For years, Orin Clybourn has been a notable success story among the army of entrepreneurs who scout Philadelphia for rundown properties to buy and “flip” for big bucks. He has quietly made more than $1 million this way.
The circumstances behind his purchases have been unusual.
In deal after deal, Clybourn has ended up owning real estate acquired from “sellers” who turn out to have been long dead.
With amazing luck, he has reported discovering unrecorded deeds from decades past that gave him control of newly valuable properties.
His acquisitions have repeatedly been built on a foundation of forgeries.
While making sizable profits, he has pleaded poverty in the courts, successfully filing “in forma pauperis” declarations to avoid paying legal fees in his real estate cases.
In sum, Clybourn and a tight circle of associates have made a small fortune filing a blizzard of dubious deeds and other questionable documents with the Philadelphia Records Department, the Register of Wills’ office, Orphans Court, and Common Pleas Court.
His long run of deals exposes the weak official oversight over property transfers in Philadelphia, where blatantly suspicious documents fail to trigger questions, let alone alarms. This lack of scrutiny has permitted an epidemic of land theft, with grifters using forged deeds to steal real estate across the city, targeting lots and houses in gentrifying neighborhoods with rising home values.
In Clybourn’s case, some have begun to fight back. Through dogged research, they have sketched out the remarkable range of Clybourn’s acquisitions and challenged the suspect stories behind many of them.
Kensington artist Jeff Carpenter took a stand. Carpenter did so after his dream of seeding his neighborhood with vest-pocket parks collided head-on with Clybourn’s agenda.
Carpenter moved to Kensington seven years ago, retrofitting a warehouse into a loftlike home and studio where he creates vibrantly colored paintings on Plexiglass. As he and other newcomers have poured into the neighborhood, where developers are seemingly erecting $400,000 townhouses on every corner, Carpenter set out to save some green grass and blue sky before it disappeared. He is president of Arcadia Commons, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting urban green space.
So far Arcadia Commons has created three small parks in the neighborhood. One was Kern Park, just off Frankford Avenue. Carpenter put up $80,000 of his own to buy the land to create the oasis.
Three years ago, he hoped to enlarge it by acquiring neighboring lots on Frankford Avenue that belonged to another nonprofit, long out of business.
To his chagrin, Carpenter discovered that Clybourn was claiming title to the very same ground.
In an ensuing courtroom struggle, Clybourn provided an extraordinary narrative to explain his ownership.
In 2012 or 2013 — he couldn’t recall the precise year — he and an uncle decided to clean out the house of a relative, Parthena Johnson, who had died 20 years earlier.
In the basement, in a water-damaged, “little, beaten-up file cabinet,” Clybourn said, they found never-recorded deeds for properties on Frankford Avenue that listed Johnson as the owner. One was for the very same lots Carpenter thought he had acquired for Kern Park. The deed was dated 1990. That meant Johnson invested in the real estate at age 78, two years before her death.
After the find, Clybourn’s uncle, as executor of her estate, filed the deeds with the city and then transferred ownership to Clybourn.
Unlike others upset about their dealings with Clybourn, Carpenter had the resources to fight back. Carpenter sued Clybourn. The two-year fight that followed cost Carpenter $101,000 in legal bills.
The artist proved himself a pretty good sleuth. He unearthed the death certificate for a founder of the defunct organization whose signature was on the deed selling the disputed lots. The founder died in 1979 — 11 years before he purportedly signed the document.
Carpenter also located Nives Milotich, 86, another founder listed on the deed. At a civil trial last fall, Milotich’s testimony was simple but devastating.
Carpenter’s attorney showed her the sales deed.
“Is that your signature, ma’am?”
“No,” replied Milotich.
Common Pleas Court Judge Gene D. Cohen agreed.
“The signatures on the 1990 deed are forgeries,” Cohen wrote in his opinion. “The Clybourn deed is void and Clybourn has no right, title or interest in the properties.”
“This whole thing stinks like a dead fish," Carpenter said in a recent interview.
Real estate love
The son of a landlord, Clybourn put his first big real estate deal in motion in 2002 at age 23. He took ownership of a rowhouse in the Ogontz section that he flipped for $70,000. Since then, Clybourn, now 40, and several associates have acquired more than two dozen properties. Most have been resold.
In a deposition in the Arcadia Commons fight, Clybourn described himself as a real estate investor “looking for deals in up-and-coming neighborhoods and either waiting, building or, you know, flipping property.”
“I love houses. I watch Flip or Flop every single day,” he testified, referring to the long-running HGTV show. “You know, it’s just what was meant to be for me.”
Clybourn didn’t respond to a telephone call, an email, and a letter left at his home. Brian Chacker, his lawyer in the Arcadia Commons dispute, declined comment.
In his deposition Clybourn said he had attended community college but didn’t graduate. A fitness buff, he’s posted YouTube videos of himself working out.
He has a criminal record. In 1999, a year after high school, he pleaded guilty with others to burglarizing nine apartments in Montgomery County. Clybourn served a brief prison sentence. A decade later, he was under Philadelphia prison supervision for more than two years for weapons violations after firing a gun in the air in a New Year’s Day celebration.
As it happens, Clybourn said he found another deed in the damp basement belonging to the late Parthena Johnson.
Dated 1975, this deed had Johnson purchasing another large lot on Frankford Avenue. The deed, also never filed with the city, listed the seller as a neighborhood resident, Henry Heron.
Heron is now dead, but his nephew, Dennis Heron, said in an interview that the deed for 1824 Frankford Ave. was bogus, just like the one for Arcadia Commons lots. He said Henry Heron’s signature on the document was an obvious forgery.
But by the time the Heron family learned about the sale, Clybourn had acquired the deed from his uncle — and taken a key legal step to solidify his ownership.
Showing a sophisticated grasp of real estate law, Clybourn filed a little-known motion, known as a “quiet title” suit, in which he asked a judge to bar, or “quiet,” any challenge to his ownership. A favorable ruling can make it easier to resell a property with a murky ownership history.
As part of that legal proceeding, Clybourn said he had served notice of his ownership on Henry Heron’s heirs. When none surfaced in court to oppose him, Clybourn won his suit by default.
Dennis Heron said the claim of service was as false as the signature on the deed. He said Clybourn never contacted anyone in his family. In fact, Heron said, no family member lived at the address at which Clybourn claimed his server twice hand-delivered notices.
Clybourn’s process server? Kairi Simmons, a Clybourn partner in real estate — and an accomplice in the 1990s burglaries that landed Clybourn in jail.
In filing this “quiet title” and others, Clybourn asked the court to declare him a pauper so he could forgo a $344 minimum filing fee.
The judge did so in the Heron case, unaware that Clybourn had been paid a total of $650,000 in real estate flips over the previous decade.
His hold on the deed affirmed, Clybourn quickly sold the lot to a developer for $251,000. A new four-story apartment building now stands there. The property is valued at $1.1 million.
Dennis Heron, 65, a retired advertising executive, is furious that someone would forge his late uncle’s name.
“That’s desecration," he said. “I think it’s horrible.”
A pattern takes shape
As Clybourn continued to pick up real estate in gentrifying Philadelphia neighborhoods, a pattern emerged.
Behind each deal is an initial transfer in which a longtime property owner gifts his or her holding to a son or daughter. Next, the property is recorded as being transferred to Clybourn or one of his associates.
Again and again, The Inquirer has determined that the signatures of the original owners were forgeries. As for the sons and daughters, they appear to be nonexistent.
In that early 2002 acquisition that led to his first big payment in real estate, for example, Delores White supposedly had first sold her house in the Ogontz section to a son, Joseph Brown — who then transferred it to Clybourn. This set up the $70,000 sale by Clybourn.
But in a recent interview, Delores White’s daughter, Wendy White, said her late mother had no son by that name. “I have no idea who Joseph Brown is,” White said.
As for her mother’s signature to sell the house at 6038 Ogontz Ave., the daughter said it was forged. Her mother had left Philadelphia for Arizona seven years before the supposed sale and had never sold the old property, her daughter said.
Her mother became aware that her house in Philadelphia had been stolen, but felt powerless.
“She was so upset about it,” Wendy White said. “She was depending on it for income.”
Signatures of the dead
In at least seven deals involving Clybourn or his associates, there’s a simple reason to be sure that the deeds were forged. In each case, the “signers” were dead at the time. At the most extreme, someone forged the name of a woman who had died 36 years before.
Consider how Clybourn became the owner of three contiguous lots on Susquehanna Avenue in North Philadelphia.
Before widow Evelyn Pryor died at age 62 in 1991, she ran a small produce store on the lots.
In a deal dated three years after her death, someone signed her name to a deed transferring the property to her “son,” William. Dated 1994, it was not filed with the city until 2010 — a delay that is a characteristic of many of the property transfers that end with Clybourn as owner.
In 2011, records say, William Pryor then sold the property to Clybourn.
In an interview, Evelyn Pryor’s daughter, Charlene, said her mother did not have a son named William.
For Charlene, the thefts rub raw a family tragedy. Her only brother, Samuel, was killed on the property in 1978 when he fell from the roof while cleaning gutters. He was 17. Charlene, then 7, watched him fall.
"It’s sad that people have to do things like that,” she said of property theft.
Her daughter was angrier. Patricia Carter denounced anyone ”who preys on the dead and on the uneducated, on people who don’t know their rights, and takes their inheritance.”
“You have to be the lowest of low" to steal from the deceased, she said. "You have to be not just desperate, but sinister.”
After acquiring the properties from the fictitious William Pryor, Clybourn once more filed a quiet title suit to nail down his hold on the lots. He sued the phantom Pryor, saying there were unspecified flaws in how the son had obtained the lots from his mother.
In court papers — filed, again, after Clybourn pleaded poverty — Clybourn claimed that his process server had twice handed notice to William at his home at 2760 N. 28th St.
Those would have been lucky encounters. Not only does William not exist, but no one lives at that address. It has been a vacant lot for years.
The process server was Candace Williams, Clybourn’s fiancee and the mother of two of his children.
In recent years, Clybourn has been trying to sell the lots for as much as $297,000.
In the last year, Clybourn and his circle have suddenly run into resistance. They lost the Arcadia Commons case and faced other court fights, too. In a stinging ruling, another judge voided a deal as involving a nonexistent seller.
The ruling came in a case that flared after Williams, Clybourn’s fiancee, emerged as the owner of a property at 1547 N. Franklin St., near Temple. Clybourn signed the deed as her proxy.
In the deed filed in November 2017, Williams is listed as having bought the lot from a Martinique Bell, who, according to city records, had been given it two months earlier by its longtime owner, George Bell.
In fact, George Bell died in 2002, according to his death certificate, 15 years before his name was signed to the deed transferring the property to Martinique Bell. According to his family, Bell was not related to anyone named Martinique.
In early 2018, developers Netanel and Shimon Levi were negotiating with a real daughter of George Bell to buy the lot when they were startled to see an ad offering the ground for sale for $125,000. They sued Williams. (Williams did not respond to a request for comment for this article.)
“This is a stolen property and defendant Martinique Bell was ‘created’ for an intermediate transaction to further distort the theft of the property,” wrote their attorney, Mark B. Goodheart.
After Williams didn’t surface to mount a defense, Common Pleas Judge Paula Patrick stripped ownership of the property from her. As for Martinique Bell, the judge officially deemed her “a fictitious person.”
A doctored death certificate
Clybourn is a defendant in yet another recent court battle. The prize is a lot at 1914 Fernon St. in Point Breeze, one of Philadelphia’s hot spots for gentrification and zooming property values.
This contest pivots not on a challenged deed but on an allegation of a phony heir.
In the transaction at issue, Kairi Simmons, 39, filed papers last year with Orphans Court and the Register of Wills’ office claiming to be the grandson and heir of the lot’s late owner, Frank Manzo. Simmons filed his claim four decades after Manzo had died.
His filing was approved by Orphans Court Judge George Overton in a day; Register of Wills Ronald Donatucci signed off in 10 days.
Simmons was named administrator of the Manzo estate in July 2018. The next month, he transferred 1914 Fernon to Clybourn. As it turns out, Clybourn had been using Ancestry.com to research the Manzo family tree. His interest is visible on the site, which stamps research with the name of users.
Soon after acquiring the lot, Clybourn resold it to a developer for $115,000.
But a lawsuit filed by Joseph Pavia, a relative of Manzo’s late wife, has set out to unwind all of that.
The suit, filed against Clybourn, contends that Simmons is an impostor with no relationship to Manzo. "Kairi Simmons is not related to Frank Manzo by blood or marriage and is not an heir,” the lawsuit said.
Pavia and others are the dead man’s true descendants, according to the suit.
The case has laid bare a series of crude forgeries and suspicious documents that went unnoticed by Overton and Donatucci.
Most striking, Simmons filed two different versions of a crucial document.
In Orphans Court, he filed what appears to be an unaltered version of Frank Manzo’s death certificate from 1972.
In the Register of Wills’ office, he filed the very same death certificate, but with blatant modifications. In this one, the name of Manzo’s wife was blotted out and his marital status was changed to “unmarried.”
Obscuring Grace Manzo’s name blinded officials to the fact that Frank Manzo had been survived by a wife. She died in 1988. Had the office known he was married, policy called for a records check to see if she had left an estate. That would have quickly shown she had named an heir years before.
To support his supposed ties to the Manzo family, Simmons also filed what he purported to be his official birth certificate. The typed form misspelled his birth month as Janurary. His papers spelled his mother’s name two ways.
Simmons would not speak to a reporter. “I just don’t have the time," he said.
In recent months, Pavia has won a series of victories. Notably, Donatucci reversed himself in April, vacating his original order appointing Simmons administrator of Frank Manzo’s estate. He installed Pavia instead.
Attorney Anthony Bernard Quinn, Pavia’s lawyer, is still pursuing his suit alleging fraud. Quinn sued Clybourn as well as the developers who bought the lot from him. The developers plan a new three-story home at the site. Next door, a sleek new building sold in May for $412,000.
“Leading the gentrification of your favorite neighborhoods” is a slogan of the developer, GM Home. The firm’s lawyer declined comment.
So far, Quinn has been unable to locate Clybourn. He predicted Clybourn wouldn’t fight the suit.
"He’s already been paid,” Quinn said. “He’s gone.”
How To Get Help
Philadelphia Records Department, which oversees the filing of deeds: 215-686-2261, records.info.@phila.gov
District Attorney office’s Economic Crime Unit: 215-686-9902
Philadelphia Police Department: 911 to report a house theft
Save Your Home Philly Hotline: 215-334-HOME (4663). Hotline provides legal help to low-income people
Philadelphia Bar Association: 215-238-63333, www.LRIS.PhiladelphiaBar.org
Community Legal Services: walk-ins at 1410 W. Erie Ave., Monday, Wednesday or Friday mornings or call 215-227-2400, www.clsPhila.org
Jeff Carpenter, of Arcadia Commons, is organizing an advocacy organization for victims of house theft. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org