A Sunland real estate agent has been charged with forging documents in an attempt to steal more than $5 million worth of real estate from a self-described "old hermit" who lives in Glendale, authorities said Wednesday.
The agent was tripped up by a title company employee who saw a property transfer document and knew the original owner, 88-year-old Neal Garrett, was adamant about hanging onto his land.
"She knew damned well that I wouldn't let anybody sell my property," Garrett said Wednesday outside his aging beige stucco house, hidden from the street by thick vegetation. "I'm so well established that I don't want to sell anything. She knew that. She called me up and told me."
Garrett, a thin white-haired man whose house is cluttered with boxes, books and file cabinets, owns at least 115 properties, mainly undeveloped sites, investigators said. The reclusive resident declined to say how he acquired the land.
"I'm an old hermit who wants to keep it a secret that I've got anything," Garrett said.
Glendale Police Detective Ruth Feldman said officers arrested real estate agent Abranham Avanous Hovik, 49, of Sunland, on May 2 outside the office of Help-U-Sell of La Crescenta & Sunland Tujunga, where he has been employed since Jan. 14. Hovik, who has used several aliases, possessed a check for $39,000 and an automated bank teller card, both in Garrett's name, at the time of his arrest, authorities said.
Feldman said Hovik put one of Garrett's properties on the market, triggering inquiries within the real estate community that led to his arrest.
Hovik pleaded not guilty on May 6 to six counts of filing false documents with the county recorder, six counts of forgery and one count of theft. Hovik was ordered to return to Glendale Municipal Court May 21 for a preliminary hearing. He remained in Los Angeles County Jail this week in lieu of $300,000 bail.
Glendale police said they withheld details of the case until Wednesday because the investigation was continuing. Detectives initially believed Hovik had taken 21 pieces of property from Garrett, but by Wednesday, another 14 illegally transferred parcels had turned up, Feldman said. Police are still seeking possible accomplices in the case.
Altogether, the stolen property was valued at more than $5 million, Feldman said. Investigators also found evidence that Hovik had transferred the address on Garrett's bank holdings to himself--accounts containing more than $780,000.
Feldman said police found no evidence that Hovik had spent money from the accounts or sold any of Garrett's property before his arrest.
Police believe the land transfers were done by forging Garrett's name and that of a notary public on quitclaim deeds. Such documents, obtained at stationery stores, allow a person to surrender property ownership rights on a parcel to another party. A notary public is responsible for verifying the identity of those who sign such documents.
On the forged deeds, the land transfers were listed as "gifts" from Garrett to Hovik, Feldman said.
"It's a horrible thing," Garrett said. "I've only seen the man twice. That was just to tell him I didn't want to sell."