Stealing a car is not an easy proposition: At a minimum, you'd need tools, know-how and access to a chop shop. But, it turns out, stealing a house — at least in Philadelphia — is considerably easier: A pen, a notary stamp and some postage will do the trick. Just ask Troy Baylor.
This spring, the Court of Common Pleas sentenced Baylor and two accomplices to between eight and 20 years in prison, after they were convicted of stealing more than 80 houses in North Philadelphia and "selling" the vacant properties to unsuspecting victims. The scheme was remarkable for its scale and sheer audacity: Baylor treated North Philly as a virtual shopping mall of abandoned homes, driving potential customers around the neighborhood and telling them buildings with an orange and black sticker — in fact, a Department of Licenses & Inspections off-limits notice — were for sale.
But the crime itself was less remarkable than it should have been. Even before the charges were unveiled in early 2009, the house-theft problem was already well known to city officials.
A year earlier, City Councilman Bill Greenlee, whose office had fielded numerous complaints of such stolen houses, had already zeroed in on one major issue: As long as an individual deed included a signature, a notary's stamp and a recording fee, the city's Department of Records processed it — no matter what. Deeds with the signatures of dead people and deeds signed with the names of people who had no ownership claim to the houses were treated as perfectly valid. By the time frauds were uncovered, homeowners had to take it up not with a city clerk, but with a judge.
So, in 2008, Greenlee introduced a new law aimed at stopping the most egregious deeds from being processed, and the city's records commissioner agreed to institute new policies to prevent fraud.
Finally, it seemed, something had been done.
But two years later, it turns out very little has changed. House theft is alive and well. Records' new policies are, by the department's own admission, toothless; stealing a house can still be as easy as putting pen to paper and declaring that it's yours. And while city agencies point fingers over who's responsible for this mess, the only solid proposal for fixing it has run into opposition from the Nutter administration.
Meanwhile, the thieves are still stealing — and sometimes, they're getting away with it.
Why is house theft so easy? For one thing, you can do it without even leaving your own house — by mail, in fact.
Take the case of Steven Grosik, a Philadelphia grocery store clerk who, as the Inquirer recently reported, received a letter last year notifying him that the title to his backyard — technically a separate property, with its own deed — had become the possession of one "Anthony Mitchell." Grosik had never heard of Mitchell; needless to say, he had not sold the man his backyard.
Dumbfounded, Grosik went to City Hall and discovered that the signature authorizing the transfer was not his, but that of the property's previous owner, who later told Grosik that his signature was forged. Mitchell's address turned out to be bogus, as well, and the notary's stamp was expired. (Notary Carol L. Young, whose stamp appears on the deed, says the signature and stamp are forgeries.)
"Everything on this deed was sloppy," says Grosik in an interview.
Records processed the deed, anyway, and Grosik's backyard — on paper, anyway — now belonged to Mitchell. City Paper's efforts to contact Mitchell, using the contact information he provided on the deed, turned up dead ends.
Grosik's story kicked off a hearing two weeks ago in City Hall on new legislation, introduced by Council members Greenlee and Maria Quinones-Sanchez, that would require Records not to rubberstamp deeds that raise certain, and rather obvious, red flags — such as being signed by someone other than the owner of the property. Surprisingly, perhaps — certainly Grosik thought so — the Nutter administration appeared to oppose the legislation. At the hearing, backed by an opinion from city lawyers, Records Commissioner Joan Decker testified that state law prohibited her office from stopping, or even slowing down, a deed like the one that nabbed Grosik's backyard. As long as a deed meets the state's minimum criteria (a notary stamp, a signature and a fee), "The law requires us to record everything that's presented," Decker said.
"No matter what junk is presented to you?" Greenlee asked.
"A court is going to require it, as it already does," Decker answered.
Greenlee had heard that argument before. Just before his 2008 legislation — which would have ordered Records to not record fishy deeds without further documentation — came to a vote, Greenlee says, Mayor Michael Nutter approached him, and told him the city's lawyers were concerned his bill wouldn't hold up in court. Specifically, they worried that it would violate a 1997 court order, handed down in a lawsuit over a backlog of unprocessed deeds, mandating that Records record all deeds that meet the state's criteria "in the order in which they are presented." That language, the city argued, prevents Records from rejecting any deeds that meet the state's requirements.
Greenlee backed down — but only, he says, because he thought Nutter would "take care of it." Instead, the legislation that passed only instructed Records to track suspicious deeds. Records implemented a few other changes, too: taking photographs of everyone who comes in to process a deed, as per the bill; keeping records of possibly fraudulent deeds; and sending out letters of notification to homeowners when a title is changed.
The problem is, all of these fail-safes are either unenforceable or after-the-fact. To avoid having a photo taken, for instance, a deed thief can submit the deed by certified mail or simply refuse to be photographed. And though Records now checks for signs of fraud — sellers who don't match the previous buyer, missing letters of administration or powers of attorney, and so forth — the data is simply entered into a spreadsheet and processed anyway. Additionally, by the time letters of notification reach a theft victim, their title is long gone.
"All that does is let you know you have to be in court for a year," Greenlee says.
Meanwhile, one way to steal a house in Philadelphia is, quite literally, to declare it yours on a piece of paper, submit that piece of paper to Records and waltz right in.
Beginning in January 2009, Eugene Myatt, then 25, began to do exactly that: He took title to a house in West Mount Airy, whose owner had died, as well as a vacant property on North Second Street in Northern Liberties, in the heart of the most rapidly gentrifying area in Philadelphia. Myatt accomplished these feats through an obscure legal process known as "adverse possession." A kind of squatter's right, the law allows someone — under very particular circumstances and only after 21 years — to claim ownership over property. Parcels obtained through adverse possession are usually pretty small — a piece of a yard you've been using for decades, for instance. But Myatt took the properties whole, claiming in the deeds he submitted to Records that he had lived in them for 21 years.
Of course, for that to be true, he would have been a toddler when he moved in — to both houses, at once. Records processed the deed anyway.
It took more than a year for the rightful owners of the Northern Liberties house, Dagmar Mitchell and Dorothea Gamble, to secure a default judgment against Myatt. In the meantime, however, he managed to "sell" the Second Street property for $5,000 to "Twenty-Second Street LLC," a corporation whose name does not appear on the state's list of registered entities. Records accepted that deed, too. Since then — and despite an NBC-10 piece exposing Myatt over a year ago — Myatt has been busy as ever acquiring properties, including several in West Philadelphia.
Myatt did not answer the door at the home he acquired in West Mount Airy, nor he did he respond to a note a reporter left for him there. He also did not comment for NBC-10's story last year.
"Adverse possession is the latest game," says former city housing director Thomas Massaro, who says he's had two houses stolen from him while he was seriously ill in the hospital — one of which came through an adverse possession deed signed by "James K. Johnson," who claimed to have lived in Massaro's property for the requisite 21 years.
(Claims of adverse possession, city officials point out, are merely claims to ownership. The act of recording them doesn't automatically transfer ownership. Nonetheless, they can confuse the police and cloud properties' titles.)
Per Greenlee's 2008 legislation, Records now tracks these questionable deeds. In the past two years, in fact, it has noted 442 such documents. But it does nothing more with this information than to periodically hand it over to the District Attorney's Office.
Asked what the District Attorney's Office does with that data, Lisa Caulfield, head of the Economic Crime Unit, notes that the D.A.'s Office never asked for it in the first place.
The city argues that, because most deed thefts involve forgeries, the proposed legislation wouldn't stop them anyway. This is true: A Records clerk has almost no way of detecting a forged signature or an illegitimate notary stamp.
But forgery is a crime, and it can be prosecuted. Yet perhaps the one thing that shakes victims more than the fact that the city processes bogus deeds, no questions asked, is that the D.A.'s Office doesn't always seem to want to do much about it.
A year ago, Hector Neris came home from work to find that new neighbors had moved into the rowhouse next door. This was odd: The North Philadelphia house had been empty for years, and was scheduled for demolition.
Also, it belonged to his father, who was dead.
Neris went to City Hall, where he discovered that a new deed had been recorded for that property; the house now belonged to Melvin Jofre Martin, who had paid $3,000. The deed bore the signature of his father, who died several years earlier. (Frederick Legiec, the notary whose stamp appears on the deed, insists in an interview that he required ID from anyone he didn't know, and has no idea how his name and stamp appeared on that document. His notary commission expired in June, he adds, and he no longer has any of his records.)
Neris filed a complaint with the D.A.'s Office; but that office, he says, told him to get a lawyer and call the police. He had called the police, though — several times — but says he never heard from a detective or received any indication that the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) was concerned with his predicament. He's not alone: Steven Grosik says he, too, called the police and filed a complaint with the D.A.'s Office, but has yet to be interviewed by either. Massaro, the former housing official, had better luck: The thief involved with his first stolen property (this one through forgery, not adverse possession) was prosecuted. Still, he says, "The police know it's not a priority with the D.A., the D.A. knows it's not a priority with them or the city. Nobody gives a damn!"
Those three entities — the city, the police and the D.A.'s Office — are quick to blame each other: Caulfield says that if the city imposed more checks before the deeds are processed — that is, before the houses are stolen — the D.A.'s Office would have a better shot at prosecuting the cases that fell through the cracks. The city, meanwhile, points the finger at the D.A.'s Office; after all, says Brian Abernathy of the Managing Director's Office, the Department of Records isn't an investigative body. That's the D.A.'s job. True, Caulfield replies. But the D.A.'s Office relies on the cops to gather evidence and bring it cases to prosecute. However, the cops aren't really trained for these types of things, and, Abernathy says, "I've talked with [Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison], and [the mayor's office feels] like the D.A.'s office has the resources to investigate." (Neither Gillison nor PPD spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore returned phone calls seeking comment.)
Amid this bureaucratic back-and-forth, victims and advocates worry that some deed thefts, especially smaller-value cases or cases involving a single home, are being ignored. At the Sept. 22 hearing, Caulfield denied this was so: "There is not now, nor has there ever been, any numerical or monetary threshold" for prosecution of these crimes.
At least half of that claim is untrue. In 2006, former District Attorney Lynne Abraham admitted that her office employed such a threshold: Arguing for more funding in a 2006 budget hearing, Abraham told City Council that when it came to economic crimes, including deed theft, "We've had to raise that threshold amount from $10,000 to $25,000. And if things don't improve this year, we're going to raise it to $50,000."
The question, then, is whether anything's changed since District Attorney Seth Williams took office in January. City Paper posed this question to Williams and Caulfield, but received no answer.
Nor would the D.A.'s Office say how many deed theft complaints it has received or how many such cases it has prosecuted. "Currently, there is no internal method for record-keeping," says spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson, adding that "many of these cases don't rise to a criminal level."
The D.A.'s Office did not respond to City Paper's request to clarify what, exactly, a deed theft has to do to "rise to a criminal level."
The smartest deed thief is the one whose name never appears on paper, and whose forgeries raise no flags and leave behind no trail. You won't catch this thief hanging around the stolen property, either: This thief is a salesman.
By the time Moises Perez, 35, had left prison two years ago, after serving 16 years for weapons and drug convictions, he'd spent a lot of time thinking about the house in West Kensington that his mother had bought for him to live in when he got out. "In jail, I thought about it all the time, how I was gonna fix it up," Perez says.
Upon his release, he made his way to Philadelphia and found the house — only to find a contractor already working on it, and telling him it had been sold. So Perez went to City Hall, and got a copy of the deed — bearing his and his mother's signatures — transferring the house to a stranger. He was in prison on the day he supposedly signed over the deed.
Furious, Perez returned to the house to confront the new occupant, but found himself talking to another victim.
Two years ago, "Sonia" — who asked that her real name be withheld — was introduced to a man she came to know as Freddy Vega, who operated out of a ramshackle real estate "agency" on Kensington Avenue. Vega, she says, told her this West Kensington house was for sale, and cheap. Sonia bought it for $5,000.
She still has a copy of her "receipt" — a note that looks like it was typed on a word processor, bearing the heading, "Freddy Vega: Real Estate & Insurance," and listing a business address on Kensington Avenue that is now a demolished block under construction. (The Pennsylvania Department of State has no record of any real estate broker named Freddy Vega.) Sonia began pumping money into the property: $4,000 to turn the water back on, she says; $24,000 over two years on renovations.
Were she a more sophisticated buyer, Sonia might have spotted the fraud. A legitimate title insurance company — all but required for most above-board real estate transactions — certainly would have. But many (even legitimate) real estate transactions in Philadelphia — especially among those who speak little English, are poorly educated or simply don't have the means to acquire a traditional mortgage — don't have this protection.
Maybe it was the new chance at life talking, but Perez, hearing her story, felt bad for Sonia. When the two appeared in court last month, they told the judge that they'd work out the dispute themselves. Perez went so far as to suggest that they partition the house and share it.
That plan didn't make much sense, but in a meeting at Quinones-Sanchez's office, they settled on a more practical solution: Sonia would give the house back to Perez. He, in turn, plans to sue the notary public, Donna D'Agostini-Gallo, whose stamp appears on the bogus deed, and use any winnings to compensate Sonia for the money she's put into the house.
But D'Agostini-Gallo says she, too, is a victim. After reviewing a copy of the deed that City Paper faxed to her, she says the stamp on it is a forgery: "I keep my stamp locked up," she says. What's more, she adds, this isn't the first time this has happened. She says she's cooperating with the D.A.'s Office, but can't reveal any more details.
Her explanation is by no means implausible: During the September hearing, Caulfield told City Council that notary stamps are indeed being counterfeited.
Most homeowners attempting to reclaim the title to their house will have to do it in court — a serious hurdle for anyone, but especially the poor, old and sick, exactly the population most victimized by deed theft. The Volunteers for the Indigent Program, which pairs volunteer lawyers with people who can't afford them, sees five to 10 cases a month, says Managing Attorney Stefanie Selden — and finding pro bono lawyers for such complicated cases isn't easy. Victims who aren't indigent must either pony up for a lawyer or try to navigate the court system themselves.
In response to the rash of house thefts, a program was created under former Common Pleas President Judge Darnell Jones that directs such cases to a single judge, and thus makes it easier for victims to file cases without attorneys. But, says Greenlee aide Julie O'Connell, it's still difficult: "The one person I saw [reclaim their title without a lawyer] was a paralegal for 30 years."
"Frankly, there isn't that much [the city] can do," says Selden. "The real improvements have to be made at the state level."
That's a point the Nutter Administration has emphasized. Abernathy says officials are working with state representatives to craft legislation addressing issues related to notaries and the way deeds are recorded.
But City Council has, over the mayor's objections, decided to act. Last week, it unanimously approved Greenlee and Quinones-Sanchez's bill requiring Records to halt its automatic approval of some of the sketchier deeds coming through its doors — specifically, deeds unaccompanied by title insurance. And despite the administration's insistence that it has no authority to reject any deed, no matter how absurd, that's not the case elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
Valerie McDonald Roberts, manager of the Allegheny County Department of Real Estate, insists that state law allows for "certification" of deeds, which involves checking the data before recording. And more than a dozen Pennsylvania counties, she says, have implemented similar programs.
"Don't think what we're doing is original," she says.
"Maybe there is a legal argument," Greenlee says of the Nutter administration's opposition. "But I just don't care anymore."
"The question we should be asking is, how do we protect people?" says co-sponsor Quinones-Sanchez. "This is about will. Are we willing as elected officials to protect people? It's real simple."
As of this writing, Nutter has yet to say whether he'll sign the bill (even though City Council will almost certainly override a veto).
Whether it will be enforced after that is yet another matter.