Houston Men Make Millions Stealing Houses
(Houston Chronicle) — Wendy Johnson had stopped to check on her deceased parents’ empty two-bedroom house when she spotted the absurd: A “For Sale” sign on the lawn. Johnson, sole heir of her parents’ former home of 50 years, hadn’t authorized any sale. The next time she visited, the locks had been changed. And a stranger claimed the house was his. He’d paid for it and had the legal papers to prove it. But the deed turned out to be a forgery, the handiwork of a daring group of rogue businessmen and con artists who claimed ownership of more than 70 vacant houses and lots across Houston and allegedly made millions by reselling them to unwitting buyers, a Houston Chronicle analysis of pending civil and criminal lawsuits shows. For at least six years, players in a massive swindle boldly entered the Harris County Civil Courthouse with fake deeds bearing the freshly minted signatures of long dead men, faked notaries’ seals and other blatantly false claims to seize and sell others’ property. The consequences of the widespread deed fraud — carried out between 2002 and 2008 — continue to affect hundreds of people in some of the city’s humblest neighborhoods. Much of the mess remains unresolved.