Coghill's con: 'Silver-tongued devil' cops fraud plea

Terry Dowdell was the largest swindler to hit town, bilking clients out of $120 million. John Reid was the saddest, kiting checks for nearly $7 million in an attempt to save the now-defunct Ivy Industries and the jobs of 150 employees.

But Thomas E. Coghill Jr. perhaps cut the widest swath, ripping off contractors all over town during the 1990s, and falsifying documents to obtain loans on bogus buildings that often were really just empty lots.

Charlottesville's latest conman pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud– one wire, one bank fraud– in U.S. District Court August 17, and Coghill, 45, is looking at as much as 35 years in prison and fines of up to $1.25 million.

"He'll do some time, I'm sure," says Tom Bondurant, who prosecuted the case for the U.S. Attorney's office. "We think the loss is around $3 million. The defense has a different view. The judge's determination of the loss will affect the sentence."

Coghill was indicted on six counts of fraud in January. The victims include a Richmond bank, a Maryland mortgage company, and a local businessman who estimates he lost over $500,000.

"What the scam was," says Bondurant, "he'd lie about saying he'd built houses to get loans."

Between November 1998 and January 2000, Coghill falsified more than 30 certificates of occupancy, home inspection certificates, and surveys, faxing them to Anchor Capital in Potomac, Maryland, to obtain additional funds, according to the indictment.

"Often the lots were vacant– or were lots he didn't even own," explains Bondurant. "He'd turn in false inspection reports to the bank [Citizens & Farmers Bank of Richmond] so it would loan additional amounts."

Coghill used seven different companies to prop up his house of cards, including Cherry Hill Investment Corporation, Affordable Home Builders, and Foreston Woods Associates.

Coghill's guilty plea on two counts of fraud is just the tip of the iceberg, according to those familiar with his MO.

"I know from investigating and talking to folks, they'd say, 'He owes me money,'" says Bondurant.

How often? "Like every time we talked to people," answers the prosecutor.

"I can tell you about dozens and dozens of suppliers and subcontractors who got screwed," says one victim, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

"He affected the lives of hundreds of people," estimates Tom Beasley, owner of Blue Ridge Services, which does heating, electrical, and plumbing work and employs 35 employees.

"It was devastating to me," says Beasley. "He was a silver-tongued devil. I'm embarrassed I got in that far."

Coghill owes Beasley $357,000 in unpaid bills. "It affected my entire company, and it affected their families," says Beasley. "It's a domino effect."

Beasley says Coghill changed companies "more often that you change your socks."

He had projects all over the area, but Twin Lakes in Greene County, with its hundreds of houses, "was the labyrinth in which he operated," says one of his victims.

Coghill, out on $50,000 bond and living in Deerfield Beach, Florida, goes back to court January 4 for sentencing. The court typically orders restitution, says prosecutor Bondurant. Judge Norman K. Moon will be presiding.

Beasley is rooting for a long jail term. "I think he ought to rot in a hole," says Beasley. "It was uncalled for. There are no excuses for what he did."

Thomas E. Coghill Jr. left a trail of unpaid bills in the Charlottesville area, but those weren't the crimes that caused him to plead guilty to two counts of fraud.