Eight people are facing charges in connection with a coordinated scheme to steal 17 homes and properties in several Philadelphia neighborhoods, city prosecutors announced Monday.
Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Esack, who is with the office’s economic and cyber crimes unit, said the alleged theft of a property from a 90-year-old woman in a nursing home led to an almost two-year investigation that resulted in the charges. Eventually, investigators uncovered what Esack described as “an elaborate deed theft ring” operating in Kensington, as well as Northwest, South, and Southwest Philadelphia.
“Both lots and homes were targeted from the dead, as well as the living, the young and old. The properties were acquired using forged paperwork, stolen identities, fake names, as well as licenses, but also using some of the actual names of the persons involved in the thefts,” Esack said.
Esack said the eight defendants systematically looked for homes and lots to take ownership of using fraudulent deed transfers, and then resold them to unsuspecting buyers. The group made just under $1 million off the alleged scheme, she said, noting deed theft cases are common in the city, but are not always taken seriously. In March, the DA’s Office announced charges against five people in another deed theft ring.
“A lack of communication among organizations, as well as from members of the community dealing with these crimes often kept an investigation focused through a singular lens when, as in this case, a much broader perspective was needed,” she said. “The best path forward is to acknowledge and admit mistakes of the past, and this office has been at the forefront of making sure that we don’t keep spinning around on the same unworkable wheel.”
Esack said this prosecution should be used as a model for home-stealing prosecutions in the future.
District Attorney Larry Krasner said one impediment to investigating these cases is a lack of funding.
“I think is actually very important, though, to recognize that while we can’t put a number on the number of stolen homes where there is no accountability, we know it’s a lot,” he said. “We know that while this administration has done a far better job than the prior administration, there is much, much, much more that we could do.
“First of all, there may be some innocent buyers who are not so innocent. There may be some others who are operating within the professional real estate space who are not so innocent. And for us to go after them, the people who are making a lot of money off the stolen homes, it is necessary for us to have more resources in terms of investigation and in terms of attorneys, it’s really that simple.”
Krasner acknowledged that Philadelphia City Council has been working hard on this issue as well. That includes a bill passed in December and sponsored by Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson to require funeral homes, cemeteries, and other businesses to provide surviving loved ones with a guide to transferring properties to avoid becoming at risk of deed theft. Gilmore Richardson’s own family had to resolve a tangled title after her mother died in 2016 so she and her sister could take ownership of her home, which had been left to them, something many Philadelphia residents face.
Krasner is hopeful that even more people will join in the effort.
“I’m talking about people who work at every level of construction and real estate professional activity,” he said. “We have a system that often lets people who wear white collars get away with stuff, and we don’t want to be any part of that.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, this story has been updated to reflect that Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson dealt with a tangled title.