ATLANTA - It's as easy as filing one piece of paper at the county courthouse.
For nearly four years, Channel 2 Action News has been investigating how local con artists are taking over metro-area homes. The group originally targeted empty bank-owned homes; now they're preying on actual homeowners and renters.
"Of all people, I'm 74 years old. How can somebody steal a house? I can't believe that!" homeowner Fannie McDaniel told investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer.
McDaniel called Clayton County after she failed to receive her tax bill for an investment property she owns in Riverdale. A county employee told McDaniel she no longer owned the property.
"She says, 'You don't even own this house anymore.’ So I said, ‘How can that be?’" McDaniel recounted. "I have the mortgage, been up to date on everything."
According to Clayton County property records, a company called JMM Assets and Acquisitions took over McDaniel's property by filing a quit claim deed in April. Fleischer showed McDaniel the document, which appears to have her name signed at the bottom.
"No, that's not my signature," McDaniel told Fleischer. "This doesn't look anything like mine."
A Channel 2 Action News investigation found 26 homes taken over by that same group using several different names. Each property had a signed quit claim deed, which is normally used to easily add a name to a property, or transfer between loved ones or business associates.
Every one of the bogus deeds was notarized by a man named Verod Stewart.
Stewart was the subject of a Channel 2 investigation in May after one of his cohorts, Jermaine Gibson, filed a bogus deed for a $1 million home in Lithonia. A couple had purchased the home in foreclosure, but could not move in because Gibson and others were living there. Fleischer contacted DeKalb County Marshals and FBI agents, who raided the home and arrested Stewart and Gibson.
Fleischer confronted Stewart outside the DeKalb County Courthouse asking, "Mr. Stewart do you want to tell us why you're doing this?"
"I feel threatened by your presence," Stewart replied.
Fleischer replied that they were on public property and she was only asking him questions to try to get his side of the story.
Stewart replied, "I feel threatened by your presence, ma'am. I'm warning you ahead of time, I feel threatened by your presence."
In 2010, Gibson and nearly a dozen others were charged with racketeering after a Channel 2 investigation exposed 18 fake deeds filed for properties in eight counties. Many of them pleaded guilty, however Gibson and two other men went to trial.
One suspect, Eliyshuwa Yisreal, convinced a DeKalb County jury that stealing bank-owned homes was not really a crime.
"The indictment says there are victims, where are these victims?" Yisreal testified in October 2012.
The jury acquitted the three remaining defendants.
Prosecutor John Melvin was stunned.
"Our juries need to stand up and say, ‘Enough of this,’" Melvin told Fleischer, "Gibson, didn't get his lesson and now he's emboldened to do it again."
Within months Gibson had filed two new deeds. Then he joined forces with Stewart and a man named Jerod Moore and incorporated two companies. JMM Assets and Acquisitions and Quore Capital Investments are both listed with Georgia's Secretary of State. A property record search shows the companies have filed quit claim deeds for a total of 26 properties throughout Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.
Fleischer visited each home and found at least three are currently rented out to families.
Ombre Johnson was shocked to find out a bank owns the home she is renting, not her landlord, Verod Steward.
"Do you pay him rent?" Fleischer asked Johnson.
"Absolutely," Johnson replied. "Every month."
Johnson showed Fleischer her lease for the home on Misty Lake Road in Ellenwood. The rental agreement says JMM Assets and Acquisitions and is signed by Stewart. The house is actually owned by a bank.
"I can't be put out, I have a real home, you know what I mean? With real children. You know, I work too hard for this," Johnson said.
Fleischer showed the bogus deeds to state legislators.
"Well it's just plain wrong, and let's be blunt about it, these folks are con artists," said Rep. Ed Lindsey(R-Atlanta).
He and Rep. Tom Kirby (R-Loganville) immediately drafted a bill making it a felony to file a fraudulent deed for a property.
"If the law isn't strong enough to go after these guys, then we need to change the law," Lindsey told Fleischer. "It's time for us to take a serious look at it and impose some serious penalties."
FBI agents, who've worked on all three cases, applauded the effort.
"We prefer felony charges because they deal more directly with the problem at hand. It has more of a lasting impact come sentencing," said FBI Atlanta spokesman Stephen Emmett. "It is the frustration of law enforcement that we haven't stopped these individuals."
McDaniel does not know if the new law will be enacted in time for her case. She already filed a police report in Clayton County and detectives immediately opened a criminal investigation. The FBI and DeKalb County police have vowed to help make sure there are consequences this time.
"If you are sitting in one of those homes that does not belong to you and you are operating in this way you are going to get arrested here very shortly," said Dr. Cedric Alexander, DeKalb County's Public Safety Director.
McDaniel just wants her property back and to put a stop to all of this.
"They need to be prosecuted to the fullest," she said.