Yet another scam targets Mecklenburg County’s many vacant properties
Published: October 23, 2011
Time posted: 4:17 pm
Tags: BB&T, Carlos Weathers, Crest Properties, Curtis McCurry, David Granberry, Fatima Callender, Jason Callender, Moorish Science Temple of America, North Carolina Real Estate Commission, Timberstone Homes, Tom Miller, Walt Bowling
The subsidiary of Indianapolis-based Timberstone Homes had planned to renovate, and then sell, the 4-year-old home. With the home-construction industry suffering, Crest has been buying up unsold homes of other builders and fixing them up.
The Meadowlark house was one of those purchases, and, after Crest bought it, the company gave the key to a contractor to start renovations.
But when the contractor went to the home Aug. 30, an odd thing happened: The key wouldn’t work, said Curtis McCurry, division manager for the Charlotte office of Timberstone.
So McCurry went over to the home. He tried to unlock the door. Nothing.
Once Crest was able to get into the home, the company discovered something that didn’t belong there: clothes hanging in the closet and fast-food wrappers in the kitchen.
“There were ‘no trespassing’ signs put up in the window and they had cut the grass,” McCurry said, referring to the home’s unwelcome occupants.
So Crest changed the locks. Then, the next day, a vehicle containing Jason Callender, a woman whose identity The Meck Times has not been able to confirm and a child pulled into the driveway. The vehicle was filled with items they apparently planned to move into the two-story home, McCurry said.
What happened next was a first for McCurry and, he said, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers called to the scene.
The family told police that they had filed an “affidavit of adverse possession” with the Mecklenburg County’s register of deeds. That document, they said, gave them the right to possess the house.
McCurry was stunned.
“I took the deed from the closing and the HUD statement and showed them I actually do own the house,” he said, adding that Crest had inspected the property and researched the title history before the sale, all things a smart purchaser should do.
To McCurry’s dismay, police spent hours determining whom the true owner was.
“It was concerning because of the length of time it took for police to sort things out,” he said. “I was not getting any direct answers from the police attorney or the register of deeds. The folks at the time didn’t understand the process.”
In the end, McCurry got his house back.
But David Granberry, Mecklenburg County’s register of deeds, said he is familiar with such stories.
Since June, at least three affidavits of adverse possession have been filed with his office, which has been dealing with other questionable paperwork this year, such as that filed by people claiming to be affiliated with the Moorish Science Temple of America.
In the MSTOA cases, which don’t appear to have any connection to the affidavit of adverse possession filings, squatters have changed locks and moved into vacant, and often foreclosed, homes after giving illegitimate deeds to registers’ offices in Mecklenburg and Union counties. Arrests have been made in connection with those cases.
According to Granberry, it’s possible for someone to come to own property in North Carolina through adverse possession, although it’s likely they’ll get busted for trespassing.
Under state law, if someone uses another’s property as their own for 20 years, they can become the owner, he said.
For example, he said, if someone put a shed on another person’s property, or staked out a corner for a garden, if the intruder acted for 20 years like the property belonged to them, it could become theirs.
Granberry said there is another option that allows someone to take possession of a property, after seven years, under a “color of title” provision. In such cases, someone appears to have title to a property when actually there is either no title or the title has a defect, or the person might have a title but in reality they have deeded the property to someone else.
Affidavits of adverse possession could be used to show that a claim on a property had been made for 20 years, Granberry said.
It doesn’t cost much to file one of the affidavits.
Until Oct. 1, it cost only $17 for a three-page filing. Now the basic filing fee is $26, Granberry said.
“So, file a document for $17, and it’s yours,” Granberry said. “You’re basically admitting to trespassing. Your document is not going to keep the police from throwing you out.”
When the Meck Times told Tom Miller, general counsel for the North Carolina Real Estate Commission, about the adverse possession cases in Mecklenburg County, he said they were news to him.
He said the state’s adverse possession law would grant the property to a person if they occupied a site “openly and with hostility” — a legal term meaning they would be defending off other claims to the property — for 20 years or, in the case of color of title, for seven years.
“If someone who has been using and claiming the property as though they were the owner, and the rightful owner doesn’t step in and stop it, then the adverse possessor gets to have it,” Miller said. “His claim becomes superior.”
The purpose of the state’s adverse possession law is to make sure that property does not go unused and unclaimed, he said.
He said that, in most cases, adverse possession claims are used to clear up longstanding property disputes or for situations in which a property has not been deeded correctly.
That doesn’t appear to be the case for one affidavit of adverse possession filed in Granberry’s office.
On June 10, Carlos Weathers file an affidavit for 1041-J Churchill Downs Court in Charlotte.
Sgt. Walt Bowling, head of CMPD’s financial crimes unit, said Weathers was being evicted from his townhome and knew of a foreclosed townhome just across the parking lot from his old one.
Bowling said Weathers moved his belongings into the home, changed the locks and filed the affidavit.
On Sept. 30, Weathers was arrested for misdemeanor burglary at the foreclosed townhome, which BB&T bank owned.
Bowling said it appeared that police were called to the home a couple of weeks earlier and Weathers showed officers the affidavit of adverse possession. But he was not arrested until police figured out what was going on.
Even the police, it seems, did not know what to do when they saw the affidavit the first time.
“After the call, they (police) followed up and understood what the document was and that it did not give him a right to remain on the property that he had no right to be in,” Bowling said.
“An immediate decision whether a person has a right to be there is hard,” he said. “Any kind of financial crime, we like to educate people, especially the public. But two weeks from now, it will change to something different. There will be a new twist. It’s a constant battle of chasing the next scam.”
Weathers has been released from Mecklenburg County Jail on a $1,000 secured bond.
For the Meadowlark property, Callender filed an affidavit Aug. 9 in his name only. Callender also filed an Aug. 2 affidavit with Fatima Callender for a property at 9811 Falling Stream Drive in Charlotte.
Both Callenders, who were not arrested or charged, could not be reached for comment.
McCurry said there was no damage to the Meadowlark home.
But Callender had turned on the power and water, apparently using the affidavit as proof of ownership, McCurry said.
The woman at the home told McCurry that she wanted his company to reimburse her for changing the locks and for the deposit for the utilities, he said.
McCurry said that even when police told Callender and the woman that they had to leave the property, the woman said she had spoken with several people who told her that if they vacated the property they would lose their rights to the home.
“They were very upset about this,” McCurry said. “She said, ‘Possession is nine-tenths of the law.’ I said, ‘No, the deed is law.’”
McCurry said the family had a home not far away from Meadowlark.
“They weren’t homeless,” he said. “They were just moving up.”
“This is absolutely the first time I’ve experienced anything like this,” he said. “I heard stories about it on national level, but I haven’t known anyone here locally to experience this yet.”
Now that the house is void of occupants, Crest Properties is hoping to sell it for $175,000.