Home Personal Injuries Chris Pettit’s forgotten clients: ‘He bamboozled us’

Chris Pettit’s forgotten clients: ‘He bamboozled us’

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Maricio Jose Made, 52, was among 260 passengers and crew who died on the flight that had just taken off from Kennedy International Airport. Five people on the ground also were killed.

After the crash, an employee in Christopher “Chris” Pettit’s San Antonio office contacted Made’s mother, Luz Marina Made, seeking to have the attorney represent the pair in a lawsuit against both the airline and aircraft manufacturer Airbus.

The widow, now 70, chose Pettit to represent them because his employees spoke Spanish and she felt comfortable with them, Lorena Made recalled. It’s a decision they regret in the wake of the widening scandal surrounding Pettit, who’s accused of looting millions of dollars from clients.

He obtained a $2 million settlement on behalf of the Mades. But he didn’t hand over the money.

“He told us it would be preferable if we left the money with him and he would put it in a trust and accounts, things of that nature,” said Made, 32, who works as a legal assistant in New York.

The entire $500,000 Made said she received in the settlement remained with Pettit for more than 15 years. She figured it had increased in value to about $2 million. But she never received any statements detailing how he invested her money and rarely spoke to Pettit, she said. When she tried to get information, she’d get the “runaround.”

Made’s mother received her last check, for $3,000, from Pettit’s office in May. It bounced.

“Then suddenly this bankruptcy thing came about,” Made said.

Pettit filed Chapter 11 for himself and his law firm June 1 after about a dozen clients sued to get their money back. He surrendered his law license and closed his offices. The FBI has been investigating the clients’ claims.

Now, Made is coming to grips with the reality that her money is gone.

“He just took everything I thought I would have for my future,” she said, adding she’d been planning to buy a house. “He bamboozled us.”

Despite their losses, Made and her her mother were not among the roughly 200 creditors — most of them former clients — listed in bankruptcy schedules Pettit filed.

“My case is from 20 years ago, so I’m pretty sure it’s easy for him to hide it under the rug,” Made said when asked why her name wasn’t listed.

Left out

Made and her mother aren’t alone in being left out of Pettit’s filings. The Express-News spoke with four other former Pettit clients who weren’t listed. Unlike Made, though, they don’t live in the United States and don’t speak English, so getting information on Pettit’s bankruptcy case has been difficult for them.

Pettit specialized in estate planning and personal injury cases but also handled trust and probate matters, prepared tax returns and provided financial advice.

Just how many other Pettit creditors have been overlooked is unknown. He reported that his law firm had $13.8 million in assets and $112.8 million in liabilities, but the latter figure is expected to rise given that the list of creditors is incomplete.

“I think there are a lot of people who haven’t been noticed,” said Mary Elizabeth Heard, a San Antonio attorney representing a creditor owed $3 million — and who also is not listed in Pettit’s filings. “It’s alarming to me.”

Pettit, who was jailed last week for contempt of court related to his mishandling of assets in the bankruptcy estate, needs to assist the Chapter 11 trustee in finding every one the law firm’s clients, Heard said.

“I just think that it is wrong for him to continue this charade of not being able to remember, or not understanding or not knowing,” she said. “Be accountable for what you’ve done.”

Eric Terry, the Chapter 11 trustee, said it’s essential that all creditors be listed in the schedules so they can receive notice and information regarding the bankruptcy cases and claim their files.

“Pettit has knowingly and willfully failed to meet his obligations as a debtor and interfered with my ability to administer the bankruptcy estates for the benefit of creditors and my efforts to ultimately try to pay something back to them to remedy some of the harm that Pettit has caused,” Terry said in an email.

“Failing to list these creditors is another example of Pettit’s continued disrespect of the bankruptcy process, the Bankruptcy Court and the many people he has victimized,” he added.

Pettit, who is now without a bankruptcy lawyer, did not respond to an email seeking comment before he was jailed. The law firm that had been representing him withdrew from the case after learning it had been paid with money that belonged to a Pettit client.

At a hearing Sept. 1, Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Craig Gargotta said he could issue an order directing Pettit to update his filings regarding creditors.

“That’s an ongoing duty that any debtor has,” the judge said.

Vielka Jimenez’s husband, Roberto Antonio Reyes, died in the 2001 crash of American Airlines Flight 587. San Antonio attorney Christopher Petitt obtained a $1 million settlement on her behalf, but she says she never got most of her money.

‘I lost everything’

Vielka Jimenez de Reyes’ husband, Roberto Antonio Reyes, was aboard the same American Airlines flight that killed Maricio Jose Made. The couple had been together since they were 14.

Jimenez, 57, ended up as Pettit’s client after initially hiring other lawyers in New York. She said she stood to receive $1 million, minus Pettit’s fees and costs.

After Pettit got his cut from the settlement, Jimenez said she was to receive roughly $850,000 — but there were issues. Her niece, Astrid Solano Jimenez, said Jimenez was told the money could be better invested if left with Pettit’s firm.

“He never gave me that money,” Jimenez said via phone from her home in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic. “He said he’d give me $2,200 a month until he could resolve those issues.”

Jimenez kept asking why she couldn’t receive the whole settlement but said she was given excuse after excuse. At various times she asked Pettit for an accounting of what his office had done on her case. She had more questions after learning his office once charged her $40,000 for phone calls to her — an amount she deemed “excessive.”

This summer, she said, she stopped receiving the monthly payments. She’d been relying on the money for living expenses and to help her elderly parents.

Since then, she has been scraping by. She sold her car to make ends meet.

Vielka Jimenez de Reyes and her late husband, Roberto Reyes, on their wedding day in 1997 in the Dominican Republic.

Vielka Jimenez de Reyes and her late husband, Roberto Reyes, on their wedding day in 1997 in the Dominican Republic.

“I lost everything,” Jimenez said. “What could I do?”

She tried to get in touch with Pettit’s office about the missing payments but was unsuccessful. Her niece, Solano, also tried without success.

During a recent visit to the U.S., Jimenez tried again to resolve the issue and, after learning of Pettit’s bankruptcy, began looking for a lawyer.She returned to the Dominican Republic because her visa was close to expiring, and has had trouble finding an attorney.

Jimenez said she has not received any notice about bankruptcy proceedings, or about how or even whether she can claim the money she believes she is due.

Court records show Pettit’s creditors have until Oct. 5 to submit a proof of claim. It likely will be difficult for some to determine what they’re owed because they never received statements that showed the returns their principal was supposedly generating.

‘Pension for life’

Gilberto Jimenez Carrera, 47, who lives in Tuxtepec, a city in Oaxaca, Mexico, was working as a laborer for $13 an hour in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 2006 when he lost an eye during an explosion. He also had injuries to his face and upper torso.

A contractor — he doesn’t remember the name — had set explosives as part of the clearing stage of the project and apparently left behind two charges that were not detonated. While the crew Jimenez Carrera was part of used a rotary hammer to break up rock to lay down drainage tubing, one of the charges blew.

“When you’re in an accident, a lot of people call you,” he said. “Someone from (Pettit’s) office called me.”

He said he hired Pettit because he needed help and the company he worked for, which had been paying for his hotel, was about to kick him out. He could no longer work.

Pettit reached a settlement then asked Jimenez Carrera whether he wanted a life pension or lump sum.

Former San Antonio attorney Christopher Pettit is accused of stealing his client’s money. He has yet to say where the money went.

Former San Antonio attorney Christopher Pettit is accused of stealing his client’s money. He has yet to say where the money went.

Jerry Lara, San Antonio Express-News / Staff photographer

“I thought and I said a pension is better for my children,” Jimenez Carrera said. “That way a little by little, they send it to me.”

“According to (Pettit), they were going to give me a pension for life,” Jimenez Carrera said. “The total that I was going to get was $250,000.”

Jimenez Carrera said he took $50,000, leaving $200,000 with Pettit’s firm.

“He said that money wouldn’t be touched, and that I would get another $2,000 per month as a pension,” he said. “That’s what I understood. And if I died, it would transfer to my wife.”

But he said he stopped receiving the $2,000 a year ago and has had to find work. He has a teen daughter at home who is about to start college, and other expenses. .

“Since they haven’t sent me anything, I have to work here in the fields in Oaxaca, because there’s nothing else I can do,” he said. “I depended on that money because I can’t work.”

He said he is now paid from $900 to $1,000 pesos a month, at the most. But that pay is infrequent.

“It rains a lot and the pay is not steady,” he said. “It’s a lot less than what I used to get, but we have to eat. What can you do?”

No one has been in touch with him about Pettit’s bankruptcy.

“I haven’t heard anything,” he said. “Since I am here in Mexico, I don’t know anything.”

‘I’m in bad shape’

Raul Peril said that for 25 years, he would come to the United States to export vehicles to Guatemala.

During one of those trips in 2010, he boarded a bus from McAllen that was headed to Kansas City, where he was going to look at some cars.

The Los Conejos bus he was in crashed north of the Texas-Oklahoma state line. Peril said part of his spinal column was fractured and other bones broken, he lost teeth and was in the hospital for weeks. He now has prosthetics in his spine and one of his legs, he said.

Someone from Pettit’s office contacted Peril, and he agreed to hire the firm. He recalls Pettit reaching a settlement of about $1.3 million, minus Pettit’s cut, leaving about $633,000.

Peril said he took $200,000 and left the rest with Pettit’s firm.

Peril said he had planned to open a business in his native Guatemala City, and had been asking for the rest. Pettit’s office told him there were problems with the lawyers, and that was the last he heard of the matter.

When he called more recently, Peril said it appeared the office line had been disconnected. He said he was unaware of Pettit’s issues, and has not been contacted about whether he can claim his money.”

“I want justice to be done,” Peril said. “I’m in bad shape and hopefully this gets resolved so I can support my family.”

‘We feel duped’

Griselda Chairez’s husband died in 2009 in an accident in Ohio when a tow truck fell on his vehicle, according to Griselda’s daughter, Jennifer Mata.

“After that accident, (Pettit’s firm) contacted us and explained to us what they could do,” she recalled. “Various (lawyers) did. That lawyer (Pettit) contacted my mom. But it was someone who spoke Spanish.

“They told us my mom would get $45,000, that I would get $45,000 when I turned 18 and my sister would get $45,000 when she turned 18,” said Mata, now 21.

But Chairez, who lives in Coahuila, Mexico, didn’t get her $45,000.

“Others involved in the crash were called by other lawyers’ offices, and they hired them,” Mata said. “They gave them their money. But Pettit would give my mom a payment per month, until about February or March of this year, when nothing came and no one would answer at his office.”

Chairez was receiving about $700 per month since about 2011, Mata said. While it helped with expenses, the family had to stretch it.

“I turned 18 and they never gave me anything,” Mata said. “They said they were checking and gave us excuses.”

“I needed the money for my school,” said Mata, who studied to be a primary education teacher.“My last year of university was bad and I don’t even know how I was able to graduate. And now I imagine that the money is gone. They are not going to give it to us. My sister, she’s 17. How is she going to go to the university?”

Mata only learned of Pettit’s bankruptcy after finding news stories through a Google search.

“Nobody has contacted us,” she said. “We know nothing, absolutely nothing.”

“We feel duped,” she added.

Terry, the Chapter 11 trustee, said as his team discovers the names and addressed of creditors, they are adding them to the list of creditors so they can receive the appropriate court filings and notices in in the mail.

guillermo.contreras@express-news.net

 

pdanner@express-news.net



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