By Marisa Mecke ’21, Staff Writer

Image courtesy of Holly Pasut’s blog

You Are Enough

New Happy Year

Ask Powerful Questions

Get Lost, Virus

Each month, two houses on Concord Road add a new message in bold orange font to their series of white, plastic yard signs. Exiting the South Prong Rocky River Greenway and walking, running, or biking up Concord Road, my roommates and I have spent hours in post-greenway discussions analyzing the messages and imagining the purpose and intention of the people who created them. However, they bear no logo of an organization, no names, and no context. 

After passing the signs for months, considering their meanings and purpose obsessively, I wrote two letters asking about the inspiration for the messages and placed them in the respective mailboxes on Concord. Within 24 hours, I had my answers.  

Meet Holly Pasut. She has lived in Davidson for one year and is a motivational speaker, author, and former Charlotte real estate agent. More surprisingly, she is also a former federal prisoner. 

Holly had a bright voice and an unyielding smile (at least over Zoom) while admitting her excitement to talk with me. She shared, “one of the reasons why I moved here is that I like the idea of the college setting and the quaint little town.” Before the pandemic, I lived off campus just a few blocks away from her house; we lamented not meeting in person. The conversation was warm and so picturesque that I initially hesitated to broach the conversation that brought us to the (virtual) table: What do real estate, prison, and lawn signs have to do with each other?

“What happened to me […] could have easily happened to anyone regardless of [their] career.” Indicted in Operation Wax House, an FBI investigation into mortgage fraud in Mecklenburg and Union counties, Pasut served two years in federal prison as part of one of the FBI’s largest mortgage fraud cases ever. Now, she is a motivational speaker and frequently reflects on this experience. 

“When companies want me to come in and talk, I can’t come in and talk about how I masterminded this huge fraud scam,” Pasut confessed. “Because I didn’t. The scary part is that you can be involved in a federal crime without even knowing you are involved.” 

The details of the case are dense, labyrinthine, and technical. A Google search will explain a conspiracy having to do with mortgages, bank loans, home renovations, and international crime. Pasut was not a participant, thus she does not know exactly what happened. She gave me the short version of her understanding of what happened: 

“These people were buying homes and then selling [them] to [people] at an inflated price. So, they were buying homes for [fair market value], a hypothetical 1 million- I was the one doing this.” Pasut acted as a realtor, representing clients selling their houses. Once she and her clients sold a house, the people organizing the fraud scheme “would take that home and put it for sale, put it back on the market — or not even on the market — or just behind the scenes. They would sell it four hours later, or two weeks later, for [an inflated value], [a hypothetical] 1.5 million- and then they would foreclose that home. They would never pay that loan.” Instead, “they would take the 5-million-dollar loan and divvy it among themselves.” 

Pasut, though, was unaware of these activities and never received money from the fraud. According to Pasut, outside the world of real estate, this group was also involved in drug trafficking, money laundering — “all sorts of bad things.” Pasut was not involved in any of these crimes; however, she stated, “I made some choices that made me easily become a target [to] the FBI. I had to be very delicate about it: you cannot plead guilty, go to prison, and then come home and tell everyone you didn’t do anything wrong.” She described being swept up in the investigation because she was “involved in some of the transactions they were involved in” by “trusting an extremely deceitful group of people.” In other words, she got involved because she sold houses, as a real estate agent tends to do. 

“Low on the totem pole,” Pasut was charged for her involvement despite ignorance of the larger criminal enterprise. When she gives speeches to white collar professionals, she always notes “how low the threshold for accountability is in a fraud case,” that even if unwittingly participating in the fraud, small actors such as herself can be charged. However, the leader of the ring, the person she knew who was wanted by the FBI and who organized the operation, is now an international fugitive. The last known address the FBI has for him is in Iran, and Holly concluded that at this point, he is safe from justice for his crimes. She does not feign a lack of bitterness at this fact, arguing that while he is free, “I go away. I go to prison.” Yet, Pasut’s perspective on her experience in prison does not reflect this frustration.

Our conversation revealed a precarious balance: Pasut spoke with unflagging positivity, but expressed how scary prison was, emphasizing how one is stripped of their rights. When her family came to visit, she described how fast the time they spent together would fly. She elaborated, “[I] would look at the clock on the wall, and my eyes would start to tear up because I knew I only had 15 minutes left with them.” Despite the pain she felt for going to prison for a crime she had been ignorant of, Pasut focused on changing her thoughts and perspective to maintain hope.

“For me, prison was a place I landed where I was stripped of everything, where the only thing that could not be taken away from me [was] my thoughts,” Pasut expressed. “I really learned to hone in on what kind of thinking I was going to live in.”

Pasut found that she was unexpectedly able to connect closely with others while incarcerated, particularly in befriending women from all walks of life she otherwise would never have met, observing their similarities and shared experiences. She expressed gratitude, talking about the support she received from these women, particularly when she spoke in the prison chapel, and from her family, who would come and visit her in West Virginia and speak with her for hours at the picnic tables under the hot sun. While her son suggested they continue these talks, and they do keep in close contact, her family did not get into the habit. However, she loved these talks so much so that she now hosts a monthly meeting inspired by them. She explains, “I did form a group we call ‘the picnic table talks,’” where “I bring women into my home once a month and we sit here for four hours, and so we talk about all sorts of things with no phones no TV’s distractions.”

After prison, Pasut began blogging and after gaining traction online, publishers approached her about writing a book. Really, “I wanted to speak,” she said, “but a lot of places wanted you to have a book to speak […] So I kind of wrote the book to help with speaking; it really was kind of a backwards thing.” She writes and speaks about what she learned for broad audiences: white collar professionals learning about protecting themselves from fraud and federal crimes; motivational speaking on overcoming struggles through life and moving through them; colleges in the area, and how students can make good decisions in their careers moving forward. Now, Pasut has made a life and career using her experience to teach others, build community, and spread positivity. While this career has enabled her to reach people inside and outside of her community to share her story, this is not the way she has used her story to impact the town of Davidson. 

Pasut drew inspiration for her lawn signs from an article by a resident of a different college town. I later searched to find the town that she was describing and found it is the small town of Newberg, Oregon, home to Amy Wolf and her organization, “Don’t Give Up,” which works to “spread hope and love” through yard signs in their community. Newberg had experienced a rise in the rate of suicides in 2017, prompting Wolf to “put signs up around town of affirmations, positivity, of ‘you are enough, you are worth it,’ things to try to lift some spirits.” The article resonated with Pasut — she reflected that she “live[s] in a college town,” and that she personally has been impacted by the deaths of her husband and mother by suicide. 

“I don’t know about any suicide rates here, and it doesn’t need to be just for people [struggling with]  suicide. I live on Concord Road, I live on a busy road, there’s a lot of exposure there. And also, from what happened to me, I could be very bitter.” She concludes, between the college town and her experiences with suicides and prison, “it’s right up my alley.” While her motivation is not specifically to address suicide, in comparison to the case in Newberg, Pasut notes that “a lot of people write me, a lot of people leave me notes and come to my door,” and sometimes careen into her driveway in their cars, and that this powerful reception from her neighbors is why she continues.

“I feel like I’m just giving back a little sprinkle of a smile. We all have struggles, we all have stories, and if we can find ways to take something from that story and improve ourselves or to help others to move forward […] I think stories are meant to be shared. And they take courage to do that. A lot of people keep their skeletons nicely tucked away in the closet, but that is not a good way to live.” 

Through her signs, whether we have realized it or not, Pasut is opening a conversation between the college, the town, and herself. Holly Pasut moved to Davidson because she loved the idea of the college and of its students. While her signs serve the larger Davidson community, she put the signs up, in part, thinking of our campus community. So, when we are back to a time that allows it, if you see Holly’s signs and give them a second of thought, knock on her door. Say hi, ask her a question. Tell her what you think. In the meantime, maybe leave a note in her mailbox. It is time we get to know each other better.