California authorities recently accused two lawyers and their associates of abusing squatters-rights laws as they tried to stake claims in abandoned homes throughout nine California counties. In this scam six Fresno residents stole 23 properties across California ranging from rural shacks to a condo near yacht slips in Marina del Rey before being exposed.
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. They were identified as Sandra Elaine Barton, 30; Christopher Spencer Barton, 31; and attorneys Sheldon W. Feigel, 50, and Craig M. Mortensen, 60.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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 court then notified the California State Bar regarding Mortensen and the attorney general’s office opened an investigation in June 2011.
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