By Patric Hedlund
A blistering 144-page felony complaint was filed by the California Attorney General last week against a ring of alleged house thieves. On the list of 23 stolen homes is a modest little house on Montana Trail above the Ridge Route Communities Museum in Frazier Park.
Six residents of Fresno, including two attorneys, were arrested in the scam after a two-year investigation by Attorney General Kamala Harris. In 288 felony counts, the complaint tells how the gang allegedly used forgery, perjury and counterfeit documents in court, abusing a little-known ‘squatter’s rights’ law to gain title to the homes through adverse possession.
Jerry Ferris, who lives in the Montana Trail home, saw a classified ad in this newspaper in August 2011 for a “2 bedroom, 1 bath” home. Newspaper records show Sandra Barton identified herself as the property manager to place the ad. It ran for just one week, offering the home for $595. It was rented immediately.
Barton is one of those arrested in the action January 15. She is now in a Fresno jail on $250,000 bail. Bail for one of her alleged accomplices, Craig M. Mortensen (who the complaint says was formerly with the Fresno law firm of Lozano Smith before lately opening up a solo office) is set at $1 million.
Renter Jerry Ferris was contacted and questioned by Kern County Sheriff’s deputies on about November 9, 2011. At that time, law enforcement was uncertain what was taking place or who was involved, Frazier Park substation Sergeant Mark Brown said.
During that same month deputies fanned out through Kern County on similar missions to homes in Ridgecrest, Boron, Bakersfield and East Edwards in addition to Frazier Park.
“It was such a widespread thing that the property crimes sergeant in Bakersfield wrote the main report, and each deputy throughout the county who investigated an address wrote a supplemental to that report,” Brown recalls.
In addition to the five Kern County homes, six allegedly stolen houses are noted in the complaint document as being in Fresno, with others in Livingston, Guerneville, Rosemead, Monterey Park, Lancaster, Guadalupe, Los Angeles, Raymond, Pacifica, Brisbane, Porterville and Van Nuys, plus one in Tulare County.
The total equity value at the time the properties were fraudulently obtained, according to a statement by Attorney General Kamala Harris, is about $3.5 million. The scam appears to have started in 2006.
According to the complaint, it was not until 2010 that a woman—who had inherited the Guadalupe home she has lived in since 2003—found the title to her home had been transferred to Sandra Elaine Barton with no notice to the true owner, Nancy Zelepsky. She contacted Barton, who offered to rent her home back to her for about $900 a month. Zelepsky alerted the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County. They convinced a judge to restore ownership to Zelepsky and notified Harris’ office about a potential wide-scale fraud, which opened a case in June 2011.
“It is reprehensible that these individuals lied to the courts in order to steal homes and in some cases to demand payment from the rightful owners,” Attorney General Harris said. “The conduct of the attorneys in this scheme is even more offensive because they violated their ethical duty to be honest to the courts.”
Sandra Elaine Barton, 30; Cambria Lisa Barton, 20; Christopher Spencer Barton, 31; attorneys Sheldon W. Feigel, 50 and Craig M. Mortensen, 60; plus Daniel Paul Vedenoff, 29 were all named in the 288 felony counts. Cambria Barton is still at large. The rest were arrested and charged with felony perjury, filing false court records and preparing false evidence.
Over the two years between first contact with the deputies and the January 15 arrests, Ferris, a Mountain Communities computer services contractor, said he has also been contacted by the FBI and the Department of Justice. He was told to continue renting the house without telling the ‘property manager’ anything about law enforcement contacts.
Ferris says he wants to continue in the house, but that the events have caused a great deal of worry. Harris’ office said the court will appoint a receiver to manage the properties for now.
This is part of the January 24, 2014 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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