Witnesses to alleged armed robbery say fugitive developer's account doesn't add up

Daniel Pettit in a photo from his 2011 race for mayor of Waukee.
Daniel Pettit in a photo from his 2011 race for mayor of Waukee.

The armed robbery that developer Daniel Pettit described to Johnston police back in September sounded like a scene out of “The Sopranos,” except there were details that didn't jibe.

Moustapha Moustapha, Pettit told police, barged into his Johnston mansion, brandished a gun, and demanding money he said Pettit owed him. In front of two of his ex-business associates, the developer said, Moustapha roughed him up and fled with Cartier jewelry, handguns, Rolex watches and a luxury Bentley automobile.

Johnston police, finding more than a few things awry after Pettit's account of the alleged heist, got a search warrant for his phone data ― texts, photos and call records. That’s when things got stranger.

Pettit, a Cedar Rapids native who years before started a faith-based charity to build churches in underdeveloped countries, had been on extravagant spending sprees, buying cars, art, sports memorabilia and real estate, even as he faced a mountain of debt, Iowa court records show. Moustapha, who ran a high-end car rental business in Los Angeles, had loaned him expensive cars while they mapped out a development deal together.

But Johnston search warrant documents show the two actually texted each other before and after what appeared to be a staged robbery. As the FBI and police investigate, others tied to Pettit’s myriad business and real-estate deals have been trying to find answers.

Daniel Pettit still hasn't reported for jail term

The 43-year-old Pettit failed this week to turn himself into authorities after being ordered Nov. 30 to jail for six months for contempt of court in three civil cases. He has been the subject of a Watchdog probe this week showing he allegedly owes $70 million in unpaid bank debts and court judgments.

Several people have alleged in court documents they were defrauded in investment deals gone bad. Others blame Pettit for defaulting on loans and causing a foreclosure that has led to a lawsuit over valuable land north of Des Moines University in West Des Moines. Some have accused Pettit of running a scheme on investors, before the pandemic erupted, in a Las Vegas cannabis operation that failed to get off the ground.

A few investors, who asked not to be identified, told Watchdog this week they are trying to figure out if they can get repaid by Pettit before courts get involved.

Trailhead International Builders, the nonprofit church-building group Pettit started in 2015 with his now ex-wife, issued a statement Friday aimed at trying to reassure those who contributed to its mission.

"Trailhead International officially dissolved all relationships with Mr. Pettit in January of 2023, at which time the leadership team asked for his resignation from the board," the statement said. "Mr. Pettit never had any access to or control of any financial accounts with Trailhead since its inception. All financials are overseen by an independent board and accountants. Since Mr. Pettit’s departure, new partnerships have been established expanding the financial capabilities of the nonprofit. Due to the ongoing nature of Mr. Pettit’s legal issues, we are unable to make further comment at this time."

Others are asking if anyone’s examining how Pettit managed to get so many loans from banks and individuals while he was defaulting on what he owes ― and why he hasn’t been charged with any crimes.

As of Thursday, however, authorities weren’t talking.

“Per policy, I can’t confirm or deny the existence of an investigation,” said Amy Adams, a spokeswoman for the FBI, based in Omaha.

“Since the investigation is ongoing, investigators and management will likely not be sharing any additional information at this time,” said Jeremey Moore of the Johnston Police Department.

Witnesses: Alleged robber didn't appear to take much from the house

Matt Jennings and Dr. Allen Stoye, former business partners who were with Pettit on the night of the alleged robbery Sept. 10, told Watchdog they have talked to the FBI and police about what happened.

Pettit, they said, owed both of them money in a settlement deal reached after Pettit bought out their ownership interest in a Waukee entertainment district development announced in 2019. Pettit, they said, had fallen behind on payments and Stoye came to the house to try to reach an agreement on how Pettit could get caught up.

Stoye said he summoned Jennings by text when Moustapha, a big man, showed up angry, demanding money, saying Pettit owed him too.

“Allen was there with a worried look on his face,” said Jennings, adding he had met Moustapha, who has also gone by the name Mike, at least twice before that Sunday night. “I said, ‘What’s going on? He was just going off about how Daniel owed him money.”

At one point, the men said, Moustapha pushed Pettit into a chair and brandished a gun. Then Moustapha told Pettit to prove he didn’t have anything of value in his basement vault.

Upstairs in a bedroom, the men said, they saw Moustapha handle some of Pettit’s possessions, including a handgun Moustapha put in his pocket. But they said they didn’t see Moustapha take all the items Pettit later alleged were stolen, including jewelry and several other guns.

“I don’t think he walked out with anything,” Stoye said. “When we got outside, it was so odd. Mike was saying, ‘I forgive you Daniel. Do you need money for the car payment?’ “

Stoye said Moustapha might have still had the gun in his pocket, but that he didn’t carry anything out of the house. “We were just innocent bystanders here. It was a scary situation. It’s not an experience I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.

Stoye and Jennings were instrumental in getting a handsome tax-increment financing package for the Waukee entertainment district Pettit announced back in 2019, but the two said they distanced themselves from him later.

Stoye said he originally met Pettit through his pastor and he’d been on the board of Trailhead International Builders until 2019. A doctor, he also was supposed to be the chief medical officer for the cannabis cultivation and extraction business that Pettit recruited investors for, beginning in 2018, in Las Vegas.

But after Pettit signed the agreement to buy Stoye and Jennings out of the Waukee entertainment development in December 2019, Stoye said, they didn’t see each other as much.

The two businessmen have since learned through reports filed by Johnston police that Pettit alleged another break-in had taken place at his home back in August. And Pettit had texted Moustapha prior to the September heist, saying Stoye and Jennings were thieves.

Moustapha, a Johnston police report shows, responded with rough talk about both men, texting Pettit that he was going to take back what they stole and “forgive them for not knowing who u were in bed with (smiley face). I will be there with a bunch of good fellas.”

The report also shows Pettit talked to Moustapha by phone four times right after the alleged heist in September ― once for about an hour.

Another report filed with the search warrant application for Pettit’s cellphone data shows Pettit’s phone contained evidence he’d been hiring prostitutes.

Moustapha Moustapha denies robbery allegations, levels his own accusation

Des Moines attorney Nick Sarcone, who is representing Moustapha, said the California man is awaiting his day in court.

He said Moustapha, 43, was picked up in Los Angeles at the end of November on charges of first-degree robbery, burglary, theft and assault. He’s expected to be extradited to Polk County.

Sarcone said Moustapha is a Rolex afficionado and that’s initially how he and Pettit met. He said his client had been in Iowa over the summer to work on a development deal in Johnston.

City officials in Johnston said this week no development project by Pettit had been approved.

Sarcone said Moustapha denies the allegations against him and says Pettit tried to defraud him as well.

“We look forward to the real story coming out about what happened,” he said.

In the meantime, a judge won’t decide until at least May what to do about the foreclosure by Lincoln Savings Bank on part of a 60-acre housing development in West Des Moines.

In addition to the $10.2 million Pettit borrowed from the bank for that project, he also borrowed $9.3 million from partner Bernard Feldman, partly for the development.

As the foreclosure plays out in court, the city of West Des Moines has sued an insurance company, Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance, over improvements DB Booneville, the corporation Pettit created to develop the land, was supposed to have made but never did, court records show.

The case alleges Pettit admits the corporation doesn’t have the $3.4 million to make the improvements and alleges Philadelphia defaulted on its obligations under a bond it insured.

Lee Rood
Lee Rood

Lee Rood's Reader's Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at lrood@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Witnesses question Daniel Pettit's armed robbery allegations