From all appearances, Derek Walker Bollwinkel is successful and a big-time family man.
He lives in a beautiful million-dollar home in Gilbert, runs a couple small businesses and is married and had 10 children in 2010.
But appearances can be deceiving, according to two young mothers who spoke with CBS 5 Investigates. They claimed Bollwinkel scammed each of them out of their hard-earned cash.
Both women were desperate for places to live when they answered recent ads on Craigslist touting free rent for several months with no credit check.
"He said $500 down, and he gave you a list and you could get any house you wanted that was available," 26-year-old Brittany Wallace explained.
In the past few months, both of the women handed over $500 to Bollwinkel and ultimately ended up with no place to live.
"I felt stupid, ultimately. I felt like I made a really bad decision," said 21-year-old Kalani, who didn't wish to use her last name.
"I was like, 'Wow, we're really screwed. What are we going to do now?'" Wallace said.
CBS 5 Investigates wanted to hear firsthand how Bollwinkel, who people said often went by Walker to represent himself, talks people into giving him so much cash for something they can get for free.
The investigative team made an appointment and brought along an undercover camera.
For more than 20 minutes, the fast-talking Bollwinkel went through his lowdown.
"I'm not a charity. I'm a business. I'm out to make as much money as I can make, as fast as I can make it. Do it legally, morally, ethically," he stated.
It was a well-rehearsed presentation explaining how his house-sitting program works.
Bollwinkel charges $500 for a list of distressed homes. It's a list of about 200 homes found online or with the county for free.
He instructs his would-be participants to go through the list and first find a vacant home.
"I can't leave something empty for two years. It will get vandalized, broken into, stripped out, squatted in," Bollwinkel explained to the undercover team.
Then, he says to find the home's owner.
"It's simple. Talk to neighbors," he said.
After some paperwork, Bollwinkel said tenants are able to move in with six to 18 months' free rent to house-sit while a short sale is pending.
The program sounds great, but those who've tried it tell CBS 5 Investigates it's next to impossible. Bollwinkel has a different story.
"In 14 years of doing this, I haven't had anyone that's gone out there and not gotten a house," Bollwinkel said.
According to a host of online complaints and the two young mothers who spoke with CBS 5 Investigates, that is clearly not the case.
"He said, 'It's real easy,' and I did that, and it was all a lie," Wallace said. "I went to every single house on the list and either somebody was living in it or we couldn't get ahold of nobody."
Kalani and her boyfriend searched for an available home in vain.
"We called every house on the list for Phoenix," she said. When she asked for a refund, Bollwinkel refused.
Ironically, while the CBS 5 undercover camera was rolling, Bollwinkel warned the team about shady dealings.
"Somebody will drive the neighborhood, find a vacant house. They don't own it. They don't know the owner. They illegally change locks. They rent that house out to five different people in one day. Collect first month's rent, last month's rent, deposit - walk away with 10-15 grand in their pocket," Bollwinkel said.
Court documents show Bollwinkel was charged with forgery and criminal impersonation for similar scenarios in 2008. He was arrested by Avondale police. At least a half-dozen victims and a sophisticated scheme landed Bollwinkel behind bars.
While on probation, Bollwinkel was up to his old shenanigans and was caught again and ordered back behind bars. A judge lifted his jail time, leaving him free to pull another fast one, this time on unsuspecting homeowners.
"It was a Sunday afternoon. He knocked on the door," said a man called "Charlie." He did not want to reveal his identity.
Turns out, Charlie and his wife are the true owners of Bollwinkel's big home. During some financial difficulties, they signed over a warranty deed in May 2012, believing Bollwinkel's spiel. He promised he and his investors would work with the bank on a short sale.
"I think he's very articulate, pretty charismatic, so it's easy to believe what he said," explained Charlie.
But Charlie couldn't believe it when Bollwinkel moved his entire family right into that home just one month later. They've been there ever since.
Charlie tells CBS 5 Investigates the Bollwinkels are squatters. "Absolutely. There's no question," he said.
When the true owners realized they were had, they demanded Bollwinkel reverse the deed.
"He said, 'Well, if you pay us $50,000 for our pain and suffering, then we'll consider moving out, and we'll sign the deed back over to your wife,'" Charlie said.
Instead, the couple retained an attorney and called police.
Bollwinkel did list the home as promised. Right now, it's up to $2 million, well above market value.
"I realized at that point, you know, there's a spectrum of white to black and he is as dark a gray as you could possibly get without being black, or black or white breaking the law," Charlie said.
CBS 5 Investigates has learned there are many other victims of Bollwinkel's deed transfer tricks, and others who fell for the housing program on Craigslist have come forward.
Bollwinkel's wife, Sydnee, is also a major player in the transactions. CBS 5 Investigates found her name on nearly every document in the cases researched.
A search through court records show a number of civil judgments against the pair.
CBS 5 Investigates made several attempts to get an on-camera interview with Derek Walker Bollwinkel, but he refused.
Jesse Sanger of the Gilbert Police Department tells CBS 5 Investigates the Attorney General's office is moving forward with 125 cases of consumer fraud against Bollwinkel through their civil division.
Copyright 2014 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.
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