Debbie Search, a quality technician in Torrance, first suspected something when her financial adviser seemed to fall off the grid. She had a mysterious issue with her taxes and kept receiving letters from the IRS. Her advisers at AP Financial Group were supposed to take care of it.
"I kept calling and calling, and I got no answer," Search says. The firm's receptionist, Rebekah, usually picked up right away.
"What the heck is going on?" Search kept thinking.
Quite a bit, it turns out. AP Financial owner Daniel Becerril was cooling his heels in Men's Central Jail, awaiting his June 20 preliminary hearing on charges of brutally stabbing to death his good friend and client, Markham Middle School art teacher Sasha Merman. Becerril also faces 30 counts of financial fraud.
Meanwhile, his sister, Rebekah Becerril; his wife, Sandra Becerril — both employees of AP Financial — and a former associate, Abram Guajardo, face trial on June 6 for 12 separate counts of fraud.
The DA says Becerril was using money funneled from everyday Southern Californians to fund a Ponzi scheme. Prosecutors allege Becerril stabbed Merman in his Montana Avenue condo in Santa Monica seven times in 2008 in order to shut him up — after helping himself to more than $500,000 of Merman's money. Becerril's attorney, Charles Lindner, says his client is not guilty.
L.A. Weekly reported that for years, Becerril had ready access to teachers' lounges on numerous LAUSD campuses. L.A. Weekly has learned Becerril was never vetted by LAUSD officials. He befriended Merman, a popular art teacher, after he had easily walked onto Markham's Watts campus to peddle his "financial services" to teachers.
Then three months ago, Becerril was barred from the financial industry and promptly arrested on suspicion of murder.
L.A. Unified School District has formally banned people from peddling retirement investment products on campus. But district audiologist Sandy Keaton says a Taft High School assistant principal a few months ago let "three salespeople from individual companies" into the school. When Keaton, who chairs the Pre–Retirement Issues Committee, confronted them, "This girl, with her gorgeous green eyes, flipping her little lashes up and down, says, 'We wouldn't dream of selling ... products. We're just telling teachers about their retirement.' "
Teachers are among Becerril's alleged fraud victims. So are grandmothers, a janitor, hospital workers and employees of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Many have nervously rushed to double-check their investments and found their accounts empty — with nothing more than a glorified IOU where their money used to be.
Debbie Search, who lost much of her nest egg, is leading the charge to make Becerril pay for his alleged greed. In hopes of finding other victims, Search explained her situation in the comments section of the Yelp page for AP Financial. Other alleged victims identified themselves and joined her in a planned lawsuit.
She has organized alleged victims in Corona, Riverside, Lancaster, Carson, Las Vegas and elsewhere. Fifteen want to sue AP Financial, but a lawyer wants a $25,000 retainer. The bitter irony is that these strangers have no savings left. They need a lawyer on contingency.
When Search first heard that her financial adviser, Becerril, was in jail, she used Google to track down the Texas firm, Retirement Value LLC, where her $110,000 was invested. To her horror, the company had folded in 2010 — and the enforcement division of the Texas State Securities Board had found that it had defrauded nearly 800 victims of $65 million.
It was a gut punch she won't forget. "I felt sick," Search says. Then she double-checked her $31,000 Roth IRA, which Becerril's firm had invested with Las Vegas-based Provident Trust.
She found $20.49 in the account.
Later, she found a copy of a strange promissory note tucked in with her Provident Trust paperwork from AP Financial. Dated Feb. 8, 2012, it contained three signatures: Becerril's, that of an assistant operations manager at Provident Trust and a third from "Debbie Search," which, she notes, is "not my signature at all." (Provident Trust did not return phone calls for comment.)
One of the people Search met through her Yelp-based outreach is Rose Cordova, who worked for 26 years as an administrative assistant at St. Joseph's Hospital in Orange County. After a friend introduced Cordova to Becerril, Cordova used AP Financial to invest in a Roth IRA with Provident Trust.
The $46,000 Cordova invested is gone — in its place she found three promissory notes for $40,000, $4,000 and $2,000. One doesn't bother including a signature. Of the other two, she says, "He didn't even try to sign like me! I'm left-handed and kind of sloppy." But her supposed signature is "kind of like a stick figure, kind of plain, leaning to the right."
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an independent governing body, has banned Becerril from the financial industry. It got wind of Becerril from a woman known in documents only as "CB," who complained that Becerril had put her $11,500 investment into his own account, then spent months ducking demands for paperwork documenting where the money was. He finally returned her money.
FINRA says Becerril made an almost laughable error after the group launched a probe. The night before his disciplinary hearing, he produced a promissory note ostensibly signed by CB. It was dated weeks before CB ever met with Becerril. As FINRA reported: "The error suggests that [Becerril] prepared the promissory note in haste after FINRA began its investigation."
On March 1, a week after FINRA formally barred Becerril, Santa Monica police finally arrested him in Sasha Merman's murder case. They refuse to discuss the case against Becerril, but as L.A. Weekly reported in its May 11 cover story, "Murder on Montana," homicide detectives conducted the investigation at a glacial pace, while Becerril remained free, able to allegedly defraud unsuspecting clients for four years.
Several AP Financial clients who recently tried to alert the Santa Monica Police Department that they had been defrauded by Becerril were told by the police to call somebody else — if they heard back at all, they tell the Weekly. Debbie Search called the cops and also was told to go elsewhere.
One Lakewood man, who has not yet admitted to his wife that $20,000 he invested against her wishes may be gone, says he has left two voice mails for the lead Santa Monica detective in Merman's murder and fraud case. The calls went unreturned.
Becerril's assets — 12 bank accounts, a stately house in Huntington Beach, two Cadillac Escalades (one black, one white) and a silver S-Class Mercedes-Benz — have been frozen by DA Steven Cooley's office.
Search, who lost $175,000, is prepared for a long fight against Becerril and AP Financial. "I know it's going to take a long time, but I have 15 more years to retire, and if it takes me 15 years, so be it," she says. "I'm gonna make their life miserable."
Even if they don't get their money back, some of his clients are counting themselves lucky that they survived investing with Becerril at all.
Rose Cordova recalls how she had to pester repeatedly Becerril to hand over the routine paperwork showing where her investment was held.
She says, "Now I think, 'Jesus, I bugged him so much, I'm surprised he didn't come murder me!' "