INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
On the surface it was Real Estate 101: willing buyer, willing seller, agreed-on price.
As it turned out, the seller did not own the property and the owner was anything but willing to sell.
After a four-year investigation, District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham announced charges yesterday against 15 people alleged to have operated a house-stealing ring that fraudulently sold 82 houses to naive and non-English-speaking buyers in Kensington and other disadvantaged city neighborhoods.
"These 82 individuals or couples thought they were paying for the title to a home," Abraham said at a news conference. "They never knew until it was too late that what they bought was nothing."
Using four notaries public, members of the ring scouted the city for abandoned or vacant properties, created bogus paperwork that made it appear they owned the houses, and then sold them, often for cash.
"It's become regular and a cottage industry in this city," said Abraham, who estimated that the 15 netted a total of at least $400,000 through the sales.
Although the ring has been linked to 82 fraudulent sales, Abraham said, the probe discovered about 500 other fraudulent sales citywide.
In addition to money lost to the thieves in the sales, Abraham said some buyers also lost money spent repairing the properties. The legal owners were forced to spend money to evict the buyers and re-establish ownership, and the city lost untold revenue from the real estate transfer tax.
Eight of the 15 people were already in custody, Abraham said, and police had arrest warrants and were searching for the remaining seven.
Most of the fraudulent sales were in the 22d and 23d Police Districts - North Philadelphia west of 10th Street to Fairmount Park and north from Poplar Street to Lehigh Avenue - and the 24th District, which includes Kensington and Port Richmond along the Delaware River from Lehigh Avenue north to the Frankford Creek and from the river northwest to G Street.
Abraham said a dozen fraudulent sales were in the 35th Police District, which includes West and East Oak Lane, Olney, Fern Rock, and Logan.
Abraham identified the alleged ringleaders - all notaries public - as Carlos Quiles, 58, of the 1900 block of Howard Street; Ivan Delgado, 58, of the 2400 block of North Fifth Street; and Lenora Irene Jackson, 59, 2700 block of West French Street, all three of North Philadelphia; and Rebecca A. Robinson, 64, of Hopewell Lane in Sicklerville, N.J.
All but Robinson were in custody yesterday, Abraham said.
Others arrested were Kenneth Lyons, 40, of the first block of East Pastorius Street, East Germantown; Richard Smith, 45, of the 700 block of Haws Avenue, Norristown; Juanita Torres, 64, of the 1600 block of East Hunting Park Avenue, Olney; and Daralease Brown, 43, of the 300 block of East Airy Street, Norristown.
Still sought late yesterday were David Lespier, 47, 2900 block of Tulip Street, Kensington; Vincent Wilder, 47, 1400 block of South 55th Street, Kingsessing; Alberto Rodriguez, 49, and Marino Rodriguez, 42, both of the 1800 block of East Thayer Street, Kensington; Maria Roman, 39, 200 block of East Willard Street, Kensington; Zoraida Cuevas, 49, 4100 block of O Street, Juniata Park; and Troy Baylor, 44, of the 2400 block of North 32d Street, Strawberry Mansion.
Each was charged variously with counts of running a corrupt organization, conspiracy, theft, forgery, perjury, burglary, record-tampering and related charges.
According to the 175-page grand jury presentment recommending the charges, the scheme came to light on Sept. 16, 2004, when Fernando DeCastris called the District Attorney's Office to complain that a house at 5411 N. Third St. in Olney, which he and his wife had bought as an investment in 1989, had been sold out from under them.
Although a deed at City Hall showed that the DeCastrises sold the property to James Hastings for $12,000 on May 31, 2004, DeCastris told detectives that their signatures had been forged. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
By reviewing the paperwork and the notary used to authenticate the sale, detectives were led to Quiles, who was arrested on Oct. 19, 2004.
But even as Quiles' case moved toward its first hearings, Assistant District Attorney Heather Young said, the prosecutor's office began getting more complaints involving the same notary.
Young said she decided to dismiss the charges against Quiles and follow the trail he and the other notaries left.
Abraham said the ring built credibility by living in the community, joining neighborhood groups, and boasting of connections.
Baylor, for example, allegedly said he was a former city employee and had worked for a former state legislator, and he passed out the legislator's business card as proof.
Lyons allegedly claimed to be a clergyman, at times even a bishop.
Abraham said the scheme was abetted by two loopholes in state law. One, she said, makes it too easy for people to become notaries public. Notaries also are not required to demand photo identification from the parties in a property sale or to attach copies to the documents in their files.
Abraham said another state law requires deeds to be filed immediately in the county courthouse and accepted at face value.
Although officials are supposed to verify the information later, Abraham said large counties such as Philadelphia - with 250 property sales recorded daily - do not have the staff to do the verifications.
"Nobody checks, nobody cares, nobody bothers," Abraham said.
She said prospective property buyers should be wary of sellers who want to sell for cash and should contact city officials if they do not receive a copy of the stamped, bar-coded deed within two weeks of the sale.
"If you don't have a deed after two weeks, you have big problems," Abraham said.