Wheeling, dealing Zwego has a long rap sheet

Editor's note: This story first appeared April 8, 2007 in The Star.

Ray Zwego evoked the image of a savvy real estate investment guru.

A born salesman, Zwego ran his North Mission Investments from an office in a squat, grayish-brick building at 1547 Burlington St. in North Kansas City.

He also operated a car sales and rental business, and sold mattresses. Former employees and investors say Zwego always appeared on the go, talking on two or more cell phones at once. They said he stored records of his home investment deals in plastic bins, piled on top of one another.

"One of the amazing things is how many balls he could keep in the air at any one time -- and without notes," said Will Bunch, Zwego’s attorney.

"He had this big car business and this housing business going on at one time," Bunch said.

Zwego joined business clubs and threw dinners for potential investors and friends at Hereford House and other restaurants. "He’d order everything on the menu and pay for it all," said builder Dean Chester.

But in contrast to the image of a successful empire builder that he promoted, Zwego, 58, originally from Texas, is a convicted con artist with a rap sheet going back 25 years.

Today he’s awaiting trial on mortgage fraud charges. He declined an interview.

Records show a conviction for attempted theft in Wyandotte County at age 24. As his crimes grew in number, they became more serious. Six years later came a conviction in Platte County for stealing. That same year, a federal court in Kansas convicted him of making false statements to a bank and transporting forged securities.

Another federal conviction on nine counts of wire fraud came in 1994 in Kansas. Six years later he pleaded guilty in federal court in Kansas City to another scheme to defraud banks.

In that case, Zwego inflated car values to get larger bank loans, said Bill Meiners, an assistant U.S. attorney in Kansas City. Meiners said Zwego would get a collaborator to apply for loans on used cars for more than the cars were worth. To grease the deals, Zwego misstated the buyer’s credit. Zwego and his co-conspirator then pocketed the proceeds and defaulted on the loans.

Zwego served 10 months in prison and was placed on probation for five years.

In fact, he had only 16 days to go on his probation when a federal grand jury indicted him in January in an alleged scheme to inflate the value of former Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields’ house and pocket $414,000 in "management fees."

Citing a violation of his probation on the old charge, the court sent him back to jail while he awaits trial on the new charge.

"If he were to use his intellect for legal activity," Meiners said, "I think he could do very well."