The District Attorney’s Office has accused a 50-year-old man of using forged deeds and notary stamps to steal six properties in the city’s booming Point Breeze neighborhood.
Robert Stokes, who lives in the neighborhood, was charged with 47 counts of forgery, theft, and tampering with records.
Stokes, who has a long criminal record, filed his first forged deed to the city Records Department on Aug. 4, 2017, and his last two on Aug. 17 of that year, prosecutors said. He is alleged to have taken three lots in the 1500 block of South Lambert Street and three more in the same block of adjacent South Capitol Street, all near 21st and Dickinson Streets.
Lots in the gentrifying area sell for between $100,000 and $125,000, according to real estate broker Stuart Cohen of the Mike McCann Team/KW Philly agency.
In a common technique used by house thieves in the city, Stokes allegedly submitted bogus deeds, which bore the forged signatures of the owners and a notary who supposedly witnessed the transaction. In three instances, the owners were dead. One had been dead for 47 years
In three of the thefts, prosecutors said, Stokes quickly filed new deeds, using a legitimate notary, to transfer the properties to a business bearing his name. Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Esack, who heads the Economic Crime Unit, said the transfer appeared to be a way to obscure the thefts should a title company examine the sales histories of the lots.
Housing theft has grown as more neighborhoods have gentrified. The city Records Department logged 136 complaints of deed fraud last year, nearly doubling from the previous year. Esack said her unit fields as many as five calls a day from victims of property theft.
Last month, District Attorney Larry Krasner launched a crackdown on housing theft and organized a working group to find ways to close the loopholes that permit the thievery.
Esack worked on the investigation with Detectives Gerald Rocks and Kevin O’Gorman. They launched the inquiry after one victim realized that someone had forged his name on a fake deed. The victim called the District Attorney’s Office.
Stokes turned himself in Wednesday. His criminal record includes a conviction on a firearms charge and five arrests for drug dealing. His last drug-dealing case led to a three- to seven-year prison sentence.
Esack and her team last month charged William E. Johnson III, 43, with stealing multiple houses from the dead. Johnson is accused of forging signatures and notary approvals to take seven houses. As the Inquirer has reported, most of his acquisitions were in the Brewerytown area, another neighborhood of fast-rising property values.