Where a court may conclude from circumstantial evidence that a defendant was a conspirator in violation of the law, the court may admit statements made by defendant’s co-conspirators in furtherance of the conspiracy as an exception to the hearsay rule.

The 1st District Appellate Court affirmed the decision of Cook County Associate Judge Lawrence E. Flood.

Jimmy Pililmis, arrested for mortgage fraud in March 2010, agreed to work as an informant in further fraud investigations in exchange for leniency. Assistant Special Agent Manuel Colin, posing as Manny Rodriguez, would be introduced to Pililmis’ co-conspirators in his fraudulent plan as a “straw buyer” who would be given fraudulent documents and obtain a mortgage from the Federal Housing Authority.

Colin would then buy a four-unit rental building from Pililmis and the profits would be split between Colin, Pililmis, Nicholas Prittis and Bogdan Bozic who orchestrated “every communication and every aspect of the deal.”

Colin received $50 as well as a fabricated profit-and-loss statement for a trucking business to provide to Chase Bank. Bozic then put Colin in contact with Michael Caraga, a loan officer who had been involved in prior deals with Bozic.

Caraga told Colin they would check the work history documents, but indicated that he knew previous clients referred through Bozic were not living on the property purchased as required by FHA loans and advised Colin not to file an address change to any other property or it would attract attention.

When it came time for the closing, an illegal joint venture agreement was signed, indicating that Bozic would receive around $120,000, disburse money to Pililmis and Colin and keep the rest. Caraga was not mentioned.

At 3:15 p.m., a dozen agents entered the room and stopped the closing. Caraga, Bozic and Prittis were arrested and charged with loan fraud, financial institution fraud, attempted theft, wire fraud and forgery.

Caraga asked to be tried separately, claiming he was unaware the transaction was fraudulent and emphasizing that Colin never told him it was fraudulent and was never told by Bozic or Prittis that Caraga knew it was fraudulent. Further, he was not included in any payments or transaction documents.

Caraga was found guilty on all five counts and sentenced to two years probation and 200 hours of community service. He appealed, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting hearsay testimony of his alleged co-conspirators into evidence.

Hearsay statements are generally inadmissible, but an exception is made for statements made by a co-conspirator “during the course and in furtherance of the conspiracy.” However, prior to being admitted, the state must make a prima facie showing of a conspiracy independent of the statement, which may be circumstantial.

The appellate court found that the state had made such a showing, first in demonstrating the Bozic repeatedly went to Caraga with straw buyers, indicating that he thought he would reliably aid in the fraud and second in the recordings of Caraga advising Colin not to draw the attention of the authorities by filing a change of address.

While Caraga’s absence from the joint venture agreement is evidence to be considered, the appellate court found it did not refute the prima facie showing that Caraga was in on the conspiracy, making statements by his co-conspirators admissible

As a result, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

People v. Michael Caraga

2018 IL App (1st) 170123

Writing for the court: Justice Mary Anne Mason

Concurring: Justices Aurelia Pucinski and Michael B. Hyman

Released: Feb. 4, 2020