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.
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.”
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.