After allegedly stealing nearly two dozen properties in Philadelphia, three foreign nationals appear to have fled the country with their profits, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office says.
Prosecutors Tuesday made public arrests warrants naming the men — Demitri Premislov, 71, an Israeli, and Sergiejus Kolomyjcevas, 53, and Algirdas Tamulionis, 58, both Lithuanians — who face more than 200 counts of forgery, theft, and records-tampering. They are charged with stealing 21 properties in neighborhoods across the city, from West Philadelphia to North Philadelphia and Germantown.
Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Esack said the three men stole the houses with forged deeds between April 2017 and June 2018.
Esack, a top official in the office’s economic and cyber crime unit, said the suspects were in the United States on temporary visas and are believed to have left the country. She said he hoped the pending warrants would deter them from returning or lead to their arrest if they do.
The men used ploys that have become routine in housing thefts, a growing problem in Philadelphia. They scouted targets in gentrifying neighborhoods and then forged and filed bogus deeds transferring the properties to themselves. In all but a few of the thefts, the actual owners were dead at the time of the alleged sales.
As a check on fraud, signatures on deeds must be verified by notaries. But prosecutors said that the notary signature and stamps were also forged.
In such crimes, thieves typically try to flip the properties as quickly as possible, to cash out before heirs discover their losses. Of the 21 properties, 13 were resold for a total of at least $470,000, city real estate records show.
It’s difficult to know how much of this was real profit. Prosecutors are looking into the buyers in some of the resales to see if the sales were merely another round of paperwork to bury the original theft and fool title companies.
For the price of blank deed forms, housing fraudsters will sometime file multiple fake deeds to create a trail of false transactions before they sell the property to an unsuspecting buyer.
“They want to flip, flip, flip down the road,” Esack said. “The title companies are only going to go back so far.”
The arrest warrants date to April 15, Feb. 11, and last August; prosecutors held back from making them public until all three had been filed. Investigation is continuing, Esack said.
Some of the resales may have been wrapped up after the men fled. Premislov used a notary working at the U.S. Embassy in Israel to verify his signature on one resale, deed records show.
The deed was filed electronically. This spared Premislov from having his identity checked and photograph taken, as would have happened if he had gone in person to the deed room in City Hall. That procedure is a check to deter fraud.
In a typical “sale” among the 21 at issue, prosecutors said Kolomyjcevas filed a deed with the city on April 18, 2017, to buy a property in the 400 block of Winton Street in South Philadelphia. The deed said he bought it from Susanne Walton, who had been dead for 48 years.
Three months later, he sold the property to a firm headed by Mikhail Albegov in an electronically filed deed in which Albegov’s signature was notarized in Germany. Prosecutors said they have been able to learn little about Albegov, who also did business with the other two men sought in the warrants.
Last fall, Albegov sold the Winton Street property for $113,000. In the arrest warrant, prosecutors said the 2018 buyer told them he had no idea the house was stolen and had already spent $220,000 to rehab it.
Esack unraveled the complex cases together with Police Officer Mathew Raudenbush and Detective Sgt. Gerald Rocks, both with the economic crimes unit. They began their inquiry after the grandson of a Queen Village man called the District Attorney’s Office when he discovered that his grandfather’s house had been stolen by Kolomyjcevas with a forged signature.
The grandfather had died in 1954, and the thief apparently settled upon his house as a target after consulting public records that showed the family owed taxes on it. This, too, is a common way thieves identify property for theft, Esack said.