Stealing from the dead
Thieves and forgers are taking houses from the deceased in ‘hot’ neighborhoods — as the city stands by.
They are all dead. Yet if city records are to be believed, they all walked into the office of a notary public and signed away their homes, which just happened to be in gentrifying neighborhoods with soaring property values.
Gail Harrison lived alone in the house where she grew up on Seybert Street in North Philadelphia. She had her quirks, but neighbors looked out for her. “She was a nice, friendly, Christian-hearted woman,” one said.
Harriet Dunn and Dorcas Moone lived quietly in a North 27th Street rowhouse in Brewerytown that they bought in 1950 after leaving the Army.
Alex Krasheninnikow survived a Nazi concentration camp. He later handed out the Communist Party paper on the streets of Philadelphia. His home on Agate Street in Port Richmond was overflowing with books.
Their properties all ended up in the hands of a stranger, a 43-year-old man named William Ernest Johnson III, who wrapped up some of the deals while still on parole from a long prison term for a string of violent crimes.
In all, an Inquirer investigation has linked Johnson to at least six suspicious home transfers over the last 2½ years. In case after case, he acquired vacant houses with longtime owners who were dead or so aged that their grown children would later say they never participated in the transactions.
Johnson insists that he is a victim too — that he was misled by a series of impostors posing as the dead owners and by other “sellers” who misrepresented the provenance of the deeds they were offering. "I assumed the seller of the home was legitimate, straight up,” he said.
He has resold three of the properties, two for $50,000 each, city records show.
"Fact of the matter is, I’m in the business of providing people with shelter,” he said. “I’m just a person trying to earn an honest living, but at the same time trying to be of help to my community, my neighbors. It’s as simple as that.”
Besides, he said: “What’s the deal here? If these people are dead, what are we talking about?"
Johnson’s nonchalance aside, the transactions have upset neighbors, spawned lawsuits from the families of aggrieved “sellers,” and sparked inquiries, but no charges, from the FBI and the District Attorney’s Office.
They have also drawn attention to the notaries whose stamps appear on the bogus transfers, a crucial aspect of verifying sales.
One is Johnson’s former sister-in-law, Rovella Johnson, who said her name and stamp were forged on documents transferring Harrison’s home. “I’m feeling that somebody fudged some paperwork," she said.
Another is April Marie Scott-Street, the wife of Philadelphia State Sen. Sharif Street, the son of former Mayor John F. Street. She said thieves used a counterfeit notarial seal with her name to complete a series of fraudulent transfers.
The acquisitions exemplify an especially virulent problem in Philadelphia that has grown as neighborhood after neighborhood has undergone gentrification: the outright theft of homes.
It is the illicit trade of grifters, who, in the search of suitable scores, scour public rolls for properties behind in taxes or mortgage payments, or simply held for decades by a single owner. Sometimes neighborhood gossip is enough to turn up a house all but abandoned by its owner. Once the mark is settled on, a deed is forged, sometimes with the aid of a compliant notary, and ownership is transferred to the thief. The property is then flipped for a quick profit.
Despite efforts to crack down on the practice, the city deeds office keeps approving bogus sales. While a person submitting a deed is asked to provide identification and be photographed, little more is done to check on the veracity of transactions they are recording.
A death in a heat wave
Gail Harrison was a faithful congregant at Miller Memorial Baptist Church, four blocks from her rowhouse.
“She was always very giving," recalled Dawn Duppins, a fellow parishioner. “She used to bring us little books and gifts and mugs.”
A smart woman of strong opinions, she nevertheless showed signs of mental illness. She talked loudly to herself. She was a hoarder. Her house was so jammed with possessions that the front door was blocked. Bemused neighbors would watch her come and go through a porch window.
Harrison shared the house at Seybert Street near Master with her parents until they died. She herself died there at age 59 of heat stress on a brutally hot summer weekend in 2011.
The house sat vacant for years while Brewerytown began to change.
Long a rough section of North Philadelphia, the neighborhood was now attracting young, affluent buyers willing to cross the once impassable barrier of Girard Avenue. Property values jumped.
Then, out of the blue, a small crew of workers arrived and began clearing out Harrison’s belongings.
According to city records, a woman named Beth Knight had bought the house from Harrison, then four years dead. The deed, filed in 2016, bore Harrison’s notarized signature from the year before.
Two weeks after the “sale,” Knight transferred the house to her husband, William Ernest Johnson III.
Johnson had just left a halfway house after spending 16 years in prison. At age 20, he had been convicted of two crimes that left victims badly injured. In one, he led police on a chase that ended when his stolen car hit another vehicle, crushing the legs of two men in it. In the other, he and two confederates robbed a pair of jewelry stores. Those hurt included a shopper and a guard struck with hammers.
In a telephone interview, Knight, 44, said that Johnson had put together the purchase of Harrison’s home. “I’ve never exactly met Gail,” she said. "It wasn’t a traditional settlement, by far.”
Told that Harrison had been dead for years, Knight said she was astounded.
“My heart sinks. I’m speechless” she said. “I will be contacting William to find out what the hell — excuse me — I just need to talk to him to find out basically what he knows about this.”
She added, “I’m a by-the-book person. I’m a hardworking American, a law-abiding citizen.”
Knight finally begged off the call. “I feel sick right now," she said.
About 10 minutes later, her husband rang.
Yes, Johnson said, he had dealt directly with a woman who claimed to be Gail Harrison.
“That’s exactly who she says she was,” he said.
Asked about his pattern of acquiring houses from dead owners, Johnson said he had been “bamboozled” by a series of impostors.
So many times? “How many times in life have you made the same mistake?” he replied.
Johnson said he would happily relinquish properties — provided the rightful owners could prove their ownership “in the court of law.”
"If someone has a legitimate argument, I don’t want nothing that’s not mine,” he said.
As for his criminal record, Johnson said: “Can a guy be a convicted felon and turn his life around? Yes he can.”
The initial transfer of Harrison’s home was accomplished with a deed bearing the signature and seal of notary public Rovella Johnson, a former sister-in-law of William Johnson.
In an interview, Rovella Johnson, 50, denied notarizing the sale transferring Harrison’s house to Knight. That deed was a forgery, she said.
She did, however, notarize the deed transferring the property from Knight to William Johnson, she said.
"I never notarized anything for Ms. Harrison. I never knew who she was,” Rovella Johnson said. "It was between Beth Knight and William Johnson. How Gail Harrison got involved, I’m really not sure. I think it’s horrible.”
She added: “I think it’s bad juju to be spiteful or disrespectful of the dead."
Johnson sold the property for $50,000 to a developer, who renovated and resold it for $250,000 last year to Melvin Powell III, whose father helped with the purchase. They had no idea about its tangled title.
“My biggest question right now is whether my son owns the house and whether he has to leave,” the father said. “It’s pretty scary.”
Johnson had a different concern. Soon after finishing his conversation with a reporter about the transaction, he called back.
“I wanted to know if I could offer you something,” he said. “What is it going to take for you not to mention my wife’s name?”
He hung up abruptly when he was told no deal could be made.
A series of suspect sales
The taking of Gail Harrison’s house was the first of a string of suspicious acquisitions involving Johnson. To look into them is to find more dead sellers, doctored deeds, and a city bureaucracy blind to it all. The thefts took place so quietly that in two cases the relatives did not know about the illegitimate sales until they were contacted by the Inquirer.
One theft required the forging of two signatures — those of longtime companions Harriett Dunn and Dorcas Moone. Dunn had been dead a quarter century and Moone a decade when someone signed their names to the deed selling their three-story house at 1323 N. 27th St., another Brewerytown address. Moone’s signature on the deed misspelled her name.
“They have no heart, no sympathy whatsoever.”
Michael and Damon Dunn, Dunn’s nephews, were stunned by the audacity of stealing an entire house. Michael, a worker at Philadelphia International Airport, recalled how the brothers as boys had stayed with their aunt on weekends and school vacations.
“It’s wrong,” he said of the thefts. “But somebody’s gonna get caught. Action need to be taken.”
"They have no heart, no sympathy whatsoever,“ said Damon, a police detective in Austin, Texas, referring to the thieves.
The deed stealing their aunt’s home was filed with the city on June 23, 2017. It listed a woman named Samantha Wilcox as the “buyer.” Records show Wilcox later transferred the property to William E. Johnson III.
Wilcox was listed as the buyer in another suspicious transaction recorded the very same day the Dunn/Moone deed was filed. In fact, the two deeds bear the same time stamp, suggesting they were brought in together.
In the other sale, Wilcox was recorded as taking ownership of 848 N. 40th St. in West Philadelphia from Nora Jackson. Jackson’s grown children say the sale could not have happened: Jackson was 91 and living in North Carolina at the time she purportedly signed the documents.
“It is absolutely a bogus sale,” said Gregory Jackson, a son. “Because my mother didn’t show for that signature, for sure."
The Jackson family has filed suit to reclaim the property. Even if they win, they could be out up to $10,000 in court fees and lawyer bills.
Jackson’s family hired a private investigator to track down Wilcox, with no success. They don’t believe she exists. The Inquirer, too, could find no trace of Wilcox in regional public records.
Beyond Wilcox, the Dunn/Moone and Jackson transactions shared the same title company, Pine Hill Abstract LLC, and the same notary, Victor Miller.
Reached by the Inquirer, Miller also said he was fooled by impostors.
”They came to me. They showed me their ID," Miller, 66, said. “I’m just a small-time person. They took advantage of me.”
He will need to prove that to state officials, who filed a civil complaint in November against Miller.
The complaint, which could cost Miller his license, cites his validation of the signatures of Dunn and Moone. He was also cited for failing to alert the state to his 2010 convictions for driving under the influence and marijuana possession.
As for Pine Hill Abstract, it is fictional, too.
No company with that name is registered with the state. The firm’s address, as listed in the sales documents, is a house on a residential block in West Philadelphia. The home’s owner, Denise Purrington, 56, was confounded when a reporter stopped by.
“There’s no business [here],” she said. “Why would they say that?"
Along with a fake title company, some of the deals involve counterfeit notary stamps.
One appears to have been used in the 2017 acquisition of 2515 W. Ingersoll St., another Brewerytown rowhouse. It had been owned by James Strickland, a forklift operator and former World War II sergeant who died at age 93. His family insists Strickland never sold the house to anyone.
“I think it’s awful and I feel so frustrated,” said Beverly Strickland, his daughter. “I really wish there was something I could do about it.”
Strickland’s signature on the disputed deed was notarized by one Tracey McDonald. It bore that signature and what purported to be her official stamp.
There is no such notary by that name in Pennsylvania. There is, however, one named Tracy McDonald. Reached by phone, she said the Strickland document is a forgery and cites the misspelling as proof.
“It was very upsetting. I definitely hope they get caught,” she said. “Thank God they didn’t spell my name right.”
Thumbprints and records checks
Philadelphia officials have been struggling for years to get a grip on deed fraud. For more than a decade, the city has been alerting homeowners by mail whenever a deed selling their properties is processed. People taking deeds to City Hall to record transfers are asked to show identification and be photographed.
Still, critics say more could be done.
Some urge that require notaries be required to take thumbprints of sellers. California has done this for almost 25 years.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner supports the step as well, his spokesperson said. The requirement is also backed by the National Notary Association.
“It is a strong deterrent to forgery, as it represents absolute proof of the signer’s identity, and proves the signer was present before the notary,” the association has said.
Mayor Kenney, through a spokesperson, said the state legislature should consider tightening rules.
State legislators from Philadelphia have introduced bills to mandate thumbprints, but the legislation has never made it out of committee.
In 2014, the state legislature overhauled the law governing notaries. As part of the measure, state regulators were given the option to conduct criminal-records checks on notaries. The state Secretary of State’s Office, the overseer of notaries, has opted not to.
Michael Froehlich, a managing attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia and an expert on the stolen-homes issue, and others have urged another change: Computerize deed records so notaries involved in multiple suspect sales can be more easily identified.
A final indignity
Yet another notary involved in Johnson’s transactions is April Marie Scott-Street, 39, the wife of the state senator. Her signature and stamp are found on four deeds recorded last year transferring properties to Johnson.
In a statement, Scott-Street said: “I did not sign/notarize any of the deeds that you provided to me. ... The signatures and stamps are forgeries.”
She added: “I do not know any of the individuals identified in the documents.”
The signatures purporting to be hers varied from deed to deed, sometimes including her middle name, Marie, sometimes dropping it and sometimes abbreviating it.
Her last name appears to be misspelled as well on the deed transferring the 3135 Agate St. home of Alex Krasheninnikow to Johnson.
For Krasheninnikow, it seems to have been a final indignity after a very hard life.
In a taped recollection kept at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Krasheninnikow spoke of how, as a child in Ukraine, he was forced into hiding with his family, barely escaping the Babi Yar massacre in which 33,000 Jewish residents of Kiev, his home, were killed. After his family’s hiding place was revealed by an informant, 9-year-old Krasheninnikow was sent by freight car to a Nazi concentration camp, where he spent two years.
After liberation, he and his parents fled the Soviet Union. “Straight to Philadelphia we arrived,” he said.
In his new hometown, Krasheninnikow, or Alex K., as his friends called him, was a regular at leftist protests. He loved a good argument and to play the accordion and sing. Like others in this story, he died alone, at about 83. He was found dead in his Agate Street house in September 2017. In cleaning out the house, the city found more than $100,000 in cash, neighbors said.
About nine months after Krasheninnikow died, city records show, Johnson went to City Hall to file the deed acquiring the property. The deed states that Krasheninnikow had appeared before Scott-Street on March 12, 2018, to approve the sale. City clerks in the deed room stamped the document as received that same day.
Johnson said this all puzzled him. He was adamant, as he was when questioned about the other questionable sales, that he had played no part in anything unusual.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about," he said. “That’s not me. I didn’t purchase no Agate Street.”
How to get help
Here are some key resources if you have become a victim of house theft:
Philadelphia Records Department, which oversees the filling of deeds: 215-686-2261, email@example.com
District Attorney’s Office’s Economic Crimes Unit: 215-686-9902.
Philadelphia Police Department recommends calling 911 to report a house theft.
Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office: 215-686-3530.
Save Your Home Philly Hotline: at 215-334-HOME (4663). Hotline provides legal help to low-income people.
Philadelphia Bar Association: 215-238-6333 or www.LRIS.PhiladelpiaBar.org.
Community Legal Services: walk-ins at 1410 W. Erie Ave. Monday, Wednesday, or Friday mornings or call 215-227-2400. More information can be found at clsphila.org.