Updated:DEKALB COUNTY, Ga.,None —
A Channel 2 Action News investigation into a ring of thieves stealing houses is growing. So far, Channel 2 Action News investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer has uncovered at least 18 stolen properties in eight Georgia counties: DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Fayette, Newton, Spalding and Richmond. The properties include town homes, mansions, even an entire shopping center. The total value exceeds $22 million.
Prosecutors with the DeKalb County District Attorney’s office are building racketeering cases against nine suspects. Four are in jail. Officers are searching for the remaining five. (See their pictures in our slideshow)
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They are accused of conspiring to steal houses by signing fraudulent deeds to themselves, then moving into the properties. Authorities said they often use the deeds to get the locks changed and turn on utility service at the homes. They usually target homes advertised as foreclosures knowing they will likely be vacant, prosecutors said.
"At the end of the day, it's nothing but theft," said Assistant District Attorney John Melvin.
Channel 2 Action News was there this week as detectives raided a home in Belford Estates, a secluded subdivision in Southeastern Henry County. They hauled away boxes of paperwork, but the suspects were not there when police arrived. A Henry County police officer had responded to the same location a week earlier after getting a complaint from neighbors. The officer saw the fraudulent deed posted in the windows of the home and thought it was real. He told the neighbors the case would be a civil matter and then left.
“It's something that has been discussed is to familiarize all of our officers with these types of situations to let them know what to look for," said Henry County police Capt. Jason Bolton.
The suspects call themselves sovereign citizens. They are anti-government extremists who refuse to answer to state or local authority. The members often refuse to pay taxes or register their vehicles, authorities said. Some told Fleischer that their homes are considered sovereign land.
"Frankly, it's rather absurd the philosophies and techniques they're espousing, but people will buy into that and try it," said FBI Agent Steve Emmett.
Fleischer confronted Gregory and Linda Ross, who were living at a 5-bedroom home on South Goddard Road in DeKalb County. A deed posted in the window of the house claimed Jermaine Gibson owned the property. Records show the $1 million home is actually owned by a bank. Authorities say Gibson filed fraudulent paperwork to take the house around the same time the bank was forcing out the previous owners who were in foreclosure. According to the deed, Gibson signed over the property to himself for free. Gibson has also filed paperwork declaring himself a sovereign citizen and immune from the laws of Georgia.
DeKalb police said they caught him and Joseph Dion Lawler trying to get the locks changed on a $1 million home on Windsor Parkway. Police said Lawler’s name was on that fraudulent deed, and so was Gibson’s address on South Goddard Road. Police said the fraudulent deed for the Henry County home in Belford Estates was signed by Corey Bernard Freeman, but also included Gibson’s address on South Goddard.
Prosecutors said the scheme can force real owners of the homes to prove it in court. Buyers are sometimes delayed from closing on houses.
"They're able to tie up the legal system by filing bogus paperwork and engaging in paper terrorism against anybody who dare comes after them," said Melvin.
Court records show Lawler has filed a lawsuit against Chase Bank for foreclosing on his home. Gibson filed a federal lawsuit against the Gwinnett County sheriff and other officials, after he was arrested several times.
When Fleischer approached the home on South Goddard Road, one sovereign citizen told her, "Once you come on the property, you have made contract with us, and believe me, it's not going to end the way you think. It's going to be nonviolent. It's going to be all on paperwork. So you have been warned."
SWAT team evicts occupants
Just two days later, the DeKalb County SWAT went to the South Goddard Road property with a search warrant. The eviction team that accompanied them hauled away all of the sovereign occupants’ possessions, and detectives said they found evidence for the racketeering case against Gibson, Gregory and Linda Ross, and others.
Police also have arrest warrants for others who’ve filed fraudulent deeds, including Joseph Dion Lawler, Eliyshuwa Yisrael and Richard Terrence Jenkins. There’s also a warrant for Wyllisa Lawrence, who they said signed deeds as a witness.
Melvin said, "The more paperwork you have the bigger the web, the more people you can catch."
The addresses and names on the deeds often link the suspects and properties to each other. That’s how investigators linked Kenith Rey to the group. He’s now in the Fulton County Jail after Sandy Springs police caught him living in a $2 million home on Tara Trail.
"I'm shocked," said home builder Mark Phillips. “This house is certainly not finished. It's not even a livable house."
Melvin said he plans to push for legislative changes to make it tougher to file fraudulent deeds, and easier to prosecute them. "Personally, what I'd like to see is a little more verification before a property is able to be deeded to another person. You just can't go to a clerk of court and deed a property to yourself.”