The pancake con man

For Taos IHOP manager, the truth is complicated

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 4/17/20

Taos has a celebrity confidence man in its midst, but he says he's more than the tale he told to get here.

In September, he drove into town from North Texas and took the job as the new manager of the International House of Pancakes on Paseo del Pueblo Sur, where for six months no one recognized him.

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The pancake con man

For Taos IHOP manager, the truth is complicated

Posted

Taos has a celebrity confidence man in its midst, but he says he's more than the tale he told to get here.

In September, he drove into town from North Texas and took the job as the new manager of the International House of Pancakes on Paseo del Pueblo Sur, where for six months no one recognized him.

Slight in stature, balding and in his mid 60s, he arrives for work at 6 a.m. sharp, wearing round-rimmed glasses, a cleanly pressed uniform, a manager's apron and a cap. He assumes the role as if he's been running a restaurant all his life, instructing his employees with a firm hand and greeting his customers with the panache of a Michelin-star restaurant operator.

By more than one account, he has transformed this once struggling sibling of a sister IHOP in Alamosa, Colorado, into an efficient, if straightforward breakfast spot in Taos. His employees are reliably attentive and friendly, the food is hot and the dining area is spick-and-span.

It's an impressive performance, and it was all built on the same con game he's been playing for the last 20-some years.

When he filled out his application last summer, the man behind the restaurant's turnaround put down the name Max Gomez DeMaria and checked the box for "no" when asked if he had ever been convicted of a felony. His work record was clean, he indicated, an unbroken chronology of professional integrity and success.

But that's not his given name, and as for his past, that's not the truth.

'What was and what is'

DeMaria, born Freddrick "Fred" Brito in Los Angeles, California, in 1955, is a four-time felon, and one of the more notorious con men living in the United States today.

Since the 1980s, Brito has obtained numerous jobs using more than a dozen different aliases and false résumés designed to make him look like the type of candidate any organization would pay big bucks to hire - and they have.

He's conned his way into positions as a fundraiser for the American Red Cross and UCLA medical school, where he was paid a salary of over $100,000. He's posed as a court-appointed psychiatrist, an orchestra conductor and a Catholic priest.

But he says that's all in the past, even though his methods for obtaining his current job in Taos were, in every apparent way, the same.

Changing his identity was necessary, he says – and still is – because for the last 40 years he's faced the same problem millions of other Americans do: landing a decent job with a felony record. According to the Washington, D.C. think tank American Enterprise Institute, more than 20 million Americans not incarcerated in 2019 had a felony conviction somewhere in their past. Many struggle to find jobs after they've been released from prison.

When Brito's parents became ill in the 2000s, money took on an even greater importance, he said, as it fell to him to take care of them.

Now with his parents gone and entering his senior years himself, Brito said he's grown weary of running and wants his story out in the open. Of all the places he's been, he believes that Taos might be the one that will consider both the good and the bad of his tale.

"If you're going to judge me based on my past, then we're not going to get anywhere," he said. "But if we're going to share a story of what was and what is, then we might get somewhere."

Much of that story has to be taken on faith, however, which is a tall order from a man skilled at making a case for being someone - anyone, it seems - that he's not.

Key word: impersonate

"Do Kennedy! Do Kennedy!" Brito recalls his mother asking him at his childhood home in Los Angeles.

Brito said he grew up in a large Latino family in Glassell Park, just outside Dodger Stadium. His natural father left his mother when he was a baby, so his stepfather raised him. Brito said he and his 10 brothers spent the first part of their childhood living together in a garage that leaked when it rained. His mother made tortillas on a Coleman camping stove. His father hauled home scraps of wood he eventually used to build them a house.

Brito said he was afflicted by a terrible stutter as a child, so his mother took him to a speech therapist, who recommended he listen to famous speeches of the late president and try to mimic the clear, impressive voice he heard crackle to life on a record player.

He said he developed an uncanny impression, and his family would gather around to hear a 10-year-old Brito talk just like JFK.

Telling the story at the Taos News in March, Brito extracted the worn album with a portrait of Kennedy on the cover from a duffel bag containing dozens of fabricated résumés and laminated badges bearing names that aren't his own.

"It was this album that made me stop my speech impediment," he said. "My parents bought it for me and I've kept it. That's what took me out of my embarrassment. I studied this. I listened to it over and over and over again, and I learned how to impersonate. Key word: impersonate, because that's how it started. I impersonated the voice of this person and I learned over a period of time to be someone else."

It's a good story, and so is what follows.

Lieutenant Brito

In 1972, when Brito turned 17, he said he enlisted in the Marine Corps under the name Freddrick Esparza.

"My mom had told me all the bad things about my real father, so I didn't want anything to do with him," Brito explained of the name change. "And the father that I was raised by was Frank Esparza. That's who I called as my dad and so I used his last name."

The Vietnam War was still raging, and Brito said he was sent to a holding base in the Philippines where soldiers shipped out for combat. His job was to process the paperwork of the ones who didn't return.

One night, Brito, who was a lance corporal, said he came across a lieutenant's uniform, put it on and boarded a nearby ship. He walked into a war room and mingled with real officers.

"I became one of them," Brito said, recalling the incident.

On his way back to camp, a military police officer whom he had attended boot camp with spotted Brito, and the jig was up. Brito said he was beat up for the offense and lost his rank, but eventually earned it back.

When his service ended four years later, he said he received an honorable discharge. He produced his DD-214 from the same bag where he stores the Kennedy album and his fake badges. Responding to a Freedom of Information Act request to verify Brito's service, the Marine Corps public information office said it had a record under Brito's name, but with a different birthdate. The name Freddrick Esparza turned up nothing, the office said.

Fake it till you make it

When he returned to the United States, Brito said he wound up jobless, penniless and homeless in LA on the corner of 7th and Broadway. He had time on his hands, so he spent hours inside the Los Angeles Public Library studying the lives of professionals whom he admired and planned to emulate.

When he felt he had learned enough to play the part of a bank teller, he said he designed his first fake resumé, borrowed a suit from a local dry cleaners and applied at Lloyd's Bank. He said he was hired on the spot.

For a man with no money and no place to live, temptation was everywhere at his new job.

"I was a teller and I had access to money and there was a row of traveler's checks and they were all in envelopes of $1,000," he said. "Stupid as I was, I put one in my pocket."

FBI agents turned up at the branch and arrested Brito, who was eventually convicted of his first felony and sentenced to probation.

Brito said he doesn't remember the violation, but he does remember that he was eventually transferred to a halfway house in Hollywood.

"I wasn't a bad kid. I wasn't a bad person," he said, "but they put me in a halfway house to teach me a lesson. I could have gone to jail."

Instead, Brito said he walked away from the halfway house, headed north and crossed the border into Canada. How he made it across an international line with a felony on his record, he didn't say.

Prison

In the late '70s, Brito was living across the border when he was arrested by law enforcement on an Interpol warrant filed after he absconded, he said. He was sent back to the U.S. and sentenced to Terminal Island, a penitentiary situated on the harbor between San Pedro and Long Beach.

The prison's former guests included Al Capone, who had completed the last of a 10-year prison sentence on tax evasion charges after he was transferred from Alcatraz, another island penitentiary located in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Charles Manson also did a stint on Terminal Island, years before the murders that made him infamous.

It was a celebrity prison, and Brito said he was incarcerated with another high-profile inmate: comedian, singer and actor George Kirby.

Kirby had been convicted on drug charges and sentenced to Terminal Island by the time Brito arrived. Brito said he would sometimes watch Kirby do stand-up during his free time. Other times, he'd walk the long fence in the yard to watch cargo ships and sailboats come and go from the harbor. Brito said Kirby "shared his life story" with him and taught him "how to maneuver through life." Kirby died in 1995, at the age of 72.

Brito said he finished out his sentence at another federal institute, in Lompoc, California. He described it as the "country club of prisons," complete with tennis courts and a swimming pool, he said.

Once again, if there was a lesson the criminal justice system was trying to impart to Brito, it didn't take hold.

"It was like being in the military. It was a place, but there was no correction. There were no classes. It was just a place you're staying," he said.

Fast life

When he was released, Brito celebrated his newfound freedom in LA nightclubs, where disco was still all that was playing. "You couldn't get me off the dance floor," Brito said.

One evening at Odyssey Dance Club, Brito said he met Paul Lynde, an actor with a recurring role on the show "Bewitched" and "Hollywood Squares." He said Lynde picked him out of the lower level of the club and invited him to the upper, VIP level.

From that point on, Brito said he was a member of Lynde's "entourage."

"It opened the world of glamour, fast cars, luxury cars, hilltop mansions, being in the same pool in Palm Springs with other celebrities," he said. "I was like, 'Wow I'm in the middle of all this glitz.'"

A few years later, when their relationship came to an abrupt end, Brito said he once again turned to crime in an attempt to maintain the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed.

He began renting exotic cars from companies downtown and never returned them. His first charges of grand theft auto were soon filed. Brito claims he drove a stolen vehicle to one of his court hearings. When he came out, he said police were waiting for him - with another set of charges.

He said he was ultimately convicted of three cases of grand theft auto and was sentenced to Chino State Prison, where the fast life came to a crashing halt.

"State prison was far different from federal prison," he said. "In state prison you have to defend yourself. Not fun, but I never had that issue. I just kept a low profile."

By the time he got out, he said he realized that he had dug himself into a hole he could never get out of using his real name, so he invented new ones: G. Carlo diMaria, Max Gomis DeMaria, Giancarlo di Maria, Federiqkoe DiBrito III, Luca Gomez De Maria.

He launched into a career of frauds, thefts and impersonations that would last the next 20 years.

Ironically, his efforts to hide his true identity eventually earned him national attention.

Media frenzy

Brito pulled off so many cons throughout this period of his life that he sometimes has trouble remembering them all. He pauses in conversation to remember some wild escapade that most other people would consider to be unforgettable. As for those that can't be verified, one has to wonder whether they are even true.

Some, at least, have already been cataloged in numerous publications before this one: In 2002, Brito posed as a Catholic priest in Mexico, where he absconded after he was accused of stealing $600 from a law firm in which he had worked briefly as a manager.

A year after he was caught working as a priest in Arizona, he obtained a new job - as the executive director at the National Kidney Foundation of Southern California. The next year, he landed his position with UCLA medical school, a job that not only paid well, but allowed him to rub shoulders with Hollywood celebrities, he says. In 2005, he conned his way into the job with the Red Cross.

That year, Tonya Alanez of the Los Angeles Times tracked Brito down and interviewed him at his home. Brito says now that he saw the article as a way to force himself to stop committing crimes. He said his mother had fallen seriously ill and so he couldn't afford to go back to jail or prison.

Alanez wrote at the time: "Brito is at a familiar crossroads. Go straight or scam again?"

Today, Brito doesn't seem to feel a need to ask himself that question anymore. The scam is all he knows, and he continues to insist that it's necessary for him to "survive."

But given that he ultimately never gets away with it, one has to wonder what more might be driving him to deceive.

A journey toward redemption

The year after the LA Times story broke, Brito said he and his parents moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he cared for his mother until she died three weeks later. Brito says that he stopped speaking with his brothers after none of them came to her funeral. Then he looked after his father, who died of Alzheimer's in 2009. A background check confirmed that both Brito's parents are now deceased.

"I refused to put my mom or dad into a nursing home because I knew what would happen to them," he said. "I saw my grandmother in one - not a great place to be, especially if you're poor. I decided that I was going to have caretakers take care of my parents during the day and I would take care of them during the weekend and evenings."

Brito said looking after his parents in their final days was his first step on what he describes as his "journey toward redemption."

Still, the lies continued.

In August 2006, Brito was hired as the executive director of the New Mexico Performing Arts Academy in Las Cruces under the name Federico "Fred" Gomez de Maria. According to an article published in March 2007 in the Las Cruces Sun-News, Brito was fired after information began to "surface about his checkered past."

At the time, Kathy Nau, the academy's board president, was quoted as saying Brito was fired due to a "conflict of managerial styles."

Celebrity

If you were a regular prime-time television viewer during the mid-2000s, you might have seen Brito talking about his high-profile scams on several big-budget news programs as you scrolled the channels.

His many interviews included an appearance on "Dateline" and the "Dr. Phil" show, where he was confronted by a couple he had falsely married when he had posed as a priest in Arizona (he said he moved back across the border after his stint as a priest in Mexico). Brito promised the couple on "Dr. Phil" that he would put up the money for them to have a legitimate wedding, but that never actually happened.

"These people became very sour and vindictive, and I don't blame them," Brito said recently. "They became very negative toward me. They felt they didn't want my money."

Brito said he also lied on the program about having written the book, "Conversations with God," which was actually authored by Neale Donald Walsch.

Inconsistencies also arise in these programs regarding the story Brito told producers at the time about his life, and the story he tells now.

According to a transcription of the "Dr. Phil" episode that aired, Brito said at the time that he had met Lynde when he was just 19, which would have been two years into his time in the military service. According to the story he told the Taos News, he didn't meet Lynde until he was 24.

In the "Dateline" segment, which ran in 2007, reporters also claimed to have found a charge for child molestation filed against Brito in 1974 - which again, would have been a year that Brito told the Taos News he was in the military. When questioned about the alleged crime, Brito didn't deny that he had been charged, but said he "never ever - sexually assaulted anybody."

For a time, Brito seemed to embrace the celebrity the media brought him. He even started a blog and created his own YouTube videos describing how to spot a con. Brito said a producer at Fox approached him about creating a show where Brito would teach other people how to carry out a con job. It was to be called, "Imposters," Brito said, but the idea was ultimately abandoned because the show couldn't find financial backing.

Another YouTube video, entitled "Fred Brito & Friends in Pictures," shows a slideshow of alternating studio portraits of Brito and people he has met over the years. The Coldplay song, "Viva La Vida," plays in the background.

In yet another video Brito produced, he appears on camera introducing viewers to "Fred Brito Company," which he said had been set up to advocate for people who had been "disenfranchised." On shelves behind him are big block letters spelling the words, "HOPE" and "BELIEVE." The web address for the company, fredbritollc.com, is currently broken.

According to court records, Brito left celebrity - and his name - behind in 2007, when he legally changed his name from Freddrick Brito to Gomez DeMaria in the 3rd Judicial District Court in Las Cruces.

Today, he refers to "Fred Brito" in the third person, as if DeMaria and Brito aren't one and the same.

On the move

Before he appeared in Taos last year, Brito said he was living in Dallas, Texas, where he has a home and had worked for a short time as the general manager of a deli, wine and coffee shop called. Nosh and Bottle. Brito said he staffed the shop, but then left after the owners ran into payroll problems.

While not all of Brito's movements prior to that are clear, newspaper clippings from publications throughout the country indicate that he was frequently on the move - landing a job under false pretenses, holding it for a time, being discovered, then packing up and moving on to another place.

An article published in the Bismark Tribune in January 2017 indicates Brito had traveled to Fargo, North Dakota, where he worked briefly for a hospitality services company before he was fired for using a false résumé.

A year prior to that, he was fired as general manager of the Downtown Athletic Club in Eugene, Oregon, for running the same scam, the Register Guard reported.

According to the article, a Eugene police officer who pulled Brito over during a traffic stop became suspicious that he was providing a false identity, but later learned that Brito had legally changed his name.

The same man who tipped off reporters in Eugene that year, former LA blogger-turned-event-producer David Markland, contacted the Taos News earlier this year to say that Brito was working as the manager of the IHOP in Taos.

'My stalker'

At 65, Brito says that he has "probably been to all four corners of the United States," and Markland is usually not far behind. In fact, he's often the one to blow the whistle that ultimately gets Brito fired.

Brito refers to Markland as "my stalker," but said the two have never met in person.

Markland said he started following Brito in the 2000s when he first gained media attention. Markland still maintains a website, thatliarfredbrito.blogspot.com, which contains photos of Brito throughout the years and a detailed timeline of Brito's life, which he says is accurate.

But if there's some personal vendetta that drives him to continue to expose Brito, he wouldn't say so when questioned by the Taos News.

Hoping for a home in Taos

Brito's name and location have changed so frequently throughout his life that many of his claims are nearly impossible to verify, but it seems clear that his current home in Taos County is where he plans to stay - unless doing so proves impossible for him.

He said a friend who was already living in Taos had encouraged him to come to Northern New Mexico. She told him that Taos might be the community that would finally overlook his past and see his lies as the necessary evils Brito explains them as.

Brito said he misled his employer in Taos, IHOP co-owner Manish Patel, because "no one's going to hire Fred Brito." When initially contacted by the Taos News for comment, Patel was silent when asked if he was aware of Brito's past or that the man he had hired to manage the restaurant might have obtained his job under false pretenses. After speaking with an attorney, Patel declined to provide further comment for the story.

Brito defends his decision to deceive Patel at the same time he says he knows it was wrong.

"It might be unethical. It might be dishonest," Brito said. "But it is not a crime. I have to live."

State statutes defining criminal fraud might not agree with Brito's assessment as to the legality of his ruse. Getting a charge to stick in such a situation, however, would likely be difficult, said Marcus Montoya, the district attorney of New Mexico's 8th Judicial District.

The more immediate question, though, is whether or not Brito's employer - or the wider Taos community - will care about the dishonesty that made it possible for him to come to town in the first place.

Unmasked

For some, condemning Brito for his lies might be a much more straightforward affair if he hadn't been so effective in many of the roles he's played over the years.

For the Red Cross, he said he raised about a million dollars for Hurricane Katrina relief by collecting donations with his team outside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. For UCLA, he was recognized for his ability to draw donations from Hollywood celebrities that funded important research. As a priest in a small town in Mexico, the Archbishop of Tijuana wrote him a letter recognizing his service. He still had the letter and showed it to the Taos News. The letter looked legitimate.

Working for JC Penney in Río Rancho in 1998, Brito received a commendation from the New Mexico House of Representatives and the state Senate for good works he had done in his community, including buying a vehicle for a family with several children whose patriarch rode the bus to and from work every day. Former Bernalillo County Commission Vice President Mark Sanchez sang Brito's praises during the "Dateline" segment. Sanchez died on Jan. 1 of this year.

"Every job I've had, whether I got it legally or illegally, I busted my buns for those jobs," Brito said. "I really worked hard because I knew if I didn't do a good job I wouldn't be able to stay, so I worked hard. Some of the jobs I had, I didn't know what the heck I was doing, but guess what I was doing at night? I studied."

So far, Brito also seems to have done some good work here in Taos and now at the IHOP in Alamosa, where he transferred temporarily last month after the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to the Taos restaurant's operations. He received management training at the Alamosa location before he was hired in Taos last year.

Brito's seemingly good deeds also go beyond work that earns him a paycheck.

"Max DeMaria, in his capacity as manager at IHOP, generously provided breakfast free of charge to our shelter youth and staff on Thanksgiving Day and engaged in conversation with them at that time," said Catherine Hummel, the executive director at DreamTree Project. Brito said last month that he had been planning a seminar on work ethics and how to to be a good employee for the young people living there.

"He and his staff at IHOP contributed to the 2019 Festival of Trees and have made meeting space available to DreamTree Project and other local nonprofits," Hummel went on.

She also said the "allegations" that DeMaria, aka Brito, isn't who he says he is "came as a complete surprise." She said that her organization conducts state and federal background checks for anyone who has contact with the young people the organization serves. Most commercial background checks, however, only go back seven years. Brito says he's been off law enforcement's radar since 2002, and research by the Taos News turned up no evidence to indicate otherwise.

Brito put other people in touch with the Taos News to speak on his behalf.

"I was working with a youth mariachi group in Las Cruces when I met him in 2008," said Thomas Garcia, who now works as a bus driver in the Cruces area. "We had just played a concert and he saw us performing and he reached out. It seemed like he was willing to sponsor some students."

After Brito's mother passed away, Brito approached Garcia and the youth group about holding a concert in her honor. After looking into Brito, however, the directors of the group ultimately declined, Garcia said.

"The organizers at the time thought it was not in the best interest of the kids to bring in this person that we really didn't know," he said. "So he was politely turned away."

Still, Garcia formed a friendship with Brito and agreed to perform the concert with his own band.

They've kept in touch ever since.

By now, Garcia knows about Brito's past, but even after years of friendship, he still finds it hard to completely trust him knowing that his friend continues to deceive.

"I can't say that I'm thrilled about it," Garcia said. "It just always seems like he's on the run. At some point, you have to have faith in others, too. At some point, you have to stand your ground."

Wherever Brito goes, and no matter how carefully he plays his game, he has always been exposed and always, he said, loses his job.

"You're always going to get unmasked," Brito said. "When I get a job I know it's just a moment in time before I'm unmasked. I know it. It's just the routine. It happens all the time. I've been doing great work, but still one day I know I'm going to be uncovered."

By the time this article publishes, that will already have happened.

Still, Brito said that, for the first time in a long time, he's optimistic about what will happen next. Maybe this time he will be allowed to keep his job and stay.

Brito says he's just like anyone else with skeletons in the closet.

The problem, it seems, is that the path he follows has a unique tendency to draw them out.

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