'They trusted me and I betrayed them.’ Ohio mom behind nationwide Facebook scam sentenced to prison

"I can’t take back what I did, but I can pay the price for what I’ve done,” Zienup Sbeih-Maddox told a judge at her sentencing Wednesday.

'They trusted me and I betrayed them.’ Ohio mom behind nationwide Facebook scam sentenced to prison

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - "I can’t take back what I did, but I can pay the price for what I’ve done.”

That’s what Zienup Sbeih-Maddox, 24, of Cleveland, told a judge at her sentencing hearing on Wednesday.

And the convicted Facebook scammer will pay.

The price?

Six years in prison, five years of post-release control, and more than $200,000 in restitution.

It’s a small amount of justice for the more than 180 families she victimized through her lucrative social media scheme.

“The defendant is getting a tremendous deal,” said Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor J.D. May.

Sbeih-Maddox and two other women defrauded hundreds of victims across the United States and Canada out of more than $300,000, according to investigators.

May says the victims realize they are "probably never going to see their money again.”

Sbeih-Maddox pleaded guilty in June to aggravated theft, grand theft, money laundering, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, telecommunications fraud, tampering with records and tampering with evidence.

As part of her plea deal, 13 additional felony charges were dismissed.

Defense attorney Lisa Rankin said her client “expressed sincere apologies from day one and has taken full responsibility for these actions from day one.”

“When she was caught, she was caught,” Rankin said. “She said, ‘I did it. I’m done.'"

Sbeih-Maddox also addressed Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Emily Hagan at her sentencing.

“What I did was wrong," she said. “I intentionally victimized 158 families. I regret what I’ve done.”

Sbeih-Maddox told the judge she hurt a lot of families, including her own.

"The children I hurt as part of my scam didn’t understand why their Christmases were ruined,” she said. "The families that I stole the money from, they needed those items. They trusted me and I went ahead and betrayed them.”

THE SCAM

The “Zee’s Place” scam involving Sbeih-Maddox was first exposed in a 19 News undercover investigation in June 2017.

Sbeih-Maddox and Kimberly St. John-Stevenson, 55, of Cleveland Heights, created and operated a Facebook page called “Zee’s Place. According to prosecutors, the duo offered “too good to be true deals on items such as diapers, toys, car seats, and trips to Disney World.”

Several victims reached out to 19 News in the spring of 2017 stating they had purchased items and trips from “Zee’s Place” but had not received what they paid for.

May told the judge at Wednesday’s sentencing that scam caused “serious economic harm” to the victims.

“We want the court to understand that there are so many victims, it is simply mind boggling," said May. “There are over 180 victims that we are aware of, just from records.”

“Many of these individuals went to “Zee’s Place" website because they were financially strapped,” he said. “Many individuals with twins, three children, a number of small children of many different ages, hoping to find a bargain that was promised to them. Some of them had very little money, which was the purpose of them going on this site. They were trying to save what valuable resources they had.”

May said Sbeih-Maddox committed “high organized” criminal activity, moving proceeds from the scam through various bank accounts.

“She was moving so much money that banks were closing her accounts and she had to find other alternatives," May said. “She convinced three individuals who were customers to allow her use their accounts, so money was going through those accounts.”

While under criminal investigation, prosecutors say Sbeih-Maddox used money from the victims to fund lavish trips around the world, visiting places like Dubai, Italy and Mexico.

Investigators uncovered several airline and hotel records that confirm Sbeih-Maddox used Hotels.com gift cards she received as payments from “Zee’s Place” customers to bankroll her overseas excursions.

In addition to the international destinations, she also traveled within the United States, including a trip to the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

After a series of reports from the 19 News Investigative Unit, an arrest warrant was issued for Sbeih-Maddox in July 2017.

"When it seemed like the jig was up, she went on the run,” May said.

Sbeih-Maddox was a fugitive from justice until August 2018, when she was arrested in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Investigators say she was living under the alias “Spencer Stevenson” at a shelter for homeless youth for several months prior to her arrest.

According to court records, Sbeih-Maddox also used the aliases “Parker James," “Bailey Jacobs,” and “Copeland Harris.”

Several of the youth shelter residents told 19 News that Sbeih-Maddox, then 24-years-old, claimed she was 18 and had recently been kicked out of foster care in California.

The residents also said Sbeih-Maddox had a lot of money and was always buying new things, which they said they found unusual for someone who was living in a homeless shelter.

In December 2018, a Cuyahoga County grand jury indicted Sbeih-Maddox and St. John-Stevenson.

Sbeih-Maddox’s sister, Kirsten Laurie, 23, was also indicted in connection with the social media scam.

Zienup Sbeih-Maddox (L), Kim St. John-Stevenso (C), Kirsten Laurie (R)
Zienup Sbeih-Maddox (L), Kim St. John-Stevenso (C), Kirsten Laurie (R)

Laurie, who has custody of Sbeih-Maddox’s 7-year-old daughter, entered a court diversion program in July.

St. John-Stevenson is currently in jail awaiting trial. Her case was set to go before a jury on Monday, but the trial was continued. We’re told attorney’s for both sides are attempting to work out a plea deal in her case.

In addition to the Facebook scam, Sbeih-Maddox was charged in a separate case for defrauding the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority and the federal government.

Records show Sbeih-Maddox lived in CMHA housing and paid $78 per month for a two-bedroom unit.

The hundreds of thousands of dollars she earned through the Facebook scam, despite being an illegal source of income, still made her ineligible to receive public housing.

It also made her ineligible for the thousands of dollars in benefits she received from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food stamps.

Judge Hagan ordered Sbeih-Maddox to pay more than $200,000 in restitution: $188,626.96 to the victims of her Facebook scam, $16,841 to CMHA, and $3,221 to SNAP.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General sent the following statement to 19 News on Wednesday:

“Victimizing hundreds of mothers with small children, while simultaneously defrauding HUD’s Public Housing program, particularly when affordable housing for those in need is so scarce, hits at the core of the mission of the HUD Office of Inspector General. We would like to acknowledge our continued partnerships at the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority Police Department for their tireless efforts to insure that HUD programs go to those who truly have critical housing needs.”
Brad Geary, Special Agent in Charge

Copyright 2019 WOIO. All rights reserved.