City employee gets to the bottom of house thief’s scam

The Watchdog previously reported about an abandoned house with dangerous waste in the back yard, but I couldn’t find the owner who was to blame for the property’s deplorable condition. Neither could Fort Worth code compliance officers, who had cited the absentee homeowner numerous times. Watch the original YouTube video here.

I sent a letter to the listed owner, but it was returned by the post office.

Then, after the column appeared, a low-profile Fort Worth city employee whose job is to find owners of abandoned properties took up the challenge. Sarah Ireland dug deep and made a startling discovery.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column learned first, Ireland figured out that ownership of the house on the 5100 block of Goodman Avenue had been transferred twice. One owner was a fake. The other was dead. She kept digging and discovered that the house had been stolen by Tarrant County’s most notorious home thief, Norris Fisher.

Federal prosecutors say Fisher, 62, stole as many as 100 homes and vacant lots in Tarrant County in the last six years, using the same methods he used to steal the house on Goodman Avenue.

Jessie Washington, 87, complained about the house next door for years. Turns out the owner had stolen it and hidden its ownership. He's now a convicted felon.

Ireland found what criminal investigators found: Fisher created fake deeds with fake signatures of either fake or dead people. He used fake notary stamps for documents and created fake buyers to build layers between him and his crimes.

His scheme worked well enough that the 100 area properties he stole are worth more than $1 million. His ultimate goal was to sell the properties to unknowing buyers for a big profit.

The elaborate process was designed, prosecutors say, to be so complicated with so many transfers (often to out-of-state parties) that Fisher could conceal his original property theft and make it less likely that a title search would uncover his connection to the fraud.

But the complexity didn’t stop Ireland, who has worked for the city for almost 20 years.

“I like a challenge,” she said. “I kind of put myself in people’s shoes. What if that happened to me? And what Mr. Fisher did is so wrong. I hope they throw the book at him.”

The listed owner of the Goodman Avenue house is Maria D. Gomez. She owns at least 16 properties in Tarrant County. The only problem, as Ireland discovered, is that she’s dead.

The abandoned house

Ireland says many of the properties were conveyed to Gomez after her death in September 2008.

“I looked back at the deeds and found that they all use the same format, most have the same notary and were done on the same day or within a few days of each other. It looked rather fishy to me.”

The clincher came when she found that Gomez had supposedly conveyed mineral rights on many of her properties to SKF Unlimited Inc. She recognized the company’s name from news accounts of the Fisher investigation.

The last true owner was the late Annie Abbs, and using a database, Ireland found her last surviving son, Herbert, who lives in Fort Worth. Herbert Abbs told Ireland that he went to check on taxes owed a few years ago and learned that the house had been sold to Bobby Abbs. However, there’s no one by that name in the Abbs family.

Herbert Abbs was told by the tax office that if he wanted the property back, he should hire a lawyer. So he quit taking care of the property and stopped paying taxes because he didn’t think he owned it anymore.

Ireland asked Abbs to come to her office with proof. He brought his mother’s will, death certificate and property deeds. She made copies and sent them to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which was taking a lead role in the investigation. (Fisher used change-of-address cards so he could get the documents from the county clerk’s office and keep the true owners in the dark that their properties had been stolen.)

Abbs says Fisher apparently stole a second house from the family in the same way. “It’s so convoluted that I was at my wit’s end,” Abbs said. Before Ireland told him about her discovery, he said he didn’t know what to do. “I was just so overwhelmed.”

Now that Fisher has pleaded guilty, one of the requirements of his agreement is that he help authorities untangle ownership of the 100 properties so they can be returned to their rightful owners.

Authorities are working on plans for owners to file detailed correcting documents with the Tarrant County clerk’s office, says Kathy Colvin, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office.

Anyone who believes that their property has been stolen and hasn’t been contacted by the U.S. attorney’s office or the U.S. Postal Inspection Service should contact the U.S. attorney’s victim/witness specialist in Fort Worth at 817-252-5200.

“Because many of Fisher’s victims are deceased and died intestate, we don’t know if there’s an heir,” Colvin said.

I first visited the house in July after next-door neighbor Jessie Washington alerted me to the deplorable conditions. Soon after, code compliance cleaned much of the debris.

This week, Washington told me that the weeds have grown back neck-high and, worse, someone has ripped the lumber off the back of the abandoned house. “It looks worse now than it ever did,” she said.

If Herbert Abbs gets the house back, he may have to pay about $2,500 in back taxes and an equal amount for mowing the city has performed.

Ireland, the city worker, promises to help. She is offering to walk him through the process to get corrections with the Tarrant Appraisal District and the Tarrant County tax office. “I will be glad to help you any way I can,” she wrote him this week.

You know she means it, too.

# # #

These are the websites that Fort Worth city employee Sarah Ireland uses to conduct searches for property ownership. – Tarrant Appraisal District. The place to start. – The county site offers deeds and other records going back to 1970. Deed cards to lead to ledgers prior to that. – Helps find people and does reverse phone lookups. – Census records, military records, birth, death and marriage records. Available for free at Fort Worth Public Library. – Link to the library’s site with old newspaper articles and death records from around the nation. – Access to many records, including driver’s licenses, marriage and divorce records, criminal and civil cases. Costs $25 a year.

# # #

Here’s the original YouTube video that prodded city employees to clean up the outside of the abandoned house.

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.

YouTube video gets city to cleanup neglected house

[The following first appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Watchdog column by Dave Lieber. It is paired with a YouTube video here.]

Jessie Washington, 87, wearing a shirt from her grandson that says “I love Grandma,” stands in her manicured front yard next to her “keep off the grass” sign, hands on hips, looking angry. She has a message for the city of Fort Worth.

“Tell ’em I don’t like them.”

Jessie Washington, 87

For more than a half a century, she has lived in her Lake Como neighborhood home. The last seven years, since the house next door became empty, have been terrible, she said.

“I wake up mad when I look over here.”

The house is covered front and back, ground to rooftop, with overgrown vegetation. A side fence has collapsed. Two trash bins sit in the alley, filled to the brim with dirty water and decrepit junk. Barrels lie on their sides in the back yard, near a half-built wooden shed that is falling apart.

“If this place ever catches fire, there’s nothing to do but run. They couldn’t put it out even if the firetruck was parked outside.”

She has complained to city officials, by phone and in person, on and off for years, she says. “Anytime I see them anywhere, I stop and tell them.”

Finally, fed up and plum out of ideas, she wrote to The Watchdog. I visited this week and made a video of her giving me a tour and begging for help. I put the video on YouTube and sent the Web link to Code Compliance Director Brandon Bennett. I also sent him photos of the disgusting trash bins, too.

Bennett jumped on the problem. The video and photos, he told me, were the evidence he needs to get a warrant giving his staff permission to march onto the property and take action. Code officers aren’t allowed to enter private property without owner permission, but this owner isn’t around.

City-hired mowers are allowed to enter a property every so often, and in this case, they do. But the listed owner doesn’t pay the bills.

“This is one of the ones that are falling through the cracks,” Bennett told me. “We have too many of these. They are killing us.”

Substandard housing is a threat to most large U.S. cities. As the economy suffers, it gets worse.

“These patterns develop,” Bennett said. “It just brings down the rest of the neighborhood. It starts with one house, and pretty soon it’s the whole block.”

With his department’s budget cut 20 percent, he said, “We have to prioritize calls for service.”

Used to be the city ordered mowers to cut neglected grass and weeds when they reached 12 inches. Now it’s 18 inches. Used to be the city hired mowers every 21 days. Now it’s 45.

“We just don’t have the funding to pay for them,” he said.

I tried to contact the listed owner of the house but couldn’t find her.

Nine liens on the property for mowing and administrative fees total $2,300, city records show.

The listed owner has also fallen behind on city property taxes for three years, totaling $2,500.

Eight resident complaints for tall grass and high weeds have been listed against the property since 2006. Before that, there were complaints for trash, debris, storage and junked vehicles.

It’s an eyesore every way you look. But there’s hope for Washington. This week, the city launched what it calls its “nuisance abatement process” — legal talk for “get rid of the junk.”

The debris, barrels, fence, a dead tree near a power line and the wretched bins should all be removed by July 20, the city says.

There’s also hope for others in the same situation.

A state law that went into effect Jan. 1 (House Bill 3065) allows counties with a population greater than 1.5 million to adopt ordinances requiring registration of vacant buildings. That process allows a city to take drastic action on abandoned properties, too.

But there is a kink. Even though Fort Worth officials began working on such an ordinance, the process was halted temporarily because Tarrant County didn’t have enough residents to qualify.

New census numbers expected to become official in April will show that Tarrant County’s population has grown.

What does this mean? A new city ordinance will give officials greater control to stop the pattern of block erosion.

Jessie Washington has a wait-and-see attitude.

“I know they let me down,” she said. “They ignored me. That’s what they did.”

No longer.

# # #

For code violations, call Fort Worth at 817-392-1234.

House Bill 3065 gives counties greater powers to deal with abandoned properties. City officials hope to:

– limit the time a structure can be boarded.

– require owner registration, a compliance plan and a fee if a property is not fixed.

– define minimum boarding and securing standards.

– force owners to submit an action plan.

– force demolition of vacant properties that have no historic or rehab potential.

– force owners to keep properties free from code violations, overgrown vegetation and nuisances.

# # #

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.