Three years ago, Tonya Bell went to City Hall and discovered that she was dead.
And that her house had been stolen.
She learned these things when she looked at the deed for a property she owned in Germantown. In the deed, she had been declared dead by a man she had never heard of. He had named himself her sole heir and taken ownership of her house for $1.
In the years that followed, the saga of her stolen house took many twists and turns, few of them good for Bell.
She learned that the notary who approved the $1 sale to "Braheem Hart" later admitted she never met the "heir" and helped fabricate the paperwork as a favor to her cousin.
She learned that a company that renovates and resells homes had ended up the owner of her property and resold it for almost $300,000.
Without ever contacting her, the firm filed legal papers declaring that she had no claim on the property and accusing her of having obtained it by fraud.
She also learned a hard lesson about asking for help in Philadelphia. She reached out to the Records Department, the Sheriff's Office, the Police Department, and the District Attorney's Office. Nobody assisted her. After a year, a private lawyer said she had no case and dumped her as a client.
Her story also exposed the empty promise of the city's highly touted reforms to crack down on the theft of houses, a problem in Philadelphia for decades now.
>> READ MORE: It's outrageously easy for someone to steal your house in Philadelphia (published Aug. 7, 2000)
By law, those reforms required officials to ask people filing deeds to show identification and death certificates to prove they are rightful heirs — and for the deeds office to take a picture of the filers and keep a photocopy of their ID.
Nothing like that happened here.
A substantial stone twin
Bell, 61, is retired now, after a career working for a pair of Philadelphia civil rights leaders, the late C. Delores Tucker and the late Samuel Evans. She is taking classes at the University of Pennsylvania to complete her bachelor's degree and caring for her infirm mother. Bell, by nature, is curious. She's meticulous and very determined, too.
"I believe this is bigger than me. This has been happening to many people," Bell said recently, referring to the heist of her house. "I've been in the civil rights movement. It's not unusual for us to be fighting for our rights. And that can take a long time."
She and her 87-year-old mother have lived for years in a rowhouse on Portico Street in lower Germantown. It cost her about $27,000 in 1993.
In 2002, she bought a nicer house, a few miles north in Germantown, near the border with Mount Airy. It is a substantial stone twin on Greene Street, near Duval.
She paid only a nominal $1 but with the understanding that she would pay off the owner's tax debts. The seller was Linda Penny, a niece of Tucker, Pennsylvania's first black female secretary of state. Bell dated Penny's brother for many years.
Bell intended to move into the Greene Street house after she fashioned a first-floor apartment for her mother, who suffers from arthritis. As the years passed, though, they stayed at Portico.
The Greene Street property sat vacant, as Bell worked to refashion it inside. For years, receipts show, Bell kept paying property taxes (after first putting up $33,000 to pay off Penny's back taxes) and repairing the house ($4,000 to fix the basement and front walkway, among many other expenses).
All of this was for naught.
The first sign of trouble surfaced in late 2015. Driving by the Greene Street property, Bell saw that someone had torn off the porch. Fresh lumber was nearby.
Bell checked city records online. She discovered something alarming — she was no longer listed as the owner of the house.
Bell went to City Hall to pull the actual documents. A clerk handed her a four-page deed. It attested that in 2014, one "Braheem Hart, sole heir to Tonya Bell, deceased," had bought her house for $1.
The deed also declared that "the said Tonya Bell departed this life on." No death date was given. Hart hadn't bothered to complete the sentence.
Because it was an intra-family transfer, Hart paid no transfer tax.
The deed included the signature and seal of notary public Lelia L. Hilliard, declaring that Hart had appeared before her in November 2014, provided proof of his identity, and executed the sale.
Much later, Hilliard would admit that wasn't true.
For at least two decades now, thieves have been stealing houses with regularity in Philadelphia.
Given the city's vast store of vacant homes – properties abandoned by owners as relatives die or mortgage bills and taxes accrue – and its ever-shifting number of gentrifying neighborhoods, grifters know they can often make a killing by stealing a house and then quickly reselling it for a profit to an unsuspecting buyer. It's a crime with two victims — the original (usually absentee) owner and the new (unsuspecting) buyer.
>> READ MORE: Police officer probed in theft of homes (published Dec. 2, 2012)
Periodically, law enforcement cracks down. In 2014, federal prosecutors put away one thief for six years for recruiting people to pose as heirs and estate executors in phony sales. Investigators said he had pocketed $200,000 from three deals alone.
In 2009, city prosecutors broke up a 15-member ring, including three notaries, who had stolen and resold more than 80 houses in Kensington. Then-District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham said the gang had had a simple motivation: "breathtaking, bold and unapologetic greed."
>> READ MORE: Philadelphia real estate fraud ring broken (published Feb. 12, 2009)
The District Attorney's Office currently has 50 thefts under investigation, it said.
All that thieves need to do is hoodwink Philadelphia's Records Department and its gullible and often careless deed room. All that takes is putting down a series of lies on blank deed forms easily obtained online or at stationery stores. A crooked notary gives the fake deed legitimacy.
The problem is complicated by the passivity of the Records Department — not to mention the sheer volume of paper it processes (145,000 documents a year).
As Records Commissioner James P. Leonard said in a recent interview: "We're not a fact-finding or investigative agency."
Indeed, the agency, once notorious for its backlog of unprocessed deeds, has faced legal pressure to simply stamp deeds and move them along.
District Attorney Larry Krasner is looking for fresh ways to attack the problem. His spokesperson, Ben Waxman, says Krasner wants to both toughen enforcement — in part by cracking down on crooked notaries — and to better educate people on how to block thievery when a relative dies.
The city's statehouse delegation and City Council have long pursued remedies, with mixed results. In 2014, the state legislature officially urged the secretary of state to have notaries undergo a criminal-records check. The secretary's office hasn't done that. Proposals to require notaries to take and keep thumbprints of filers have made no headway.
In Philadelphia, Council passed a reform law in 2010. The measure required the deeds office to demand ID from filers. Clerks must also photocopy the identification and ask to photograph the filers.
People who say they are heirs must prove it with records from the city register of deeds, such as letters of administration for an estate.
Asked about Tonya Bell's house, Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for Mayor Kenney, said the Records Department had no photograph or ID on file for Braheem Hart. He added: "This matter is under investigation."
Dunn acknowledged that no one asked Hart for proof that he was an heir. At first, Dunn said the law didn't require any because Hart was a "sole heir" and as such needed no approvals from the register of wills' office. After the register of wills' legal staff disputed this, Dunn backtracked.
He said, "We recognize that the failure to request supporting documentation in the case of so-called 'sole heir' deeds is a flaw in the deed-recording review process."
In the future, he said, the city will demand evidence, "such as a death certificate, proof of familial relationship, and documents relating to estate administration."
A mysterious figure
As Bell pored over the records, she absorbed shock after shock.
She had no idea who Braheem Hart was. What she did know was he was no relative. Bell is an only child. She never married and has no children and, aside from her mother, all her relatives are in Virginia.
Bell thinks Hart was a made-up name. "I think that's a fictitious person," she said.
Moreover, Bell learned something else: Hart himself lost control of the house shortly after stealing it.
As it happens, Hart had targeted a property with overdue taxes. After paying off the tax debts of Penny, the previous owner, and then staying current, Bell fell behind by about 2008.
In 2014, even while Hart was working his scheme, the city took the Greene Street property to sheriff's sale for back taxes. The sheriff's sale paperwork listed Hart as the owner.
Perhaps because Hart was now controlling her property, Bell said she never saw any of the letters sent to the Greene Street address warning of the impending sheriff's sale. Nor, she said, did she see the notices posted there.
In the end, her Greene Street house sold for $40,500 to Affordable Homes Group Inc., a New Hope-based company whose owners have bought and resold numerous homes in Philadelphia in recent years.
The following year, Bell would suffer one more blow.
Concerned about the provenance of its new asset, Affordable Homes filed suit in 2015, asking a judge to declare that an array of past owners of the Greene Street house had no stake in the property. It asked the court to wipe out any claims by Braheem Hart, "all unknown heirs of Tonya Bell, deceased," and even Linda Penny, the woman who had sold it to Bell 13 years before.
The firm never won the court order. After eight months, it gave up and dropped the suit. It quit after a judge warned that the case would be dismissed unless the company could find Hart, any other Bell "heirs," and others. Bell, for her part, was listed in public city voting records at her Portico Street address, but no one contacted her.
Then Affordable Homes tried something else — a maneuver that other real estate experts said in interviews they found troubling. Lawyer Lawrence Avallone, a veteran in the real estate area, called it "weird" and "baloney."
In late 2015, the company filed a new deed declaring that Bell's original purchase of the house in 2002 "appears to have been fraudulent" and was "void and of no effect."
Its evidence? Affordable Homes cited its own unsuccessful lawsuit — the one it had dropped.
In the new document, Affordable Homes struck a deal with the two grown daughters of Linda Penny, who had died in 2007. The daughters signed paperwork declaring they were the true last owners of the Greene Street property before the sheriff's sale, but for $1 they were giving up any right to the property. It is unclear why they did so. They could not be reached for comment.
Virginijus Anusauskas, president of Affordable Homes, said in an email that he had little information to share, but recalled that after buying the house at sheriff's sale, his firm found a "mess with previous title transfers so we hired the attorney to resolve it." Laurence Mester, the Philadelphia lawyer who filed the 2015 lawsuit, could not be reached for comment. Stuart Graff, of Assurance Abstract Corp., which worked with Affordable Homes regarding the property, declined to answer questions.
A contacts spreadsheet
Tonya Bell is a fighter. And the kind of careful strategist who keeps files, documents, and a spreadsheet with dates of every contact she has had with officialdom.
Her records are dispiriting.
When she called the District Attorney's Office, she said, an office staffer told her that Hart had committed no crime and that prosecutors could not assist her.
"There is a crime because this person is referring to me being dead, and I'm not dead," Bell replied.
Asked about that recently, the DA's Office confirmed that an office paralegal had offered no help from the agency but had rather urged Bell to call the police.
Waxman, the DA's spokesperson, said one reason prosecutors hadn't pursued the complaint was that Bell had lost the property at a sheriff's sale. It was unclear why that would matter.
Waxman also said one theft alone was not enough to trigger an inquiry.
"This case was properly referred to the Philadelphia Police Department for investigation as there were no other deeds recorded in the name Braheem Hart and the notary was not on our radar as a problem notary," he said. "An isolated one-house fraudulent transfer is not the type of complaint that would be handled by the investigations division."
City Councilman William K. Greenlee, who spearheaded the 2010 city reforms, said he had heard rumors that prosecutors would not investigate a single instance of house theft, but was troubled to see that confirmed.
"I have to admit I don't understand that," Greenlee said. "You don't wait for people to steal three cars."
Waxman later expanded the office statement to say the office was beefing up its efforts to combat house theft and stood ready to prosecute even a single rip-off.
Bell also reached out to the state secretary of state, who regulates notaries. Her complaint triggered an investigation of Lelia Hilliard, who had attested to the existence of Braheem Hart. In May, the office completed a protracted probe by filing civil charges against Hilliard over the Greene Street property. She faces a $1,500 fine and possible loss of her license.
In the charging document, the agency wrote that Hilliard a year ago "admitted that she notarized the deed, signed by Braheem Hart, without the individual appearing before her" and that she had "admitted she notarized this document as a favor to her cousin." The cousin was not named in the document.
Hilliard, 61, a notary for 16 years, declined comment when reached at her Center City workplace.
Bell took another step. She called into a radio station where Sheriff Jewell Williams fielded questions on the air. Williams put her in touch with his DART squad — the Defendant Asset Recovery Team. Its job is to track down people whose properties were sold at sheriff's sales and to return any excess money to them, once back taxes and mortgage bills are paid. Williams has touted its work, though his office admits that, due to accounting issues, it has no idea how much surplus money it has collected but has been unable to distribute.
After an initial contact with the DART staff, Bell did not hear from the Sheriff's Office for a year, and then not until a reporter asked the office about how it had responded to her case.
Last month, a black car pulled up at Bell's Portico Street home. The driver explained it was Sheriff Williams' vehicle. The driver was there to hand-deliver a check for the surplus money from the sale. At last, the Sheriff's Office was satisfied that Bell had been an owner of the Greene Street house.
Bell's tax debt was $13,000 in taxes, interests, and fees. Affordable Homes had bid the $40,500. But before cutting a check for Bell, the Sheriff's Office, as is standard policy, dipped into the proceeds to pay off thousands of dollars in other charges — liens for repairs by city crews when Penny owned the house 23 years ago, money for newspaper ads for the sheriff's sale, money for the auctioneer, money for transfer taxes, and more. The office refused to explain all the charges.
In the end, Bell received $2,213.07.
As for the Greene Street house, the place was extensively renovated, city records show — and resold by Affordable Homes for $299,900.
As for Braheem Hart, he's in the wind.