Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner promised Thursday to work with the Kenney administration and City Council to crack down on housing theft in the city.
He did so as he announced the arrest of William E. Johnson III for “a multiyear conspiracy” to forge deeds and fake notary stamps to steal seven houses from dead or aged owners in gentrifying neighborhoods. The alleged thefts were detailed in an Inquirer investigative article last month.
Krasner said Johnson’s arrest reflected his effort to reshape the office’s economic crime unit to help “the poor and the vulnerable“ as "opposed to insurance companies.” Krasner noted that one of his predecessors as DA had a rule not to pursue cumbersome and paperwork-heavy house-theft cases unless a thief took more than 20 homes. He did not name the district attorney in question.
"Imagine a world where we only went after car thieves when they hit number 20,″ Krasner said. “Well, that is not how it works anymore.”
Krasner cautioned that it would take more than arrests alone to stem housing theft, which he described as an insidious crime that “robs low-income families, especially African Americans and Latinos, of the opportunity to build intergenerational wealth.” He said elected officials across state and city government had to work together to close the legislative and regulatory loopholes exploited by thieves.
Krasner was joined at the news conference by the city’s records commissioner, James Leonard, and four Council members, David Oh, Cherelle Parker, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, and Mark Squilla.
Quiñones-Sánchez noted that the city had been trying to get a grip on the problem for almost a decade and praised Krasner’s new emphasis, saying “legislating with no enforcement and no consequences” meant little. She also said the process for verifying the legitimacy of deeds remained “subpar.”
Krasner and Leonard, whose agency processes deeds, declined to endorse specific reforms, saying they wanted to brainstorm with other experts first. Michael Froehlich, the managing attorney for the home-ownership unit of Community Legal Services, who also took part in the news conference, said participants would hold a follow-up meeting next week.
“I was happy to see the district attorney up there, because there has not been a lot of energy and focus on this issue,” Froehlich said afterward. “I am optimistic that people are going to get together.”
Philadelphia has taken steps in the past to address the issue, but it remains a virulent problem. To halt frauds early, the city’s deed room notifies owners of record every time a property is sold. It also requests people who submit a deed for official recording to provide identification and be photographed. Documentary proof is required from anyone claiming to be an heir inheriting a property.
Still, some critics have suggested that the city, like California, could adopt a system under which notaries would have to keep thumbprints of people who buy homes, a step that advocates say would make it easier to catch thieves and deter the crime in the first place.
In response to a question at the news conference, Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Esack, who led the investigation of Johnson, agreed that one reform worth exploring would be a check of sellers’ names against death records.
Johnson, 43, who turned himself in Wednesday, faces 50 felony counts and 13 misdemeanor counts in connection with the theft of the houses. He was still behind bars Thursday evening, having failed to post the $5,100 need to make bail. He has said nothing about his actions to authorities, prosecutors said.
He left state prison in 2016 after serving most of the previous two decades behind bars for a pair of 1995 convictions, one for leading police on a chase in a stolen car and the other for taking part in robberies of jewelry stores. People were badly injured in both crimes.
He was living in a prison halfway house in the summer of 2016 when he stole his first house, prosecutors said in their arrest affidavit. In that theft, prosecutors said, Johnson allegedly forged the signature of a woman who had died five years before.
In arrest papers, prosecutors suggested that the city’s policy of photographing and identifying those who bring in deeds was no deterrent to Johnson. He repeatedly brought in the fraudulent deeds and stood for a photograph, they said.
His documents were stamped as approved by notaries, a requirement of real estate sales. Esack said legitimate notaries were also victims in the case, including Tracy McDonald and April Marie Scott-Street. Their signatures and stamps had been forged.