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Govt. officials battle ‘epidemic’ targeting Charlotte-area homes

On June 1, a real estate agent was showing a house to a couple in the Union County town of Weddington.

While the couple checked out the basement of the house in the 1000 block of Antioch Woods Lane, two men, Asaru A. Ali and Kenneth W. Lewis, suddenly showed up, according to Detective Brian Keziah of the Union County Sheriff’s Department.

Ali and Lewis had some news that took everyone by surprise, Keziah said.

“These two guys came in, showed the purported deed and said the Moorish Temple now owned this house,” he said. “They took over the house.”

The $700,000 home was in foreclosure and had been purchased by Evansville, Ind.-based Morequity Inc.

Police arrested the two Charlotte men and said the locks on the home had been changed. Lewis’ deed claimed the home in the name of the Moorish Science Temple of America.

Ali, 39, of 2619 Century Oaks Lane, was charged with breaking and entering, taking possession of a house without consent and first-degree trespassing. He has been released from jail.

Lewis, 52, of 2909 Burgess Drive, No. 1, was charged with breaking and entering, obtaining property by false pretenses and possession of stolen goods. He remained behind bars with bond set at $500,000 by press time.

Both men were unarmed, according to a police report.

Keziah, an eight-year veteran of the force, said the ordeal was a “first for me.”

But it turns out that it’s not the first instance of homes in the Charlotte metro area being claimed in the name of the MSTOA.

Deeds containing images of the organization’s prophet, Noble Drew Ali, are piling up in local courthouses, registers of deeds have told The Mecklenburg Times.

A deed is a document that transfers ownership of real estate from one party to another.

“It’s like an epidemic, as far as I can tell,” said J. David Granberry, Mecklenburg County’s register of deeds.

So far this year, Granberry estimates, there have been at least 200 deeds filed in his office in the name of the MSTOA. He calls the deeds “outright fraud.”

“My records are literally full of this stuff,” he said.

In Union County, about 25 deeds have been filed this year referencing the name of the MSTOA, Union County Register of Deeds Crystal Crump said.

But Christopher Bennett-Bey, grand sheik of the MSTOA’s Charlotte temple, says his group is in “no way affiliated with that scam to seize vacant properties.”

“I am not aware of these individuals, nor are they affiliated with the Moorish Science Temple of America at all,” Bennett-Bey said. “This is the first time I’m hearing this. I’m taken aback by this.”

The MSTOA is an Islamic group that teaches the principals of love, trust, peace, freedom and justice, he said.

Bennett-Bey, who has been involved in the religion for more than 20 years, said he has heard of such real estate scams happening “quite a bit” around the country.

They upset him, because the scams are creating a misperception about the organization, he said.

“Our purpose is to teach our members to be law-abiding citizens,” he said, “and then I hear something like this. It’s a bad reflection on the entire organization.

“Any individual who is stating he is a member of the Moorish Science Temple of America has to be a regular member of Temple 12 in North Carolina. If not, they are not a member of the Moorish Science Temple of America. Thus, any status they are trying to proclaim is false.”

The Charlotte area is not alone. There are similar reports across the country of erroneous deeds and squatters claiming to be affiliated with the MSTOA.

In San Bernardino County, Calif., police arrested a man and woman in February for moving into a home they claimed ownership of through an illegitimate deed. Police said the couple attempted to cloud up the deed’s title history by claiming to have given the home to the MSTOA, which in turn gave the property back to the couple, according to news reports.

Similar incidents have been reported in Hampton, Va. A June 18, 2010, posting on williamsburgsrealestate.com warns of “a recent incident where an organization using the name the Moorish Science Temple of America has illegally entered a home listed for sale, changed the locks and taken over the premises.”

Officials say the problem has become more prevalent in the Great Recession.

“The more the foreclosure problem hit, the more it happened,” Granberry said. “The more the economy suffered, the more it happened.”

Tom Miller, an attorney for the North Carolina Real Estate Commission, agrees. The huge amount of foreclosed homes, mixed with economic uncertainty, has resulted in real estate scams, including ones involving deeds.

Miller sees similarities between the real estate scammers and the freeman movement of the late 1980s and ‘90s, when people denied the legitimacy of the U.S. government and refused to follow laws and pay income taxes.

These days, thanks to the Internet, information quickly travels between people, making it easier to learn how to commit real estate fraud, he said.

“In the ‘90s, somebody had to tell somebody,” he said. “Today, all you have to do is go on to the Internet to find sites that purport to tell you how to beat your mortgage.”

Granberry said he’s seen forgeries and notary fraud in the deeds filed in the name of the MSTOA claiming ownership of vacant, foreclosed properties.

Many times, the documents appear official and legitimate, he said.

“We call them the El-Beys,” he said, referring to the last name suffixes found on the deeds. “I wish somebody would come out and arrest these people.”

Miller said some people claiming to be affiliated with the religion have a reputation for violence and filing lawsuits and liens against people who anger them, such as judges, police officers and district attorneys.

Granberry said he has had to ask someone involved in the deed-filing scheme to leave his office after the filer became argumentative because he wanted to alter a document that had already been filed, which is not allowed.

In the deed Lewis filed May 20 for the home at 1021 Antioch Woods Lane, it claims the property for the MSTOA “to have and to hold … forever.”

The deed includes the name of the MSTOA and lists a Chicago address and tax identification number for the organization.

It is stamped with a seal of the MSTOA and has the signature of a notary in Illinois, which is the state in which the organization is incorporated.

“I don’t know a whole lot about the Moorish nation,” Keziah said. “This is the first occurrence in our county.”

Keziah said there were some personal items in the Antioch Woods Lane home when officers later searched it.

Real estate agent Ronald Sausville, of Realty Brokers in Indian Trail, was the listing agent for the home. He refused to comment on the incident.

As the deeds stack up, registers of deeds are becoming frustrated. They say that as long as the deeds meet certain requirements, their offices have to accept them, even if registers know they are not legit.

“We don’t check to make sure the title is good,” Crump said. “That’s why people have an attorney. Anybody can do this, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.”

Granberry is hoping fees will put a stop to the erroneous deeds.

So far, though, the fees haven’t slowed the flow of fraudulent deeds, he said.

“If it costs $100 to record their document, they’ll do it,” he said.

The fees to file a deed in both Union and Mecklenburg counties is $19 for the first page and $3 for each additional page, not including taxes.

Granberry said state law should be changed to curb the problem. Specifically, he wants the filing of worthless documents to be considered a crime.

“We will still have to file, but they could be prosecuted,” he said.

Miller said that without the help of legislation, the problem might be solved only when the housing market and economy improve.

According to the Union County clerk’s office, attorneys had not been assigned to Ali and Lewis before this issue went to press. The Mecklenburg Times could not find phone numbers to contact Ali and Lewis for comment.

Their court dates are set for 9:30 a.m. Monday.

Tara Ramsey can be reached at tara.ramsey@mecktimes.com.

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