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California AG Busts $3.5 Million Statewide Housing Scheme

JAN 16, 2014 12:26pm ET
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Five individuals who allegedly seized at least 23 homes across California through a fraudulent housing scheme have been arrested by state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Sandra Barton, Christopher Barton, Daniel Vedenoff, Sheldon Feigel, and Craig Mortensen, who are all residents from Fresno, Calif., were charged with 288 felony counts including perjury, filing false court records and preparing false evidence. The only conspirator in this alleged scam who remains at large is Cambria Barton.

All five defendants were booked into the Fresno County Jail earlier this week on bail ranging from $27,500 to $1,795,000 and face restitution payments of at least $3.5 million.

The Attorney General’s complaint, filed in Superior Court of the State of California County of Fresno, says the defendants identified abandoned residential properties in which they filed for adverse possession of the housing units in court to obtain title. When a Barton family member obtained ownership, the property then supposedly was refurbished and typically sold or rented.

However, California law under Code of Civil Procedure 325 states that a person can only claim adverse possession of real property if they have occupied or claimed it continuously for at least five years and paid all state, county, or municipal taxes for the property during this period of time.

The scam has been taking place since 2006, according to Harris, in which Barton family members and their attorneys—Mortensen and Feigel—supposedly provided evidence and statements in court that was factually incorrect in order to acquire the residential properties in nine California counties. These counties were: Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Madera, Merced, Santa Barbara, San Mateo, Sonoma and Tulare.  

“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,” Harris says. “The conduct of the attorneys in this scheme is even more offensive because they violated their ethical duty to be honest to the courts.”

The alleged scam was detected when Nancy Zelepsky, a homeowner from Santa Barbara County, contacted a title company in 2010 to pursue an equity loan when she wanted to know if there were any liens against her property. Zelepsky was told that Sandra Barton was listed as the deed holder of the home in July 2010 through documents filed by Mortensen.

After seeking assistance from the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County, a court determined that Sandra Barton’s prior claim to the property was fraudulent and restored ownership back to Zelepsky. The court then notified the California State Bar about Mortensen filing invalid mortgage documents, which led to the Attorney General’s office opening an investigation in June 2011.

Harris’ Mortgage Fraud Strike Force, which was created in May 2011 to investigate and prosecute misconduct at all stages of the mortgage process, spearheaded this investigation.

All five defendants are facing extensive prison terms, with Sandra Barton looking at 103 years in prison, Mortensen 108 years, Feigel 15 years, Christopher Barton 7 years, and Vedenoff 8 years.

“I am pleased that my mortgage fraud strike force, together with our state and local partners, continue to investigate and prosecute these crimes against our people and our economy," Harris added.

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