In what they call an unprecedented case, authorities have accused six Fresno residents of abusing a squatters-rights law to steal no fewer than 23 properties across California.
The homes range from shacks in rural hamlets and a house near the Twenty Mule Team Museum in Boron to a condo near the yacht slips in Marina del Rey.
The defendants "lied to the courts" to stake claims to apparently abandoned homes in nine counties, California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said in a news release. Two of those arrested were lawyers, whose conduct, she said, "is even more offensive because they violated their ethical duty to be honest to the courts."
FOR THE RECORD:
Housing case: In the Jan. 18 Business section, an article said that six Fresno-area residents were accused of stealing 23 homes by abusing a law that allows squatters to take over abandoned homes. In fact, the defendants gained ownership of 18 homes by allegedly falsifying court filings.
Five defendants were arrested Wednesday, of whom four remained in the Fresno county jail Friday morning. They were identified as Sandra Elaine Barton, 30; Christopher Spencer Barton, 31; and attorneys Sheldon W. Feigel, 50, and Craig M. Mortensen, 60.
Daniel Paul Vedenoff, 29, who is Sandra Barton's boyfriend, was arrested and held overnight before bailing out on Thursday, according to Nicholas Pacilio, a Harris spokesman. Vedenoff couldn't be reached for comment. The sixth defendant, Cambria Lisa Barton, 21, remained at large, Pacilio said.
A 144-page, 288-count complaint accuses the defendants of felonies including perjury, filing false court records and preparing false evidence -- allegedly phony documentation that persuaded judges to grant them title to the homes. They then sold or rented out the properties, Harris said.
An attorney for one of the arrested lawyers said his client disputed the allegations, which were filed after more than two years of investigation and came, he said, without any warning.
"To put it mildly, there is a disagreement here over what occurred," said the defense attorney, H. Wayne Green of Clovis.
California's adverse possession law allows individuals to take over other people's abandoned real estate if a court finds certain conditions have been met. The requirements include openly claiming and improving the homes, paying property taxes that come due, and living in the houses or renting them out for five years.
Harris said the family, aided by the lawyers, did live in, fix up, and pay taxes on some of the homes -- but never for the required five years. The documentation was falsified extensively to make it appear as if that standard had been met, she said.
Pacilio said no lawyers had come forward representing the Bartons or Vedenoff.
Feigel's lawyer, Mark W. Coleman of Fresno, described his client as a victim of the alleged scheme, not a perpetrator. He said Feigel had submitted the legal paperwork for only three of the 23 properties involved.
"He had no idea that the representations being made by his clients were false, if that is the case" Coleman said.
Defense attorney Green, representing Mortensen, said his client "wholeheartedly disagrees" with the accusation that he was part of a criminal scheme.
"It's our position that he was a lawyer representing a client, and that he did not knowingly enter into any scheme to defraud anybody," Green said. "He's an honorable man who's been in this community for over 30 years -- a good lawyer, well thought-of."
Authorities said the alleged scheme, which dated back to 2006, was uncovered in 2010 when Nancy Zelepsky, the owner of a home in the Santa Barbara County town of Guadalupe, sought an equity loan and contacted a title company to check for liens against her property.
Zelepsky was notified that Sandra Barton had been listed as the deed holder of the home in July of that year through documents filed by Mortensen, Harris' office said in a news release.
The Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County helped convince a court that Barton's claim to the property was fraudulent and the judge restored ownership to Zelepsky, the news release said.
The court then notified the California State Bar regarding Mortensen and the attorney general's office opened an investigation in June 2011.