DA: Paper terrorists stealing homes

S. DeKalb home is one of 19 Ga. properties usurped by 'sovereign citizen' group

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/August 19, 2010

When a new family moved into the mansion on South Goddard Road in south DeKalb County, residents just assumed they were "city folks" too busy to meet neighbors.Georgia Power and the water company came out, but 87-year-old Helen Goddard never saw the residents.

"We know everyone around here. But they were quiet, no knocking on the door to introduce themselves," said Goddard, whose husband's family has lived in the area for centuries and are the namesake for the road.

The only time Goddard saw her next-door neighbors was when they were being led off in handcuffs.

Prosecutors say the $1 million brick home next to the Goddards' farmhouse is one of at least 19 properties that have been taken over by a sect of anti-government extremists involved in criminal behavior.

They call themselves "sovereign citizens" and believe they are immune to state and federal laws. They assert, among other things, that banks can't own land and that any home owned by a bank - including the thousands throughout Georgia - is free for the taking.

Police and prosecutors take a different view. The FBI has listed them on the domestic terrorist list, saying their crime of choice is paper terrorism and attempting to disrupt the U.S. economy.

"Let's not paint these people to be Robin Hood because they're not giving to the poor," DeKalb County Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney John Melvin told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "They are taking."

Prosecutors said the local sovereign citizens are consistent with other anarchist movements, filing lawsuits and liens on police, government officials and anyone who questions them.

They are all born in the U.S., but create their own drivers' licenses, complete with seals for fictitious nations. Many of the suspects have multiple names and a history of not paying taxes.

"They don't believe in the U.S. and our laws until they are arrested. Then they want a lawyer," said Lt. Joe Fagan, commander of DeKalb Police's North Precinct.

The FBI says the national movement has been around for decades and has ties to the Nuwaubians, a black supremacist group that started near Augusta. Nationally, sovereign citizens, which originated as a white supremacist group, have been connected to multiple insurance fraud and tax evasion scams, along with some violent crimes.

Locally, investigators have tied the sovereign citizens to at least 19 property thefts in DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Spalding, Newton and Richmond counties. They include mansions - some still under construction - and a shopping center in Buckhead valued at $13 million.

Police have charged six suspects - including Goddard's two neighbors Linda and Gregory Ross - with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organizations Act. Warrants have been issued for another five suspects.

Most of the properties are in foreclosure, but there also were some vacant homes for sale.

"It's a different animal than squatters," Melvin said. "They show bogus quitclaim deeds, call the locksmith and move in. For them, it's that easy."

DeKalb, which broke the case, is leading the prosecution for all of the counties, Melvin said. The grand jury is now reviewing the cases.

The investigation started in May when a real estate agent called DeKalb police to report that the locks were being changed on a $1 million home he was selling on Windsor Parkway in Atlanta.

"The locksmith rolled up and the sovereign citizen reported he was the owner," Fagan said.

Jermaine Eric Gibson, 36, and Joseph Dion Lawler, 45, had created a phony quitclaim deed and moved into a foreclosed house, police said. They posted phony deeds in the window and used them to persuade utility workers to turn on the electricity and water.

"We raided the house and through our investigation we found the central location for their operations was a Lithonia mansion," Melvin told the AJC.

Investigators began pulling the bogus deeds, which had been filed with the Superior Court clerks in each county. They quickly saw that many of the deeds listed the same contract address.

Channel 2 Action News also launched an investigation and linked those suspects to several other house thefts.

Investigators said the suspects had used fraudulent deeds to turn the properties over to themselves and then filed them with court clerks throughout north Georgia. On the majority of the deeds, the price is listed as 21 silver dollars, which is consistent with other sovereign citizen schemes nationwide, prosecutors said. On others, the price is listed at "zero dollars."

The banks that owned the homes were unaware of the deed changes.

"The banks have so many of them [foreclosures] and it's hard to keep track of them," said John H. Moore, a real estate attorney in Cobb County.

Investigators talked to prosecutors and the county marshal's office, who first reported the pattern of problem evictions: the so-called sovereign citizens refusing to leave, Melvin said.

In each case, the suspects had posted the fraudulent deeds in the window, hoping to deter the marshals.

Police said they have not noted any violence associated with these groups in the Atlanta area, but other self-proclaimed sovereign citizens have been charged with the shooting deaths of two police officers in Arkansas in May.

"We have definitely been concerned about officer safety. There is always that potential, but we've been prepared," Fagan said.

Investigators recovered a gun from one of the stolen Atlanta area homes, Melvin said. They've also seized furniture, electronics and other personal belongings.

Remnants of those belongings remain scattered on the lawn outside the massive brick home on South Goddard, near Arabia Mountain State Park. Crime scene tape is still wrapped around a tree and tattered pieces of clothing litter the circular driveway in front of the four-car garage.

Other than those few items, an eviction notice from the DeKalb Marshal's Office posted in the window is all that remains from the sovereign citizens.

Helen Goddard worries that the longer the house sits vacant, the more it will affect neighborhood property values and their safety.

The vacant house was initially valued at almost $1 million, but was listed at $339,000 after going into foreclosure, according to property records.

An attorney for Linda Ross, one of Goddard's two neighbors, said she was a victim of a sovereign citizen scam and unaware of her husband's activities.

"They convinced them they could move in by paying silver dollars instead of the full price," attorney Tom Ford told the AJC. "Linda is a nurse with seven children. She has not signed a quitclaim deed. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets wrapped up in this arrest."

Linda Ross has since been released on a $50,000 bond while her husband remains in jail.

Court records show Gibson filed a petition in April with the DeKalb court clerk to change his name. "I am a sovereign Hebrew Israelite/Moor. I am changing my name to reclaim my freedom," he wrote.

He also filed an "affidavit of truth" in Fulton, claiming he is a "natural, freeborn sovereign without subjects."

Corey Bernard Freeman, 41, filed a similar affidavit last month in Gwinnett, saying he is a "common man of the sovereign people" and doesn't have to follow any laws. Freeman is charged with deeding a house to himself in DeKalb and one in Henry County.

Police encourage residents to be "nosy neighbors" and monitor foreclosures in their neighborhoods.

Prosecutors said they plan to ask legislators to toughen laws for filing quitclaim deeds, an affidavit that transfers a piece of property from owner to another.

Anyone can type up a quitclaim deed, have it notarized and file it with the local clerk of court. All that is required to file the deed is a small fee and a valid driver's license, said Minnie Rucker, of the DeKalb Superior Court clerk's real estate division.

"What we look for are signatures for the grantor and grantee, a transfer note and notary," she said. "We don't really police the documents."

That's why prosecutors hope to crack down on the scheme before it becomes a bigger problem.

"It's an economic threat," Melvin said. "At the end of the day, these people are in these homes illegally. They cause damage to the properties and are raising the tax burden on everyone."

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