Gulliver Schools: Unlikely Setting for Big Fraud
Leandro Depontes pleaded guilty to organized fraud in April.
Photo courtesy of Jerry Gonzalez
The doctor and the lawyer showed up at Opa-locka Executive Airport ready for a fight.
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.
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."
Depontes told everyone he had FAA connections and in May 2005 filed an application with the feds to start passenger service. "The FAA kind of laughed at his proposal," says Jorsey, who soon quit.
Creditors began circling the flailing would-be airline magnate, who was fond of wearing a captain's uniform around the sparkling office — though everyone knew he had little flight experience. By the end of 2007, he'd ditched the office, and Bank of America had been awarded judgments for more than $200,000; the first of several mortgage lawsuits soon landed him in court as well.
For now, he'd hung on to his house and kept his kids at Gulliver. But Depontes needed cash.
That's when he met Dr. Jorge Perez. Born and raised in Miami, Perez had earned a medical degree in the Dominican Republic before returning to Tampa to learn his specialty: neonatal care. By the early 2000s, he and another specialist, Dr. Alberto Tano, had one of the largest child-focused practices in South Florida (which is now called Kidz Medical Services). Perez, who declined an interview with New Times but who spelled out his story in court depositions, became the go-to doctor for premature babies around the region.
"On a weekly basis or biweekly basis, I get a frantic call from somewhere," Perez says in his deposition. "It could be the Cayman Islands, Central and South America... Unfortunately, I can only do so much over the phone."
Often, Perez would try to arrange air ambulance service, but the planes were unreliable. The doctors had plenty of horror stories; there was the wife of a U.S. diplomatic worker stuck in Ecuador and unable to get out in time when her pregnancy had complications. "We wanted to do something not only for this community but for the communities abroad," Perez says.
The idea was simple, though expensive. The two docs would buy a jet, pay certified pilots to be on call 24/7, and whenever a true medical emergency arose anywhere in the region, they could speed the mother and child in for treatment.
But the men needed someone who could handle the aviation side. In 2007, Perez was at a birthday party for a classmate of his son's, a first-grader at Gulliver. Depontes, whose daughter was in the same class, mentioned that he'd caught wind of the doctor's plans. "He basically asked me if I truly was interested in developing the business," Perez says. "I said definitely."
Depontes outlined his credentials: He operated an expanding airline and had 250 employees. He could help Perez find a jet, get FAA certification, and find pilots and mechanics. In exchange, Perez and Tano agreed to pay him $18,000 a month. By the beginning of 2008, they were in business.
At first, the physicians believed Depontes was getting their service off the ground. A few months after they hired him, he found the perfect plane. He said it belonged to a Missouri company called Black Hawk: a 1984 Learjet 55 that would cost $3.97 million. One of Perez's friends warned him that the price seemed high, but Depontes "said basically you are comparing apples to oranges," Perez says.
By July, the plane was parked in Opa-locka, and the doctors were eager to get started. Depontes hired a veteran charter pilot and mechanic and promised he was negotiating with the FAA for clearance. But there were repeated delays. Thousands of dollars were needed for new engine rotors. Manuals had to be written. Unexpected maintenance cropped up.
Meanwhile, Depontes' employees noticed odd things. He'd told his pilot, Jeff Coursey, that he was a high-ranking Brazilian air force officer. Yet when Coursey took Depontes up in the air and handed him the controls, he was helpless. "The guy couldn't fly to save his life," Coursey says. "He was sweating and nervous. He was all over the place."
The final straw came in early 2009, when Depontes demanded $97,000 for a new avionics system. MacConnell told him he'd have to see the paperwork up front, and Depontes refused. Instead, he sent the lawyer an American Express bill. "You could see where he clearly started to make changes to the date and inserted things," MacConnell says in a deposition. The avionics company quickly confirmed there'd been no order.
MacConnell started digging. Were any of the other expenses legit? In the midst of his financial detective work, an important clue emerged. Perez learned that another Gulliver parent, Alex Rico, had just invested $250,000 in a new plane deal for Depontes. The seller? Black Hawk.
"How coincidental is it that as large as this country is, we both purchased a plane from Black Hawk?" Perez wondered, his stomach churning.
He was especially concerned because Rico was no ordinary parent. His daughter was gravely ill with a brain tumor. MacConnell soon discovered the truth, he testified in his deposition: Black Hawk was a shell company, created by Depontes to inflate the Learjet price. The company that was really selling the plane had charged only $2.8 million; Depontes had pocketed the nearly $1.2 million difference.
Sure that he was pulling another scam on Rico, Perez and MacConnell alerted the parent. Depontes later returned his cash, but the doctor was seeing red. "That he would actually meet with this little girl at her parents' house and... he knew he was screwing this man," Perez says. "That is when I said, 'You know what? I am not dealing with this shit... This guy is going to pay.'"
MacConnell says he soon verified that nearly every expense Depontes had sent their way had been faked and that Coursey and other employees hadn't been paid. In addition to the inflated plane cost, the doctors had lost more than $200,000 in other costs.
In July 2009, they raided the hangar in Opa-locka and — after the forklift confrontation with the Brazilian's mom — got back their jet. In September, they went to Coral Gables Police with their evidence. Depontes was soon charged with ten counts of felony fraud.
But that wasn't the end of the tale. For more than four years, Depontes — out free on bond — managed to delay his trial. He cannily switched attorneys, who then pleaded with the judge for more time to digest the voluminous paperwork. Depontes also got multiple delays so relatives in South America could send more money.
He was scheduled to go to trial early this April. Days before the court date, though, prosecutors announced they'd reached a deal: Depontes would plead guilty to a single felony count of organized fraud. He'd spend a year on house arrest and two years on probation and log 60 days at county jail on the weekends. He also promised to pay back $400,000 to Perez and his partners, with $150,000 up front. (Carlos Gonzalez, Depontes' attorney, did not respond to a request for comment by presstime.)
Depontes will be a felon, and he'll be required to at least return some money to Perez and his partners. But others aren't so lucky. Take Jeff Coursey, who is still out $75,000 in back wages. "I have no clue if I'll ever see any of that," he says.
There is a silver lining to the story. Within a year of Depontes' arrest, Perez and his partners found another local charter company and started their airlift; in the three years since, they've brought more than 50 mothers and children to Miami for vital treatment.
But it's the untold number of families who missed out on those life-saving trips during the two years that Depontes robbed the doctors blind that made it so hard for Perez to swallow the crime.
"I will never forgive him for what he did," Perez says. "There were lives I could have made a difference in, and I was not able."
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