Deborah Maxwell thought she did everything right when she bought the house on Chelsea Avenue.
A nurse for 28 years, Maxwell bought the rental home from someone she trusted — her longtime insurance agent. Then one day in 2015, she discovered someone had seized ownership of the house, forging paperwork at the Jackson County Courthouse to make it appear she had given it away.
Maxwell didn’t know the man who claimed to own the house and started collecting rent on it. And when she went to the house to complain, the man chased her off. Maxwell made a complaint with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office but was told that until the property record was sorted out in court, she could expect no results.
Attorneys later explained that Maxwell appeared to be the victim of a common scam carried out with a legal document called a quit claim deed. Unlike other forms of property transfer, the quit claim deed makes no guarantee of who is the true owner when it hands over property from one person to another. Easily faked, they have been used to defraud elderly people of their houses in many cases across the country.
Quit claim frauds in various forms are reported in Jackson County about a dozen times a year, said Sgt. John Payne, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office. Such cases are rarely prosecuted unless they involve numerous homes or large dollar amounts.
It’s just one example of the kinds of real estate schemes that target vulnerable people and properties, exploiting points in the legal system where no one is watching out for law-abiding citizens, said Peter Hoffman, an attorney with Legal Aid of Western Missouri.
“Nobody’s ever there to look at these things and raise a red flag,” Hoffman said. “And there are people out there who are desperate.”
A long battle
The only way for Maxwell to get her house back was to go to court. It would take nearly two years and thousands of dollars in legal fees. By the time she did, the man who sold her the house — and according to court records, cheated her out of it — would be in prison for money laundering in an unrelated federal drug case.
According to court documents, Maxwell bought house in 2008 from her auto insurance agent, Jeffreye Hines, for $75,000. Maxwell said she had known Hines for years, since he insured her teenage daughter’s first car.
“He seemed like an OK business guy,” Maxwell said. “I always considered him a religious person. He always went to church.”
Maxwell rented the house out, but in 2014, her tenant stopped paying. The young woman living there said she had paid the rent to someone else.
Only then did Maxwell learn that Hines had illegally sold her house to a company called 5K Investor’s LLC.
A quit claim deed filed with the county appeared to show Maxwell giving the house to the company for no money. The deed bore a signature with Maxwell’s name, but she said she never signed it and had never heard of the company.
Even so the deed, as far as the law was concerned, gave the house to 5K Investor’s.
The registered agent for the company, Kenddrick E. Stone Sr., did not return calls seeking comment.
A convicted felon
Maxwell said Stone told her that Hines, his uncle, had sold him the house for $8,000. Hines is serving a 30-month sentence for money laundering at the federal prison in Leavenworth.
Six months before the quit claim deed was filed on Maxwell’s house in November 2013, Hines had been indicted as part of a cocaine distribution ring along with 17 other people including co-defendants Brian “Pee Wee” Johnson, Alvin “Flu” Dixon and Garron “Guice” Briggs.
The group was charged with selling crack in the Kansas City area. As part of his guilty plea, Hines admitted helping the group buy houses and cars to conceal drug proceeds. He was required to forfeit nearly $250,000. When federal agents arrested the group, they seized hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and diamond-encrusted watches.
In the meantime, Maxwell effectively lost the house for nearly two years. And yet she had little choice but to keep paying the property taxes and insurance.
“The whole deal is just insane to me,” said Maxwell’s attorney, Angela Habeebullah. “I just can’t understand how someone can claim a deed on a property when they’ve had no contact with the buyer and exchanged no money.”
The quit claim deed has long been known to real estate attorneys and law enforcement as a common instrument of fraud. No verification of its accuracy is required, except that it be notarized. The Jackson County Recorder of Deeds, where property documents are stored in Jackson County, doesn’t verify documents but simply puts them on record.
Maxwell filed a lawsuit against Hines and 5K Investor’s to regain the house. In court, the former public notary who notarized the deed, Steve Schaefer, testified that he had notarized Hines’ signature on the deed transfer but that he had never notarized Maxwell’s signature.
On March 1, Jackson County Circuit Judge S. Margene Burnett ruled Maxwell was the rightful owner and Stone’s quit claim deed was invalid because Maxwell’s signature had been “forged.” Hines and 5K Investor’s had “perpetrated this misrepresentation,” the judge wrote. She ordered them to pay Maxwell $20,000 in damages.
No one representing Stone or Hines appeared at the bench trial.
‘A lot of frustration’
Maxwell said she was “elated” at the result but that the months-long battle in court had been hard. “It’s a lot of frustration, to have something you’ve worked hard for, that you’ve taken care of, snatched from you.”
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office still has an open case from Maxwell’s March 2015 complaint, said Payne, the Jackson County Sheriff’s spokesman. But Payne said he wasn’t hopeful of seeing the case closed. “Short of the guy confessing, probably not,” he said. “The forgery’s hard to prove.
“The prosecutors are overworked. They don’t put a lot of emphasis on it,” he said.
At times, federal prosecutors will file charges in such cases, Payne said, but usually only when the dollar amounts near $1 million.
In February 2015, Jackson County prosecutors charged Willis L. Watson in connection with a series of questionable quit claim deeds on houses in Kansas City.
In Florida, a man arrested six years ago in connection with a series of allegedly fraudulent quit claim deeds later pleaded guilty in a scheme to illegally take over dozens of homes and rent them out to tenants. A television station in Tampa uncovered a similar scheme last year.
Real estate attorneys say the best way to guard against such fraud is to check with the local recorder of deed’s office to see if any unusual paperwork has filed on your property.
Legal Aid of Western Missouri can help some residents who find themselves in Maxwell’s position. For more information, call 816-474-9868 or visit lawmo.org.