LEON PINKNEY says Dwayne Stewart has made his life "purely hell."
Pinkney, 70, spent his entire savings to fix up three of 11 properties he owned in North Philadelphia.
He planned on giving at least one house to his son and renting out another. But when he went to City Hall to change the title of one of the houses, "I found out it wasn't even in my name," Pinkney said.
The new owner of the two-story brick house on Newkirk Street near Allegheny Avenue was 41-year-old Stewart, a convicted sex offender who has been arrested four times for alleged offenses related to forgery and theft by impersonation and other scams, including as recently as September.
Pinkney says that he has never met Stewart and that the signature on the deeds to three of his properties transferring them to Stewart in September 2009 are forgeries.
Not so, says Stewart.
"Mr. Pinkney sold me those properties," Stewart told the Daily News, adding that the properties were dilapidated and Pinkney owed thousands in back taxes that he paid. "One thing I don't do is lie."
Police said they are investigating complaints against Stewart by Pinkney and others, who allege that Stewart collected money for rental units and then refused to turn over the keys.
Pinkney's story is not a new horror tale. Years after the Daily News spotlighted the issue in 2001 and lawmakers tried to fix the problem, it is still far too easy to steal a house in Philadelphia.
Victims are usually poor, elderly or immigrants.
The problem, says City Councilman Bill Greenlee, is that the city's Department of Records makes no attempt to determine if deeds are fraudulent.
The department "knows there are problems," said Greenlee, who has sponsored legislation to address the issue. "Their guidelines are skewed. They have to accept stuff they shouldn't."
A deed must be recorded if it meets state requirements by being notarized and including both parties' names, their signatures and a description of the property.
"By state law, we can't reject it," said Joan Decker, records commissioner, whose department is not empowered to investigate. "Criminals can forge signatures. It's impossible to trace and track."
So far this year, more than 138,000 documents have been recorded. Decker's office has received at least 24 reports of suspected fraudulent conveyance, down from 121 reports in 2007. In some cases, Decker said deed theft involves feuding family members.
Forged deeds approved
At least once a month, Greenlee says, a constituent makes his way to his City Hall office with loads of documents. Greenlee immediately knows the problem - house theft.
In 2008, Greenlee sought to rectify the situation by sponsoring a bill that would require the Records Department to verify that the seller listed on the deed is the owner of the home.
"This is the most important thing that someone will ever own in their lives in many cases," said Greenlee.
Greenlee's bill became law, but Decker said her office is limited in what it can do.
At issue is a 1997 Commonwealth Court ruling that the Records Department had to comply with state law by recording documents immediately. The ruling followed a complaint filed by the Pennsylvania Land Title Association, which claimed the city had a backlog of tens of thousands of unrecorded documents.
"They've interpreted it as you have to take everything," Greenlee said.
To address deed theft, the Records Department in 2005 began photographing anyone who walks in to record a deed and notifying property owners by mail when transfers occur. Critics argue this does nothing to stop a fraudulent deed from being recorded.
"Once you accept [the deed], it puts the victim in a defensive position," Greenlee said. "They do some things after the fact, but it can take a year to two years to get resolved. A lot of times it can't be resolved."
Hiring a real-estate attorney to help with the process can cost thousands of dollars.
Pinkney said he didn't get a notice that his deeds had been transferred. He has filed a civil complaint called an "action to quiet title" with the Court of Common Pleas, which is a major step necessary for victims to get their properties back.
Often in the case of deed theft, there are multiple victims, including the rightful property owner and the unsuspecting buyer.
Scammers often tour Philly's rundown neighborhoods - a city with more than 40,000 vacant properties - looking for houses that appear to be abandoned or are tax delinquent.
Those properties can be used as bait for unsuspecting, and often poor, families who dream of home ownership.
The Daily News discovered that Stewart has allegedly collected thousands of dollars from at least five people for the house on Newkirk Street - including Patrice Miller.
Miller, 32, her fiance and her two children have been living with her grandmother in a three-bedroom house near 29th and Poplar streets. Miller saw an ad on Craigslist in March for a spacious two-bedroom house.
Miller said she met with Stewart and signed a lease to rent the Newkirk Street house for $600 a month. She said she paid a $1,450 security deposit. But Stewart never gave her the keys, she said.
When she demanded her money back, he suggested she rent to own, pay an extra $2,000 as a down payment and then $300 a month, she said. Miller agreed, but still never got the keys, a copy of the lease or deed.
In April, Miller called the police and a locksmith, who opened the door to the house. The house was in disarray, uninhabitable, smelled of feces and contained someone else's belongings, she said. A note left behind from a woman named Amber, the previous tenant, warned buyers to beware.
In June, Stewart called Miller and told her she was two months behind in rent even though she was not living there, Miller said.
Miller said she's now spent all of her money in hopes of having her own home - a dream that turned into a nightmare.
"It literally put me in financial constraint," said Miller, adding that Stewart often claimed to be a God-fearing man. "That was all the money I saved for me and my children. It's frustrating because my kids can't have their own space because he stole all of the money I had in the world."
According to court records, Stewart allegedly also rented the same house in March to Janelle Blount, who gave Stewart $1,450. She filed a criminal complaint and reported that she had never received keys to the property. Stewart is set to go to trial in December.
Office of Property Assessment records show Tyrone Jermaine Barnes as the owner of the house on Newkirk Street. He bought it from Stewart in June for $8,000. No one was there when the Daily News visited the house recently.
Police Lt. John Walker with the Southwest Detectives Division said police are investigating eight complaints throughout the city against Stewart in which he allegedly advertised properties for rent over Craigslist, collected first and last month's rent and never allowed people to move in.
Stewart was arrested last year for leasing an apartment in West Philly that did not belong to him, according to court records. He allegedly collected $3,100 in total from two unsuspecting victims. That case was withdrawn.
Stewart has also been sued at least 10 times for allegedly taking security deposits for rental units and houses without supplying keys, distributing bad checks and not making good on loans. Stewart said he's "going to resolve anything that's outstanding."
The District Attorney's Office has an economic and cyber crime unit that handles cases related to fraud but the unit doesn't deal with individual forged deed complaints. The D.A.'s Office couldn't say how many deed-theft cases have been prosecuted because that information is not currently tracked.
The Police Department does not have a unit that investigates deed theft, but detective divisions look into those cases, said police spokeswoman Officer Tanya Little. Victims are encouraged to file police reports. State-licensed notaries are responsible for confirming the identities of people signing the deeds. But in some cases the names are forged or even signed with the names of deceased owners. Are some notaries failing to ask for identification? Or are they somehow benefiting in the theft?
Gerald Barth, who runs Liberty Check Cashing on Girard Avenue near 5th Street, said he recalled approving the deed Stewart brought before him. But Pinkney said he never appeared before Barth.
"Whoever showed up [as Pinkney] had ID. I always ask for ID," Barth said, adding that Stewart came there often to have documents notarized.
"A lot of people don't look the same," Barth said of picture identification. "I can only do but so much."
Officials argue that lax notary laws need to be tightened and that it is too easy for criminals to purchase notary equipment to stamp official documents.
State Sen. Larry Farnese plans to introduce a package of bills in December, including one that would increase penalties for fraudulent use of notary equipment and for notaries who knowingly or recklessly notarize false documents.
Farnese's bill would also create a second notary class that would require a notary to give a $100,000 surety bond in order to notarize deeds. Notaries would also have to record a thumbprint of the parties executing the deed.
Pinkney, meanwhile, continues his struggle.
"It's purely hell going through all of this aggravation," he said. "I want my properties back."