Robbed at the point of a pen

On a sunny August afternoon in 2002, Tina Smith walked her disabled patient into a sleek suburban real estate title company office.

David Shank recalls his nurse whispering last minute instructions in his ear:

"Just make sure you look like you understand everything you're reading, and sign."

Moments later, a mortgage broker with a dollar sign tattooed on his right hand walked in. As instructed, Shank penned his neat signature on a flurry of paperwork that afternoon, including a fraudulent $94,000 home loan that ultimately cost him the sturdy brick bungalow on the West Side that his parents had left him.

An easygoing 46-year-old with limpid blue eyes and a gentle voice, Shank had chronic leg ulcers that limited his mobility and learning disabilities that rendered him "totally incapable of making financial decisions," according to one psychiatrist's report.

The mortgage broker walked away with a $65,000 check--money he disbursed to companies Shank never heard of for debts he didn't have.

Shank was given a check for $23,000. He said nurse Smith convinced him to cash it at a currency exchange. She used some of that money to take Shank and her boyfriend on a four-day Caribbean cruise, then vanished.

Six months later, when the fraudulent loan went unpaid, Shank's home was taken in court by the mortgage company that extended the loan. Shank was moved into a group apartment with other disabled adults.

"I thought I had people I could trust, but no," Shank said.

Stories like Shank's are crowding court dockets as a surge of mortgage fraud sweeps Chicago and the nation, fueled by the new and dangerous marriage of identity theft and easy home loans.

The Tribune's account of Shank's case is drawn from interviews and thousands of pages of court depositions and records.

Like most mortgage fraud, Shank's ordeal involves confusing legal terms, reams of documents and financial sleights of hand. Stripped to its core, though, what happened to Shank in that brightly lit office is the story of four people involved in a brazen, face-to-face scam.

Tattooed mortgage broker Edwin Evans, 39, a powerfully built ex-convict in a suit and tie, allegedly orchestrated the scheme.

Evans' right-hand man, identity thief Christopher Scott, helped fill out phony documents. "We as black people are just catching up with mortgage fraud," Scott said in an interview. "White people been doing it for years."

The nurse, Smith, provided the bridge between Evans and his new client.

And there was Shank, surrounded by home loan professionals days after his mother died.

The broker

Edwin Evans spent seven years in Illinois prisons for violently raping a 14-year-old girl, then four more for hijacking a delivery truck at gunpoint. Paroled in 1999, Evans went into the mortgage business.

There, he prospered.

Six feet tall, with watchful, unflinching eyes, Evans soon ran companies that offered financial advice, prepared loans for homeowners and invested in property sprinkled through the South Side and suburbs.

Amid Chicago's red-hot real estate market, as low interest rates and rising property values touched off a flurry of mortgage refinancing, the home loan maker trolled his boyhood streets in a Lexus LX 470 SUV and a pinstriped suit.

His aliases include George L. Brown, Willie J. Cannon, Albert A. Dawson and Anthony Wilson, police records show.

Born Edwin George Evans, he was raised in a modest wood-frame house in Chicago's Morgan Park neighborhood.

"Edwin grew up in a safe, middle-class community," his mother, Mae Evans, wrote in a 1990s letter to a judge. "He played Little League baseball. He was also captain of his bowling team."

Real estate deals ran in the family. His mother, who also used the name May Morris, held state licenses as a real estate broker and salesperson starting in the 1970s. Both licenses were revoked in the 1990s after state regulators determined that she improperly handled client accounts. Despite those revocations, she won state approval as a loan originator last year, representing the family's E&I Funding Corp.

Mae Evans, who sometimes has presented herself as a financial consultant, has declared bankruptcy five times since 1986, court records show. She declined to comment.

"We don't talk about our business," she told a Tribune reporter.

Court records offer a harsher portrait of Edwin Evans' early years, depicting a teenage burglar who preyed on his South Side neighbors. A string of juvenile detentions led to adult felony convictions in the 1990s.

Even while drifting in and out of prison, Evans sharpened his real estate skills. In three instances, when Evans apparently was in prison, South Side homeowners purportedly gave him their property for nothing. Those land records are riddled with conflicting statements that raise questions about the legality of Evans' deals. The Tribune could not locate the original homeowners.

A month after he was paroled in 1999, Evans began signing records as president of another family-owned firm, Evans & Hall Realty Investment Corp.

While running the family firms, Evans was hired in 2001 by the rapidly growing Greater Investment Mortgage Corp., a south suburban company that arranges loans for homeowners.

Greater Investment CEO Nasir Muhammad told the Tribune he knew little about Evans' past. "Had I known he was a rapist, I wouldn't have hired him," Muhammad said.

Greater Investment was riding the boom of mortgage lending in Chicago's low-income and minority communities. The firm grew tenfold in its first three years, court records show.

With success came controversy: In three civil lawsuits besides those involving Evans, Greater Investment was accused of mortgage fraud, charges the company denies.

Muhammad, who sometimes goes by his birth name, Corian Echols, promoted Evans to branch manager of Greater Investment's nine-person Matteson office in 2002.

"I had no problems with him," Muhammad said, "until the Shank loan."

The right-hand man

"Cool Chris" Scott is a 26-year-old identity thief with an impish smile and close-cropped hair.

Scott this summer completed an 18-month federal prison sentence for two credit card fraud convictions, and he twice has been convicted of felony weapons charges.

He said he met Evans at a party where they discussed their luxury cars.

"Money know money," Scott said in an interview. "I was playing checks and credit cards. I was dabbling in real estate, but I didn't trust nobody. I wanted to learn, but wouldn't nobody teach me. Edwin taught me well."

In a court deposition for the Shank lawsuit, Evans denied meeting Scott until about a year after the Shank loan.

Records show Scott in 2001 incorporated a Harvey beauty salon named Kendra's Sudden Change, after his wife. It served as his cover as he learned to steal credit information. Some of the money went to buy high-speed motorcycles.

Scott said he supplied Evans with stolen identities after swiping patient files from a medical office where he worked briefly. Scott said Evans sorted the paperwork into "a lady pile, a man pile and a senior citizen pile."

In return for the data-rich records, Scott said, Evans gave him about $3,000 and let him stay in a south suburban home and use a Mercedes Benz S430 luxury sedan.

At Evans' invitation, Scott said, he began hanging out at mortgage closings "every chance I could get. We was like conjoined twins. He'd talk, I'd listen."

Scott recited his mentor's simple precepts:

People always need two things: food and a place to live.

A chameleon can adapt to any situation at any time.

Make sure your wife is happy. Keep her credit straight.

Evans interacted with his cohorts one at a time, limiting their knowledge of each other, Scott said. "Edwin taught me never to let the people meet. Stay the middle guy and bring the money home," Scott said.

Scott said he never met Shank and added, "I never got paid for that [deal]."

But Scott's signature is on the Shank loan and at least two other land deals involving Evans.

The two had a falling out in 2002, Scott said, after authorities locked Scott up for fraud and Evans didn't pay his bail.

"I thought he was a god, but he left me here hanging," Scott said in a prison interview earlier this year. He pointed to a reporter's notepad and dictated his next statement: "How could you leave your right-hand man out in the cold? Would you leave your right-hand man for $25,000? My bond was $25,000. He pretended like he didn't know me.

"I was furious at him when I came in here. I don't understand how I'm the only one here."

The victim

In the second-story group apartment where he now lives, David Shank's bedroom is lined with World Book encyclopedias, stuffed animals and autographed baseballs in clear plastic holders.

Shank said that with his father's guidance, he got those autographs from the players himself, not from a souvenir store. "They're not bought. Just hand 'em the baseball," he said.

On one wall, a framed image of Wrigley Field's infield features favorite ball cards. "That's my Cubs dream team," Shank said.

Another pastiche of snapshots shows the stray cats he adopted. Stormy, Rusty, Annie, Shadow and Ty "all had different personalities," Shank said. By the bed are his TV and a tiny plastic Christmas tree. Above hangs a hand-tinted Air Force photo of his father, Robert, a World War II gunner who became a construction foreman.

Shank's mother, Donna, had been a Steinmetz High School teacher's aide for students with mental disabilities like her only child's, records show.

Shank's father died at age 76 in 2001. A few months later, his mother had a series of heart attacks that left her in a wheelchair and difficult to understand. Shank was hospitalized for several weeks with leg ulcers--swelling tissue and sores tied to poor blood circulation. He and his mother began relying heavily on nurse Smith.

"Tina, she surprised me," Shank said.

Standing 5 feet 7 inches tall with expressive brown eyes, Smith, now 38, was a nursing assistant and "homemaker/companion" who passed criminal background checks at a series of temporary nursing agencies and hospitals.

A reporter's recent attempts to find her through family members and previous home addresses in Illinois, Michigan and California were unsuccessful. Process servers in a civil lawsuit also were unable to locate her.

In May or June 2002, at the invitation of Smith, Shank's disabled mother was visited by Yolanda Spearman, a polite and businesslike loan broker who worked for Evans at Greater Investment.

On the side, Spearman also ran her own financial consulting firms, which weren't registered or incorporated. Spearman declared bankruptcy five times since 1993, court records show.

She was not charged with any crime in the Shank deal. She denied wrongdoing in a civil lawsuit and could not be reached for comment.

At Greater Investment, Spearman had been preparing a mortgage application to borrow $94,000 against the Shank home before July 14, 2002, when Donna Shank died.

The day after she died, Spearman created a new application for David Shank.

Six weeks later, on that August afternoon in 2002, the lives of Evans and Shank intersected in a bland-looking title company office. Shank thought he was being offered an easy way to get cash to pay some bills.

The scam

Even though inheritance laws made Shank the sole owner of his home, Spearman and another Greater Investment loan officer prepared a phony deed transferring the bungalow to him, according to court records.

The official-looking deed, supposedly signed by both of Shank's parents, was created two days after Shank's mother died but dated a year earlier. It helped speed along the mortgage.

Greater Investment prepared a mortgage application in Shank's name. The package was a crazy quilt of obvious contradictions.

The application said Shank had managed Scott's beauty salon since 1999, even though the salon wasn't incorporated until 2001. Shank's purported pay stub for August was issued in July.

Shank, supposedly earning $43,000 a year as manager, had no idea the salon existed. But when a lending company called Kendra's Sudden Change to verify Shank's work history, Scott was there to confirm the bogus information.

Other real estate professionals played cameo roles in the scheme. At the August 2002 loan signing, a title insurance company employee known as an escrow closer notarized the forged signature of Shank's father, asserting that the World War II veteran appeared in the office that afternoon, more than a year after his death.

Shank's loan application said he owed tens of thousands of dollars to companies run by Evans and Spearman, even though commercially available credit reports showed Shank had no creditors. The listing of those questionable debts would help Evans access the mortgage proceeds.

Based on Greater Investment's application, Aegis Mortgage Co. of Louisiana advanced a $94,000 loan.

After the papers were signed, a bouquet of checks was cut.

One $65,000 check was made payable to the Evans & Hall firm as a "creditor," for "services rendered."

Evans took that $65,000 check and gave his subordinate Spearman two checks for $20,000 each, court records show. One was made out to her personally, and the other to her unregistered financial consulting company, ABC Credit. In a later court deposition, Spearman said she used the money to pay Shank family debts, although she could provide no evidence she did so.

In addition to the $40,000 that went to Spearman, Evans claimed a $10,000 fee for purportedly offering Shank investment advice. Evans said in a later deposition that he gave the remaining $15,000 to Shank, although he could produce no receipts or records verifying this.

"David was fine with it," Evans testified. "David told me what to do with the money. I did exactly what he asked me to do. That was my relationship with David Shank."

After Evans took $65,000, and $6,000 went toward closing costs, Shank was left with a $23,000 check. He and Smith cashed it at a currency exchange. Though Shank remains confused about what happened to the cash, the public guardian alleges that Smith absconded with it.

Shank said his nurse told him she won a Caribbean travel package in a contest. Whenever any expense came up, "Tina took care of it," he said.

In a quiet voice, Shank added: "She was using my money."

The deal unravels

When the $94,000 loan went unpaid, the Louisiana lending company filed court papers to take Shank's house. Shank had no clue about the financial chaos looming over him until 2003, when he showed legal papers to a cousin. She called authorities.

The Cook County public guardian's office waged an 18-month-long civil lawsuit that forced Evans to pay back the $65,000 that he and his Evans & Hall Realty Investment Corp. took.

But that made up only part of the mortgage. Shank couldn't pay the rest. And though he had been duped, his signature was on the paperwork. His home was sold to repay the loan company.

Under an arrangement crafted by the court and the public guardian, Shank was moved into the group apartment with other disabled wards and a full-time home care worker. After the mortgage company was paid in full, the remaining home sale proceeds were placed in a court-supervised trust fund to supplement Shank's primary income from public aid benefits.

Last year, state regulators declared the 2002 mortgage "fraudulent," levying a $10,000 fine against Greater Investment, Evans' employer.

But Evans was not charged with any crime or disciplined by regulators. He moved on to other firms to execute other disputed deals. In civil suits and other records, five more homeowners have accused Evans and his companies of fraud.

In court cases, Evans denied wrongdoing, and he declined a Tribune interview request. "I don't want to talk to you," he told a reporter.

Under a new state law, Evans' criminal record might disqualify him as a mortgage broker. But he works under the family firm E&I Funding Corp., which is 91 percent owned by his wife, and thus avoids the required background check.

Former public guardian attorney Peter Schmiedel said Evans and his associates "robbed [Shank] at a time when his mother had just died. These people swooped in and swept away his only asset."

Shank's case was referred to the FBI and prosecutors, but authorities seem "just overwhelmed with the amount of mortgage fraud out there," said Schmiedel's colleague, Dawn Lawkowski.

Federal and Cook County prosecutors would not confirm or deny any investigation of the Shank loan.

In October 2004, Evans appeared in court for the public guardian's civil lawsuit. Wearing a crisp brown suit and mustard shirt, he presented the judge with a stack of checks and cash to make the last payment on the $65,000.

As his lawyer counted out thousands of dollars in front of the public guardian attorneys and the judge, a sharp-eyed mortgage company lawyer noted that Evans was still $800 short.

Unfazed, Evans pulled a money clip from his pocket and peeled off eight $100 bills. The Shank case was discharged.