A Newport Beach attorney and church leader has copped to stealing more than $780,000 from nine victims, including over $720,000 from the trust account of two elderly sisters he'd offered to assist with their finances.
Peter David Nitschke, 47, is expected to be sentenced to up to 12 years in state prison in April.
Nitschke, whose law office was in Irvine, was also president of Lutheran Church of the Cross in Laguna Woods in 2010 when he offered to "help" manage the finances of two elderly sisters he knew from the congregation.
When the ladies' 95-year-old mother died in March 2010, she left her daughters a Northern California home and more than $675,000 she had in the bank. Nitschke directed the sisters to give him cashiers checks totaling the full amount which, under California State Bar rules, the attorney should have deposited in a trust account for his clients. Instead, he deposited the funds in his personal bank account.
Nitschke also collected $46,000 for different clients from a real estate transaction, but instead of providing them the money he spent some of it and moved the rest into his own accounts.
The beginning of the end for the church leader came when the elderly women's family inquired about their funds, which were needed for medical and nursing home expenses. Nitschke handed over a bank statement showing all the funds were safely in a client trust account, but something did not ring true for family members, who contacted the Irvine Police Department.
An investigation concluded Nitschke's real account with the money has already closed with a zero balance and that the bank statement dated that month for the family was fraudulent. The Orange County District Attorney's office later charged him with two felony counts of theft from an elder with sentencing enhancements and allegations for over $100,000 loss, aggravated white collar crime over $500,000, and property loss over $200,000.
Publicity about his arrest and criminal charges in September 2012 spurred other church members to come forward. Nitschke approached a married couple he knew and convinced them to invest in a civil case. The defendant asked for $50,000 and promised full repayment with 20 percent interest. Nitschke failed to repay any of the money until the couple hired an attorney, at which time he made several payments before bouncing a check for more than $3,400. He made no more payments.
Nitschke was hired to represent another church member in a loan modification action regarding the victim's residence. The victim gave Nitschke $1,000, but Nitschke did no work on the matter and failed to return the money. The attorney also represented a client who sued her homeowners association over mold damage in her condominium unit. Nitschke negotiated a settlement of $22,500, of which it was agreed that he would keep $7,500 and pay the balance of $15,000 to the client. After giving a check of $3,620 to the victim's contractor, Nitschke failed to return the balance of the victim's money.
"Crook-schke," as he should have been known by then, was also hired by a client to represent him in a foreclosure action. Nitschke was given $7,000 to begin the representation, failed to do any work on the matter and did not return any money.
In a deal with the court, Nitschke pleaded guilty Monday to six felony counts of grand theft, two felony counts of elder financial abuse, and one felony count of issuing a check with non-sufficient funds, with white collar crime sentencing enhancements.
His sentencing is scheduled for April 4 in Santa Ana.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.