Gulliver Schools: Unlikely Setting for Big Fraud

Gulliver Schools: Unlikely Setting for Big Fraud
Photo courtesy of Jerry Gonzalez
Leandro Depontes pleaded guilty to organized fraud in April.

The doctor and the lawyer showed up at Opa-locka Executive Airport ready for a fight.

In September, they went to Coral Gables Police with their evidence. Depontes was soon charged with ten counts of felony fraud.

As they rolled down the tarmac toward the yawning hangars, the pair was well past the boiling point. For months, they'd dealt with evasions and lies, and now — after weeks of detailed forensic accounting — they knew the truth: They'd been scammed.

Leandro Depontes had seemed like the perfect partner for their dream company: an emergency medical airlift firm that could jet sick mothers and infants from the Caribbean and Latin America to life-saving treatment in Miami.

Depontes' attempt to start an airline in 2005 failed.
Photo courtesy of Jerry Gonzalez
Depontes' attempt to start an airline in 2005 failed.

They had the medical know-how, and Depontes, a slick-talking Brazilian, was going to make the aviation happen. He was an experienced Brazilian air force officer, the owner of a high-flying airline and — best of all — a trusted fellow parent from Gulliver Schools, an elite academy for the offspring of Coral Gables' crème de la crème.

But now, Dr. Jorge Perez and his partner, attorney George MacConnell, knew it had all been a farce. There was no airline. There were no licenses. And thanks to Depontes' elaborate, million-dollar-plus fraud, there was no life-saving airlift company.

At least they could get their Learjet back. As they rolled up to the hangar to reclaim their plane, though, they found they weren't alone. Depontes' mom was there, blocking the hangar with her van. And she wasn't about to let them in.

"[She] refused to do it," MacConnell later recalled in a deposition. She claimed she didn't have the van's keys.

"I said, 'You have got to be kidding me.'"

Neither the doctor nor the lawyer was about to let Depontes keep the plane for one more minute. They grabbed a forklift and hooked the van. As Depontes' mom screamed and police cars rushed down the runway, they carried the van away.

The July 2009 airport caper was an absurd end to a traumatic saga for Perez, whose dreams of helping mothers in need was nearly destroyed by Depontes' lies. In fact, the Brazilian hadn't only scammed the doctor and his partners; court records would later reveal he took hundreds of thousands from other Gulliver parents, including a couple whose daughter was battling severe brain cancer at the time.

Even worse, once he was charged in December 2009 with ten felony counts of organized fraud, he wheedled four full years out of Miami-Dade's overloaded court system. Last month, days before his trial was at last set to begin, Depontes pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of only two months in jail.

Victims are left wondering if Depontes will ever truly feel the weight of his crimes, which — by virtue of his targets — are among the most stomach-churning in Miami-Dade's long history of white-collar rip-offs.

"I hope he will never be able to live with [this], because a lot of mothers and children didn't make it based on his misrepresentations," Perez says in a deposition. "This is the gutter, man; this is as low as you can go."

Leandro Depontes was born in Brazil and moved to South Florida with his mother, Lourdes Del Castilho, when he was 18 years old. He graduated from Miami Springs High School, returned to Brazil to study at the Universidade Federal de Ceara, and then came back to Miami to get his start in the aviation industry.

Depontes did have real experience in the field, at least according to state business records and his résumé. In the early '90s, he helped a national construction company manage its corporate jets, and in 1997, he started his own firm, Jet Aircraft Inc., which resold airline parts.

That same year, Depontes got married and, soon thereafter, bought a house in Costa Verde, a landscaped Kendall suburb with a golf course and pool. Depontes looked the picture of the successful businessman; as his family grew to four children, Jet Aircraft was pulling in more than $3 million in sales from thousands of international customers, he would later claim. In 2000, he founded Platinum Air Cargo, his first stab at a real aviation firm.

Whether Depontes was living above his means all along or not, his financial life soon imploded. In 2001, his wife filed for divorce, and two years later, Depontes was hit with the first of a series of lawsuits, including a claim from an Angolan airline. He was later required to pay more than $600,000.

But instead of eating his losses, Depontes went for broke. In 2005, he leased an expensive, top-floor office space just north of Miami International Airport. The frosted glass doors were etched with the stylish logo of his own design for his new firm: Platinum Air. He bought a 200-seat 727 (without working engines) and plastered the tail and the side with the name. And he brought in a few local airline veterans.

"There was this expensive furniture, huge airplanes hanging from the ceiling," says Karyl Rodenbeck, an Eastern Airlines vet hired to prepare his flight attendant manuals. "But no one was ever working there. It was a ghost town."

Allen Jorsey, who flew for Eastern Airlines for 25 years, was hired as chief pilot. He was immediately skeptical. "We call these operations '36th Street airlines,'" he says, referring to the road that runs just north of MIA. "They're all about the same, and they're all about as lousy."

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