RIO RANCHO, N.M. (KRQE) – UPDATE: Monica Mastrovito-Lopez came to KRQE News 13 to say she’s paying restitution. Mastrovito-Lopez admitted to the fraud, said she knows what she did was wrong and she’s trying to make amends.
A pair of local business owners is moving on from a terrible ordeal but first, the couple is warning others not to make their same mistake. The Leshers don’t want anyone else to buy into one woman’s grant writing scheme. It was one they thought would help their business grow.
They are dumbfounded.
“It is absolutely overwhelming,” said Fran Lesher.
“For real, yeah,” said Steve Lesher.
The two local business owners could hardly believe their eyes when they saw page after page, name after name, of other locals police say were duped.
“Who wouldn’t take free money to do what you dream of doing with your business?” Fran asked.
The list includes the Leshers. The scheme is grant writing fraud, and police say the woman responsible can fool almost anyone.
“It sounded legit,” said Albuquerque Police Open Space Officer Jason Harvey.
“To you?” KRQE News 13 asked.
“Yes,” Harvey said.
“Would she have fooled you?”
“Yeah, probably. She fooled all the doctors and attorneys.”
Monica Mastrovito-Lopez pleaded guilty to four counts of fraud. She was charged with more than 20. Now, she has to pay back $10,600 to her victims, according to New Mexico Corrections.
But for some, the $10,600 is not enough. The Leshers are listed as victims in the Secret Service report, but Mastrovito-Lopez was never charged with fraud in their case. That means they’re not eligible for restitution.
“You’d love to get restitution, you’d love to get a judgment against her or something. Honestly, the money is not the issue, it’s the whole idea, it’s the principal of it,” said Steve Lesher.
“No one knows just how awful of a person she is,” Fran Lesher said.
A friend of the Leshers recommended the so-called grant writer to help with their auto shop business.
According to Fran Lesher, Lopez told the couple, “We could get upwards of a couple hundred thousand dollars.”
Though skeptical, they paid Lopez $500 for a grant that would never come.
“I couldn’t help but have hope. We were hearing from people they were going to get money, they were going to get money and we were so excited, we just kind of pushed aside all of our doubts,” Fran Lesher said. “Yeah, maybe this is for real. It probably isn’t but maybe it is.”
“If is seems too good to be true, it probably is,” Steve Lesher said.
The story sounds all to familiar to Officer Harvey.
“It just started building and the more I looked into it, the more victims started coming to me,” he said.
What began as working one fraud claim for a friend in his spare time, became a stack of more than 20 claims and a nearly full-time job.
“It kind of piqued my interest and I started thinking, ‘You know, this is wrong,” Harvey said.
Eventually, the work load became too much for this open space sleuth.
“I knew I had a can of worms,” he said.
The case passed through the hands of APD White Collar Crimes, then Rio Rancho Police before it finally ended up with the Secret Service — a victory for Harvey.
“It was huge,” said Harvey. “I didn’t even know we worked with the Secret Service like that.”
It’s been more than a year since they closed the case and the Leshers are trying to move on with their lives.
“You try to put it behind you and move on but it’s just something that eats at me all the time,” said Lesher.
The Secret Service report reveals Mastrovito-Lopez admitted in a police interview that she never submitted any of the grants for the people who paid her.
Officer Harvey tells us he also found victims of Mastrovito-Lopez in Florida, Colorado, Utah, California and Arizona. The Leshers warn the woman also goes by the name “Monica Lopez”.