Largest Deed Scam in Harris County History defrauds hundreds of homeowners
Posted: 05-09-11Category:The largest deed scam in Harris County history has defrauded hundreds of Harris County property owners, mostly in poorer neighborhoods, over the past six years. For at least six years, players in a massive swindle boldly entered the Harris County Civil Courthouse with fake deeds bearing the freshly minted signatures of long dead men, faked notaries’ seals and other blatantly false claims to seize and sell others’ property. The consequences of the widespread deed fraud carried out between 2002 and 2008 continue to affect hundreds of people in some of the city’s humblest neighborhoods. Much of the mess remains unresolved. Yet, for executing what authorities call the largest deed scam in Harris County history, just one man has been criminally convicted for his small role in the fraud, records reviewed by the Houston Chronicle show. About $6 million in court-ordered penalties against other major players have gone unpaid, despite three years of civil litigation by the Texas Attorney General’s office. One Houston woman, Katherine Williams, whose complaint about the fraud prompted the lawsuit, did get her house back in a related ruling just two weeks ago. Others have not. Trying to find out who’s responsible who’s real and who’s fictitious is a challenge. The supposed buyers have bad titles and the heirs, often a distant or absent relative, are either unaware or unable to resolve the problems. Valerie Turner, a chief prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Consumer Protection office, has been flooded with complaints about this scam and similar property theft rings whose members tend to hide crimes behind facades of fake names, fraudulent documents and fictitious companies. ‘Devastating to families’ “All they care about is creating some chain of title, and it’s very rare that they only steal one house. They will take multiple houses,” Turner said. The results “can be devastating to families.” A 3-year-old civil fraud case by the Texas Attorney General originally targeted 11 people, including two ex-convicts described as cousins, as well as a string of alleged accomplices and their companies. Participants included friends, family, notaries, a “pill-mill” doctor and flunkies just released from the state penitentiary, public records show. Matthew Wade, a 44-year-old convicted car thief, former private school counselor and ex-owner of a used car lot, has been accused as a major player along with his cousin Calvin Remo, 45, records show. Remo is wanted on theft charges pending since 2008; Wade was never criminally charged in the case. Both apparently skipped town. The two, and others, are accused of targeting abandoned or vacant houses in mostly traditionally African-American neighborhoods, including Scenic Woods, North Main, Third Ward and Sunnyside. Some properties were windowless shacks inhabited by rats or used as crack houses. Others remained filled with furniture and keepsakes left behind by mostly elderly occupants who had died or moved to a nursing home or elsewhere. Couple paid cash After obtaining fake though officially filed deeds, various ring members changed locks on houses and posted standard “For Sale” signs to attract vulnerable, often cash-paying Hispanic buyers, like Santiago and Eleuteria Flores. The Houston couple paid $10,000 cash in December 2003 for what looked like an authentic deed. They invested another $30,000 in supplies and sweat equity improving a long-vacant house only to learn that it had never been theirs, court records show. “We worked so hard,” Eleuteria Flores said. “We spent every night after my husband got off work at that house for seven months. After we lost it, I got very sick. From depression.” The true owner, whose elderly mother had moved to a nursing home, claimed he’d also been conned by culprits who allegedly forged his name on a deed. Dozens of faux deeds have been voided as a result of the AG’s civil suit. But many properties associated with the scam still have clouded titles and unresolved ownership issues. Some houses are still occupied by would-be buyers, despite lawsuits filed by often equally poor ripped-off owners or heirs. In other cases, duped sellers got evicted and lost all investments. If you or someone you know has been affected by the Harris County deed scam, you should contact an attorney immediately.