By Lynh Bui May 31 at 6:37 PM – Washington Post
It started out as a favor for a colleague.
A clerk in the Prince George’s County police department asked Lt. Charles Duelley to investigate after she found people living in what should have been her vacant Cheltenham house.
The clerk and her ex-husband had moved out of the property as they tried to modify the mortgage, but during a weekly check of the property, “lo and behold someone was living there,” Duelley said.
That discovery launched the veteran detective into a two-year investigation that cracked open a countywide real-estate scheme involving three Prince George’s women. Led by former real estate agent Shannon A. Lee, the women forged property records to make it appear as if they owned homes that were abandoned or going through the foreclosure process, police and prosecutors said. They then rented the houses out on Craigslist, lived in the vacant homes themselves or, in at least one case, sold a property for a profit of nearly $200,000.
“I just can’t believe they thought it would work,” Duelley said. “They got bold and that started to do them in.”
All told, Lee and her associates — Qiana Johnson and Shamika Staggs — were prosecuted in connection with the takeover of eight properties, prosecutors said. Lee was allegedly eyeing about two dozen others before authorities caught up with her, prosecutors said. Last month, Lee pleaded guilty to forgery in the final of her three cases tied to the scams. She is expected to serve two years in prison for charges ranging from burglary to forgery. Sentencing hearings for Johnson and Staggs are pending.
Bruce Johnson, Lee’s attorney, said his client had recently lost her job and “hit rock bottom” before she turned to real estate fraud.
She “got desperate,” Johnson said. “This closes a chapter in her life that she is not proud of.”
After looking into the clerk’s case, Duelley discovered that the breadth of Lee’s scam was unusual. In cases where people take over foreclosed homes, squatters may move in for a short time until they get caught. Or someone may try to rent out a single property to unsuspecting victims. But, to find someone essentially running a business by renting out a series of foreclosed homes was unseen in the county, he said.
“Usually people find a vacant house, advertise on Craigslist and rent it out,” Duelley said. “The bank catches up to them and everyone disappears.”
But once Duelley successfully executed a warrant of Lee’s home, car and a P.O. box from which she was conducting business, he said, she appeared “bound and determined” to take the properties outright. Taking advantage of the large number of foreclosures in the county and using her knowledge as a real estate agent, Lee made a note of abandoned homes in the Upper Marlboro and Cheltenham areas and kept photos of them on her computer, Duelley said. She then forged titles and deeds to make it appear that she or one of her associates owned the houses. The women then broke into the homes, changed the locks and rigged electricity to the properties.
In one instance, Lee claimed to have purchased an abandoned home in a tax sale, court records state. In another, Lee told renter Charrise Stewart, 37, that Lee had inherited a townhouse from a dead uncle.
Stewart said she and her husband fell in love with the three-bedroom townhouse they found on Craigslist in 2013. Stewart, who used to work for a mortgage company, checked to make sure Lee owned the house. She saw that Lee was listed as a real estate agent. And neighbors corroborated that the man next door who Lee claimed was her uncle had indeed recently passed away.
“She had everything covered,” Stewart said. “She did her homework.”
But shortly after signing a lease of about $1,450 a month with Lee, who was using an alias at the time, the Stewarts — who moved in with their two children — began noticing problems. The locks for the house on Grandhaven Avenue didn’t work and they weren’t getting power bills from Pepco.
Then detective Duelley came knocking.
He told the Stewarts he was investigating Lee and the house really belonged to Doware Merchant. Lee had forged Merchant’s signature on property records, he told them, to transfer ownership of the house on Grandhaven.
Pepco eventually cut power to the house. The utility said power to the house was illegally rigged, Stewart said. The company couldn’t restore electricity because they weren’t the listed owners, and the Stewarts had to move.
“It’s frustrating for someone whose life was turned upside down,” said Stewart, whose husband and two kids moved into an extended-stay hotel for a month and with relatives for another two weeks. “We’re out thousands of dollars, and there is nothing we can do.”
Duelley said that after closer inspection, the scheme would have unraveled eventually. Titles and deeds forged were littered with misspellings. And some of the notary signatures were from officials who had retired long ago.
With more than 3,000 vacant homes and more than 18,000 foreclosure notices listed in the county, it is easy to see why people like Lee took advantage of the market, said Doyle L. Niemann, head of the economic crimes division of the Prince George’s State’s Attorney’s office. Houses are sitting empty for so long because banks have a backlog of foreclosures they can’t handle in a timely manner.
“They’ve become an attractive target because owners have abandoned them,” said Niemann, also a Maryland state delegate. “This is a crime of opportunity.”
In light of Lee’s case and others, the county has a task force tackling the issues that arise with vacant homes in Prince George’s. Officials have also created an online registry that allows neighbors to report abandoned properties.
“Hopefully this sends a message to other people that this won’t be tolerated,” Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks said of Lee’s convictions. “Preying on people when they are experiencing life’s worst won’t really work.”
Lynh Bui is a Prince George’s County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.