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Broker accused of stealing from elderly clients

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of May 23, 2013)

To Barbara Jones, an 85-year-old widow who lives in the Sea Watch condo in Indian River Shores, Burim Turkaj seemed like a clean-cut, well-spoken young man with great business sense. 

To investigators with the State Attorney’s Office, the 35-year-old Turkaj was a manipulator who charmed his way into the lives of four elderly Vero Beach residents he served as an investment broker and took control of nearly $400,000 of his victims’ life savings.

Turkaj, who for a time was married into Vero’s Kennedy citrus family and worked in the beachside office of PNC, was arrested last week by U.S. Marshals at Orlando International Airport after a ruse of sorts lured him back from his homeland of Kosovo, a country without an extradition treaty with the United States.

He was charged with four counts of theft from the elderly, four counts of criminal use of personal ID information and one count of fraudulent use of a personal ID.  He was being held at press time on $1.45 million bond.

In addition to Jones, Turkaj is accused of theft from Carl Bartuccio, 86, of Vero Beach;  Harvey Woofter, 90, of Vero Beach; and Howard Gordon, 85, also of Vero Beach.

Turkaj had fled the U.S. twice for his homeland, requiring that investigators figure out how to at least get him to a country with an extradition treaty.  Agents for a while considered trying to lure him to London on the pretext of a visit with his young son, who lives with his ex-wife Sara Beth Kennedy here in Vero.

But knowing the tab would be pretty hefty for an arrest and transfer from England, investigators settled on another plan: They would hold back their initial warrant for the investment fraud and let Turkaj think the whole matter must have been swept away out of embarrassment by PNC.

Instead of the fraud charges, Turkaj was led to believe he needed to come back to face a minor charge involving the theft of an office computer he took when PNC fired him.

While Turkaj was airborne en route to Orlando, the nine-count warrant for grand theft from the elderly was unsealed and issued.

“I’m just so relieved,” said Jones, when told of Turkaj’s arrest. “It made me very nervous that he might be wandering around here.”

A February call to the home of Jones, whose husband died five years ago, first got her attention that Turkaj may have bamboozled her. 

Jones said she initially ignored the message on her machine from Ally Bank, an online bank, after thinking initially the call was some sort of sales solicitation. Jones said she thought there was no need to move her money around again because she believed her money was in good hands with the affable Turkaj. 

Then the phone rang a second time.  When Jones saw on the caller ID that it was Ally Bank again, she let it go directly to voicemail until she heard the name of her investment broker,  Turkaj.

“They said, ‘Do you have an account with us?” and I said, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘Now you do,’” Jones said. “It just startled me and I thought, well this is crazy.  The woman said I had $44,000 in an account and I said well it should be more.”

About two days later, Jones said Turkaj called in a panic and said they needed to meet over the next few days so that she could sign the necessary paperwork to sort out the matter. He pleaded with her that he couldn’t afford to lose his job at PNC.

“He said, ‘You know I have my son to think about,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, that child is beautiful.’”

When Jones said she would not meet him at PNC, Turkaj offered to come to her island condominium immediately.

“I said, ‘No.’ There was no way that I was doing that,” Jones said. “And those were my last words with him.”

Jones and her son then went to a few of the PNC branches to try and sort out what was going on. 

Authorities had questions too as did numerous other people, including  Turkaj’s ex-wife,  a descendant of the Kennedy family recently honored as one of Vero Beach’s pioneers.

Turkaj is accused of forging the signatures of his elderly customers and transferring the $397,291 that the victims believed he was transferring into PNC investment accounts into accounts in two other banks.  One of those accounts at SunTrust Bank listed the account under Turkaj’s name and his ex-wife’s name. The on-line accounts with Ally Bank were under the names of the elderly victims and Turkaj, with Turkaj having direct control.

According to documents filed with the State Attorney’s Office, Turkaj opened the SunTrust Bank account in his and his wife’s name many months after their divorce in 2011 and then moved the money into another account.

When a detective met with Kennedy and showed her checks from Ally Bank depicting Kennedy’s alleged signature and the signature endorsements of Bartuccio, another of the victims,  Kennedy told authorities the signature  was similar to her ex-husband’s handwriting and that she had no knowledge of  the financial transactions in question. 

Court documents said that the SunTrust Bank records of the joint bank account did not have a signature card on file for Kennedy.  Turkaj is alleged to have done the same with the other victims’ money, according to court documents.

Attempts to reach Kennedy were unsuccessful.

“I just trusted him completely,” said Jones.  “And I don’t think that I will ever be able to do that again.”

Jones hasn’t received any apologies from Turkaj although she did say PNC was returning her money to her.

“I just wonder how long he was doing this,” said Jones. “I guess they always figure they can get away with it. He had a lot of charisma and he was very nice. It’s just shocking.”

Marcey Zwiebel, a spokeswoman for PNC Bank said she was not at liberty to discuss the case because it is now a criminal matter and she also didn’t want to address questions about Turkaj’s employment.

Investigators believe there may be other victims out there and are encouraging those that used Turkaj as their investment broker to call investigator Jeff Hamrick at 772-462-6840.