told WLRN.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava speaks at a press conference on Dec. 21, 2022.
Sam Navarro
Miami Herald
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava speaks at a press conference on Dec. 21, 2022.
Homepage for the Guardianship Program of Dade County
Homepage for the Guardianship Program of Dade County

In March, following WLRN’s reportingon the agency, the Miami−Dade County Inspector General’s Office, an independent "watchdog" agency of the county, launched its investigation of the Guardianship Program’s property sales. The investigation remains ongoing after several months.

In late March, top Miami−Dade County officials, including Mayor Danielle Levine Cava, reached an agreement with the Guardianship Program to temporarily halt sales of the nonprofit agency’s properties until county investigators can complete their inquiry. In exchange, the county agreed to continue making $2.7 million in funding payments to the agency.

In mapping the connections among the two companies and others, a clearer portrait emerges of those involved in the sale and resale of Guardianship Program properties.

Advocates for the elderly and critics who have sought reforms for all guardianship programs say more transparency of financial transactions and more oversight is needed of agencies serving as public guardians.

“My frustration is it's so transparent once you look at the probate records,” said Rick Black, the executive director of the nationwide advocacy group the Center for Estate Administration Reform, a group that tracks guardianships across the nation. “There's just rampant opportunism in this environment.”

Longtime associates

One name that repeatedly appears in transactions involving Express Homes is that of Antonio Lorenzo, a Miami realtor and property appraiser.

State corporate records show Lorenzo, between 2004 and 2006, owned a real estate title company called Title Zone with Carlos Morales and Victoria Méndez, who were listed as corporate managers with the company. Morales later started a nonprofit called Southern Housing Alliance in 2012, and named Lorenzo as vice president. The nonprofit shuttered in 2015, according to state records.

In select guardianship properties bought by Morales, Margarita Méndez and their companies, Lorenzo appraised the property on behalf of the Guardianship Program.

The connection between Lorenzo and the Guardianship Program appears to have started in 2009, after a woman named Maria Sanchez was declared incapacitated by a Miami-Dade court. After gaining control of Sanchez’s finances and decision making responsibilities, the Guardianship Program of Dade County asked the court for permission to sell her West Flagler condo.

In the Guardianship Program’s court petition requesting permission to sell the property, the program included an appraisal done by Antonio Lorenzo. He estimated the condo on West Flagler and 37th Avenue was worth $20,000. In the appraisal, Lorenzo mentioned there was evidence of mold in the unit and that work had to be done to clean the property.

In the end, the Guardianship Program opted to sell the condo for $5,000 to Express Homes, the company owned by Carlos Morales.

As recently as late 2022, Lorenzo worked as a realtor selling properties once owned by clients under the care of the Guardianship Program.

In three instances identified by WLRN, Express Homes sold or transferred a Guardianship property to a business owned by Antoliano Lorenzo, Antonio Lorenzo's father, within days of the original sale. And in two separate cases identified by WLRN, Express Homes and Gallego Homes quickly sold Guardianship properties to companies owned by the Lorenzos.

In one case, Express Homes acquired a North Miami house in 2013 and resold it to Secure Funding Group, LLC. — a now-defunct company that listed Antonio Lorenzo as a manager — for a $50,000 gain the same day it was originally bought.

Emma Louise Ladson was evicted from her mother's home after she became a ward of the Guardianship Program of Dade County, which then sold the home.
Katie Lepri Cohen
Emma Louise Ladson was evicted from her mother's home after she became a ward of the Guardianship Program of Dade County, which then sold the home.

In another case, Emma Ladson’s Liberty City home was sold to Lorenzo’s company for a $1,000 loss a month after it was first bought from the Guardianship Program by Gallego Homes. In that 2015 sale, previously reported by WLRN, Lorenzo originally appraised the property, according to court records, and Gallego Homes bought it for $31,000. Lorenzo continues to maintain the property as a rental.

“A family member from Georgia called me to say: ‘When did you sell the house? They sold your home for $30,000.’ I go: ‘What are you talking about?’” Ladson previously told WLRN. "Are you kidding me? I just couldn’t believe it."

Hillary Hogue, an activist who tracks guardianship cases in Florida probate courts, told WLRN that she often sees cases of people with connections to probate cases involved in subsequent property sales.

That's usually exactly what happens,” she said. “It doesn't shock us. It's just the nature of the beast.”

Quick sales, significant gains

In 2014, Maia Investments, a company owned by Antoliano Lorenzo, directly purchased a home from the Guardianship Program of Dade County from an incapacitated man named Kirby Latimer. The home was bought for $125,000 and resold for $149,000 three months later, property records show.

To this day, Antonio Lorenzo serves as a board member in a non-profit started by Morales: the Abuelos Foundation. According to its website, the foundation’s mission is to “assist senior citizens and also offer them compassion by providing them with services, cost-saving, beautifying and modern home improvements, as well as advocating for their needs before local governments.” Victoria Méndez serves as the foundation’s treasurer.

Nonprofit The Abuelos Foundation was started by Carlos Morales, has Antonio Lorenzo as a board member and Victoria Méndez as its treasurer.
Abuelos Foundation Website
Nonprofit The Abuelos Foundation was started by Carlos Morales, has Antonio Lorenzo as a board member and Victoria Méndez as its treasurer.

Separately, Lorenzo and his wife Melissa Lorenzo have been real estate agents for the sale and resale of properties owned by people under care of the Guardianship Program.

In 2020, Lexan Real Estate, a company owned by Melissa Lorenzo, made $7,500 for acting as the real estate agent when Express Homes bought an incapacitated woman’s Liberty City duplex through the Guardianship Program for $125,000.

The following year, Express Homes resold the remodeled property for $360,000, a gain of about $235,000. Antonio Lorenzo worked with Express Homes as the real estate agent for the resale of the property, according to public real estate listings.

Then, in June of 2022, Antonio Lorenzo appraised a Richmond Heights home owned by an incapacitated woman named Cassandra Canty Mathis for $355,000. His wife then sold the home on behalf of the Guardianship Program to an unrelated company for $360,000, making $21,600 on the sale, according to court records.

The new owners sold the home for $590,000 in April of 2023.

As WLRN has previously reported, advocates have expressed concerns about whether the Guardianship Program is getting the best deal it can get for people under its care — a requirement under state law — citing multiple instances where homes have quickly been resold for higher prices.

Four of the five properties that Antonio Lorenzo lists on his Realtor.com profile were Guardianship Program properties. Two of the homes were originally owned by Express Homes when Lorenzo worked with them to resell the properties. The two other guardianship properties were purchased by Westchester-based attorney Michael A. Gonzalez before Lorenzo helped resell them for significantly more money.

WLRN found that Gonzalez purchased at least four Guardianship homes since 2021. For example, he bought a home in the Shenandoah neighborhood of Miami owned by an incapacitated woman named Primitiva Lopez in March of 2022 for $455,000. Ten months later, Gonzalez sold the home for $960,000, more than double the original price. Antonio Lorenzo originally appraised the home for $355,000, and he was the real estate agent on the resale of the home, according to court records.

The median sales price for a single family home in the 33145 zip code in March of 2022 was $710,000, according to Redfin.

Hogue, the activist who tracks Guardianship cases in court, told WLRN that she was surprised the Guardianship Program submits property appraisals to the courts, which goes beyond what is required by law.

“In the state of Florida, there isn't a law stating that you have to do an appraisal. Usually what's filed is a ‘market analysis,’ which is just terrible,” said Hogue.

His friends called him ‘Rocky’

In 2012, Carlos Morales founded a nonprofit organization called the Southern Housing Alliance. All of the registered officers of the nonprofit — among whom was Antonio Lorenzo — have purchased properties that once belonged to incapacitated people under the care of the Guardianship Program, court and property records show.

The nonprofit was legally dissolved in 2014.

The listed treasurer of Southern Housing Alliance was a man named Alexander Perez. In 2015, Express Homes bought a Sweetwater townhome from an incapacitated person named Eloina Millares Pais for $85,000 and then four months later sold it to Perez for $175,000, according to property records. Perez is still listed as the owner of that property.

The nonprofit's secretary was Antonio Piedra, the owner of a company called Lucaser Holdings. Between 2010 and 2015, the company directly purchased five properties owned by incapacitated people under the care of the Guardianship Program. The company most recently bought a house belonging to an incapacitated woman named Joyce Grala for $51,500 in 2015, then resold the house for $158,000 seven months later.

Gallego Homes also bought and later sold another Guardianship property to Lucaser Holdings. That property used to belong to Edward Wysocki.

Edward Wysocki's home, in an unincorporated area near the University of Miami, was bought by Gallego Homes.
Joshua Ceballos
Edward Wysocki's home, in an unincorporated area near the University of Miami, was bought by Gallego Homes.

Wysocki, known as “Rocky” to his friends, lived in his 1948 home near the University of Miami for decades. Wysocki’s longtime neighbor and friend, Peter Hill, recalled that the house was once covered in bromeliads and tropical plants, all planted or tended by Wysocki himself.

“He had lots of orchids, lots of tropical plants. He had palms, which were very rare. He had orchids and exotic plants in his backyard with a fish pond that was very beautiful,” Hill told WLRN. “Gardening was his passion.”

Today, the single-family property has more of a contemporary style, with an astroturf-lined cement driveway and modern entryway with little to no foliage to cover its curb appeal.

In March of 2012, when Wysocki was already in his 90s, he entered the care of the Guardianship Program of Dade County after Hill and Wysocki’s other friends called the Department of Children and Families to report that he was left alone and neglected in his home.

Two months later, the program asked the Miami-Dade court system for permission to sell Wysocki’s home to pay for his care at an assisted living facility. The very next day, the probate judge approved the sale. The house had gone out for private bid after it was assessed for $90,000.

Hill says the home was in a state of disrepair, and needed new bathroom work, kitchen remodeling, and roof repair. Hill offered to buy the house for $68,000 in an email auction, but he was outbid by a company called Gallego Homes, which bought the house for $85,000 in June of 2012, according to court records.

Less than two weeks after purchasing Wysocki’s house, Gallego Homes sold it to Piedra’s company, Lucaser Holdings, for $120,000. Just five months afterwards, the company resold it for $335,000. The money made on the two subsequent resales of the property did not go towards Wysocki’s care.

Wysocki worked for the Miami-Dade County Library system as an artist and designer. Hill said he drew paintings of Everglades landscapes and of nature. He was a gardener, and a collector of exotic and tropical plants. When his home was sold, his artwork and plants were disposed of, Hill says, and he wasn’t able to keep a single one.

“My only regret was the day that they started working on the home. They came with a dumpster and they threw everything in there. And I wish I had gotten at least one of his paintings just as a keepsake to remember him by,” Hill said.

One home, many threads

Javier Llanes has worked with the Guardianship Program as a real estate agent going back to at least 2012, listing select properties on real estate websites. That year, Llanes placed a Coconut Grove home on the market for less than a single day before it was sold to the company Gallego Homes for under asking price, property records show.

In one property transaction identified by WLRN, numerous threads of the disparate connections related to these property sales come together.

A woman named Yiriam Ossorio bought an Allapattah home from an incapacitated woman named Alice Latimer for $48,000 in 2015, through the Guardianship Program. Just over three months later, Ossorio transferred the house to Express Homes.

Though the transfer was a step removed from the Guardianship Program, the program’s real estate agent, Javier Llanes appeared as a witness on the deed, alongside Antonio Lorenzo. Their names and signatures appear one on top of the other.

Another home Llanes worked on belonged to Puerto Rico native Juana Raymond, who lived in Homestead. Raymond spent decades working as a grader of tropical fruits grown in South Dade alongside her Cuban-born husband Ramón Raymond. Over the years, the couple did well enough to buy a house at 15495 Leisure Drive in Homestead.

Years after Ramón died, Juana was placed under the care of the Guardianship Program of Dade County after being diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's. Her daughter, Sonia Raymond, recalled being shocked to learn that she could exercise no influence on anything after the process was completed.

“I had no rights. I had no rights,” Sonia said.

A few months after taking control of Juana’s decision making, the Guardianship Program moved to sell the family home to better take care of her. The non-profit enlisted the help of Javier Llanes to sell the home as a real estate agent, according to court records.

Sonia told WLRN she was notified of the intent to sell but never alerted to any bidding process or told how much the home would be sold for, nor when a sale would be completed.

The house was sold to Gallego Homes in July of 2013 for $36,500. A month later, Gallego Homes resold it for $60,000. Court records show no bidding on the property.

 Juana Raymond with her grandchildren at the home that the Guardianship Program sold to Gallego Homes in all of her mother’s personal belongings were discarded two months after she was placed under guardianship before the home was even sold
Sonia Raymond
Juana Raymond pictured in 1994 with her grandchildren at the family house that the Guardianship Program sold to Gallego Homes in 2013 to pay for her care. Her daughter Sonia says most of Juana's personal belongings were discarded under court order before the family even had a chance to see them.

When she later pulled up public real estate records and saw the price Llanes and the Guardianship Program sold the house for, Sonia Raymond was livid. If she had known the price range, she and her three siblings could have bought the home themselves, she said.

“That's nothing. That house sold for way under market. Way under market. And then it was sold a month later,” she said. “You're talking about ten grandchildren that lived, that knew that as abuela and abuelo's home. It’s incredible.”

Raymond said one of the worst things about the entire incident was that all of her mother’s personal belongings were discarded two months after she was placed under guardianship before the home was even sold. A court filing notes: “Personal items disposed of as per court order.”

Family photos dating back to Puerto Rico and Cuba, childhood photos of Sonia and her siblings, mementos, items with nostalgic value were lost for generations of the surviving family.

“When I tell you we got nothing, we got nothing. Nothing from the inside of the house,” Sonia said.

This is the third story in a three-part investigation. Read the rest of the Unguarded series:

The Fund for Investigative Journalism provided support for this story.

WLRN recently created an investigative reporting team comprised of reporters Danny Rivero and Joshua Ceballos, and two editors, Jessica Bakeman and Sergio R. Bustos. WLRN is a nonprofit newsroom that relies on your donations to fund their work and undertake stories like this one. Please donate today.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigations team. Reach Joshua Ceballos at jceballos@wlrnnews.org
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