Big Isle manA three-year-old dispute over ownership of a bed and breakfast in the Big Island's Volcano Village has erupted into allegations of fraud and theft.
says legal fraud
cost him home,
Allegations stem from aLighter no stranger to controversy
dispute over ownership
of the Volcano Inn
By Ian Lind
Ronald Alan Ober, original owner and builder of the Volcano Inn, says he was the victim of a fraud and lost his home and business -- a 2.6-acre property and three-story, 5,000-square-foot building.
Ober ran into legal trouble after he refused to obtain building permits before starting construction in the summer of 1995. At the time, Ober was a proponent of an extreme anti-government philosophy and rejected the county government's authority to require permits.
Ober says he was facing a criminal trial when he paid Eric Aaron Lighter, a Honolulu man, to rescue him from his legal problems. Instead, Ober says, he lost everything.
Real estate records confirm that title to Ober's property was transferred to Lighter in 1997, then later to his wife, Joan Prescott-Lighter, Ober's former girlfriend, acting as trustee of an unregistered trust also linked to Lighter.
Ober says the property is worth more than $600,000 and brings in about $20,000 a month in income.
He has filed suit to get the property back, and the case is scheduled for trial in Hilo in mid-January.
Not the first accusationLighter, 50, holds a real estate broker's license first issued in 1973 but which is now inactive, state licensing records show.
He has described himself at various times as a broker, computer programmer, developer, auditor and fraud investigator.
This is not the first time Lighter has been accused of defrauding people who turned to him for help or entered into business deals, according to lawsuits filed in state and federal court.
Lighter denies the charges and defends his purchase of Ober's Volcano property as a legitimate business deal.
In court documents, Lighter says he assumed a $120,000 mortgage, which was more than the appraised value of the property.
"There's nothing he has alleged that I can't prove otherwise," Lighter told the Star-Bulletin.
Lighter says Ober is "a jilted lover" motivated by jealousy, and he has filed counter-claims accusing Ober of corruption and racketeering.
"It turned out Ober was laundering money through New Zealand, using Volcano to do it," Lighter says. "I've already been in touch with authorities."
Anti-government mindsetOber tells a very different story.
Ober, 49, is a former licensed electrician and builder who moved to Hawaii in 1988 after spending ten years in Florida and six years in California. By 1990, Ober had purchased two Volcano-area homes and was in the vacation rental business.
Ober's problems began several years later when he signed up for a seminar promising to teach legal methods of tax avoidance.
Ober quickly fell deeper and deeper into an anti-taxation, anti-government mindset, and he began studying extreme individual rights philosophies common among tax protesters -- so-called Patriots -- and other such groups.
"I was real excited," Ober says. "I was reading all this sovereignty crap, common law stuff. I wanted to stand on my rights just once."
Flush with individualist enthusiasm and new ideas about challenging government authority, Ober transferred title of his property into an unrecorded trust in August 1995, part of the seminar's tax avoidance scheme, and declared it "exempt from direct state and local control, including zoning ordinances and regulations," according to the deed filed in the Bureau of Conveyances.
A month later, Ober started construction of the three-story, steel-framed structure, his ultimate dream home, and notified Hawaii County officials in writing that he would not be obtaining building permits.
He was cited for building without a permit, and a stop work order was issued on Nov. 20, 1995, county records show.
The next day, Ober again wrote to the building department asserting the permit process is "voluntary" and claiming the right to proceed without official interference.
"Since forcing someone to do something against his will always violates constitutional rights, then all rules, regulations, codes and ordinances that use the words 'must' and 'shall' are always voluntary even though they may appear mandatory to the general public," Ober wrote.
Clashes with legal systemOver the next year, Ober was jailed twice for contempt of court, faced a rapidly approaching criminal trial on charges of building without a permit, and was being sued by neighbors who wanted the construction stopped and the building torn down.
"I was desperate because I didn't know how to deal with the legal system," Ober says.
In September 1996, he was referred to Lighter, who is not a lawyer but, Ober was told, specialized in suing lawyers and going against the government.
Federal and state court records confirm that Lighter has appeared in dozens of court cases on a "pro se" basis without benefit of an attorney.
"He rapidly convinced me he was better than a lawyer," Ober says. "He said that by not having a license, he could do things lawyers can't get away with. That impressed me, after my bad experiences with lawyers."
Ober paid Lighter $10,000 to take on his case. "I gave him $4,000, and more later. No other regular attorney would even take the case without $50,000 up front," Ober says.
At first, Ober says he was pleased with the arrangement.
"Other attorneys have so many cases going, they don't pay an ethical amount of attention to any of their cases," Ober says. "But Lighter gets so focused on this stuff, I don't think the guy sleeps. I think he writes 24 hours a day."
Lighter began preparing legal documents for Ober to sign and file in court, some hundreds of pages long, Ober says.
"He's got this big copy machine in his house. He runs the thing, ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, copying, copying, copying, and every hour he's got to shut it down and let it cool off for 10 or 15 minutes."
"He was a paper machine," Ober says.
Sham sale was solutionThen Lighter dropped the bombshell. Lighter explained that he is not an attorney and could not legally appear in court without a direct interest in the case, Ober's lawsuit alleges.
Lighter's solution, Ober alleges, was a sham sale, an elaborate scheme to make it appear the property had been transferred to Lighter, while Ober was told it would actually be returned any time he asked.
"Lighter had me convinced I would lose everything unless I agreed," Ober says.
To avoid the appearance of a fraudulent transfer, Lighter had Ober sign sworn statements and arranged a transfer of assets, at least on paper, Ober says.
"He made up a bunch of paperwork," Ober says. "We knew it was worthless."
Ober says that when he finally figured out something was wrong and demanded his property back, Lighter accused him of bankruptcy fraud and tax fraud based on evidence accumulated during their collaboration.
"He sent a foot and a half of paperwork to the FBI trying to convict me, and this is the guy I thought was my friend and savior at the beginning," Ober says.
Accusations of fraud against Lighter date back nearly 20 years, court records show, but he has never been charged with any crime related to these transactions.
In two cases, Lighter was accused of taking homes through fraud in similar circumstances and then attacking the victims with evidence of actual or imagined wrongdoing, according to records of resulting lawsuits.
Worthless property transfersOne of the alleged victims, Beverly Erhardt, also known as Beverly Frost, was introduced to Lighter in 1995 as she was trying to protect her assets against an adverse court judgment stemming from a disputed 1990 condominium sale.
Soon after being introduced, Lighter drove Erhardt to an empty lot in Manoa, a Roundtop home, and a Waikiki condominium, and suggested that he exchange his interest in these properties for her two properties, a home on St. Louis Heights and a condominium in Waianae, court records show.
The transfer was described as "a paperwork thing" involving assets of equal value, and Erhardt was told it could be reversed at any time, her lawsuit alleged.
Once the paper transfer was done, Lighter began steps to evict Erhardt from her home.
Erhardt then discovered she had received properties that were basically worthless, either because they were subject to "senior mortgage interests" or had already been assigned to others, her lawsuit alleged.
When Erhardt demanded the return of her property, Lighter turned over all his information on the deal to her creditors as evidence that she had tried to defraud them.
Lighter says Erhardt's suit and other legal actions against him have all been settled in his favor, although exact terms of those settlements remain secret due to confidentiality agreements.
However, real estate records show Erhardt's properties were returned to her at the time of the final legal settlement, as was the home in another similar case.
Lighter tells the Star-Bulletin he is aware of the various charges against him, but dismissed them as "a mountain of lies and evidenceless allegations."
"I'm not the white knight of the world, but I'm definitely opposed to being accused of things I didn't do," he said.
"There's not one allegation you could repeat, or anyone has made, where they've showed up with any empirical evidence, true evidence," Lighter said. "But they still try."
Eric Aaron Lighter is not your typical innkeeper.
a history of
The Kailua High School graduate, who at one time was studying for the ministry, has earned a reputation as an eccentric purveyor of conspiracy theories, a non-lawyer with a "system" for blocking or delaying legal proceedings, and a confidant of key figures in the extremist militia and patriot movements on the mainland.
In the past, Lighter has gone out of his way to become publicly entangled in controversial issues.
In 1995, he publicly "confessed" to taking part in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building and filed a 30-pound, 3,650-page legal brief in federal court there demanding to be charged as a co-conspirator in the case and to risk the death penalty.
According to news reports, Lighter said the federal grand jury's failure to indict him was evidence of jury tampering.
In person and in public documents, he weaves tales of conspiracies linking world and national events, claiming key roles for himself in the outcomes.
Lighter says his conspiracy theories are bolstered by thousands of pages of "evidence" he has filed in the Bureau of Conveyances, including what he claims is a 250,000-page federal tax return.
He is not a lawyer, but has appeared in courts here and on the mainland, where many of the same documents are constantly recycled.
When presented in court, however, his "evidence" has been less than persuasive.
"Lighter's pleadings are an exercise in redundancy and immateriality. They are replete with impertinent and scandalous matter," the late Judge Harold M. Fong ruled in one case several years ago.
And Lighter's courtroom tactics -- including avalanches of paperwork, accusations of corruption hurled at opponents and their attorneys, and dogged persistence in appealing every ruling -- have driven even experienced lawyers to despair.
Many lawyers contacted by the Star-Bulletin declined to be quoted about Lighter, saying they did not want to risk having him involved with their lives.
Lighter has sued federal and state grand juries, and has attempted citizen arrests on government officials, records show.
Lighter has even claimed to be "Ambassador to the Kingdom of Hawaii for purposes of establishing an Embassy to Washington, D.C."
Ian Lind, Star-Bulletin