August 29, 2001
A DOZEN PEOPLE have been arrested after a Philadelphia grand jury named them as participants in a ring that allegedly used forged signatures and falsified documents to steal houses.
Others named by the grand jury are still being sought in connection with the alleged thefts, which involved a total of 36 houses. The scam was first exposed by the Daily News last year.Among the central figures of the audacious scheme, according to a source, is a man whose name might be familiar to Daily News readers: Dawud Bey.
Bey was arraigned yesterday on multiple charges, including those related to the theft of a Southwest Philadelphia home owned by an ailing grandmother named Devota Clark.
It was Clark's story, detailed in a front-page column I wrote in spring 2000, that brought the housing fraud to light.
Yesterday, Clark, 72, rejoiced that Bey was finally arrested for allegedly stealing the home she'd owned for 22 years. But she lamented the irreplaceable personal items he allegedly threw out before she discovered the theft - including the flag that was draped over the casket of her son, a military veteran who was murdered in 1973.
"His birthday was Saturday and it really had me tense and upset. The flag was the last thing that was part of him that I had," she said.
Clark's house was returned to her by a judge shortly after the Daily News revealed the theft.
Bey's lawyer, Fortunato Perri, Jr., insisted yesterday - as Bey had earlier, in interviews with the Daily News - that Bey was a victim and not a perpetrator of the scam. He claimed in August 2000 that he had unknowingly bought stolen properties.
Bey was charged with multiple felonies and misdemeanors, including 15 counts of forgery; 16 counts of tampering with records or identification; 15 counts of identity theft; one count of conspiracy and one count of corrupt organization. Bey's arrest was first reported Monday night by Dave Schratwieser of WTXF-TV (Channel 29).
The charges could theoretically put him behind bars for more than 100 years. Yesterday, he was released on $5,000 bail.
The alleged ringleader of the stolen houses plot is a man named Rickie Williams, of Bouvier Street in Oak Lane, who was charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of corrupt organization, 81 counts of theft by unlawful taking, 81 counts of theft by deception, 81 counts of receiving stolen property, 79 counts of forgery, 90 counts of tampering with records, and 90 counts of tampering with public records, among other charges.
Williams turned himself in last week and was released on bail.
Attempts to reach Williams were not successful. A woman who answered the phone at a number listed to Williams said he was "not in Philly."
Law enforcement sources said the grand jury probe, which began a few months after Clark's story was exposed, put a stop to the ring's operations after a year in which houses were stolen across the city, from Southwest to North Philadelphia, from Fairmount to West Oak Lane.
House thefts still are occasionally reported, according to law enforcement, but they're cases unrelated to the conspiracy.
Mary Ellen Walter, assistant chief of the economic and cyber crimes unit in the district attorney's office, said she couldn't comment on the case because the grand jury presentment is under seal.
And so what isn't yet known is exactly how the scam operated, exactly what properties were stolen and how the participants knew each other.
More details will become public when the district attorney's office provides discovery of evidence to defense attorneys when preliminary hearings begin.
The alleged thieves targeted properties that appeared vacant - and Devota Clark's brick ranch house at 6944 Reedbird Place was a perfect target.
Clark had been ill and living with her granddaughter 10 blocks away. She'd boarded up some of the windows after neighborhood children had repeatedly broken them.
In her case, and others, alleged thieves checked real estate records of properties that appeared to be vacant to obtain the owners' names. They then allegedly forged the signatures of the owners - some of whom were dead - on blank deeds transferring the property title to them.
The deeds to those houses were notarized by notary publics who, in some cases, were alleged to have been in on the scam. The notarized documents were then taken to City Hall, where they were recorded as official at the Recorder of Deeds office.
The properties often were sold to innocent and unsuspecting buyers.
Among those charged in the case are LaRue Owens, also known as LaRue Smith, of Sharon Hill, the notary public who notarized Devota Clark's phony signature. He was charged with one count of perjury, as well as one count of conspiracy, one count of corrupt organization, 10 counts of theft by unlawful taking, 10 counts of theft by deception, 10 counts of receiving stolen property, 13 counts of forgery, and 13 counts of identity theft, among other charges.
Also arrested was David Ladenson, 79, a notary public for 50 years. Ladenson was charged with one count of conspiracy as well as 25 counts of false swearing and other charges, though he was not charged with corrupt organization.
Ladenson denied any involvement in the scam when reporter Bob Warner and I interviewed him last year at his business at 4752 N. Broad Street. John Melvin, of Phoenixville, who works with Ladenson, also was arrested, but charged only with one count each of conspiracy, false swearing and unsworn falsification.
Three women were, like Bey and Williams, charged with corrupt organization - which indicates they were central to the conspiracy:
_ Saeyda Quaye, of N. 63rd Street in West Philadelphia, was also charged with perjury and theft, among other charges.
_ Roslyn Johnson of N. Stillman Street in Fairmount also was charged with conspiracy and theft, among other charges.
_ Khadijah Brockington, of Bouvier Street, also was charged with conspiracy and theft, among other charges.
Also arrested on charges related to the case - though not with corrupt organization - were Renee Gethers, of Champlost Street in East Germantown; Trenis Gethers, of Bouvier Street; Noreen Lyons of Michener Street in Wadsworth, and Kevin Reid of Echelon Road in Voorhees.
Attempts to reach Ladenson, Melvin, Quaye, Johnson, Brockington and the two Gethers were not successful last night.
Lyons denied involvement in the scam, saying the first she knew of it was when detectives questioned her. Reid said he had no comment.
While the arrests may have busted this ring, state lawmakers balked at efforts by the district attorney's office and others to require notaries to adopt stricter standards for proof of identity in real estate transactions. And so the potential for additional victims exists.
And people like Devota Clark and others who lost precious and irreplaceable mementoes will never recover what was lost.
"You can always get furniture," Clark said yesterday. "But pictures of my brothers and sisters, who are deceased, pictures of me as a baby, pictures of my son and the flag - you can't replace those things." *
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