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California Attorney General Takes Down Title Fraud Ring

Black Gavel Pic/Credit: Brand X Pictures

California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris announced the arrest of five individuals who allegedly ran a statewide housing scheme by using adverse possession laws to fraudulently seize at least 23 homes in nine counties.

“It is reprehensible that these individuals lied to the courts in order to steal homes and in some cases to demand payment from the rightful owners,” Attorney General Harris said. “The conduct of the attorneys in this scheme is even more offensive because they violated their ethical duty to be honest to the courts. I am pleased that my mortgage fraud strike force, together with our state and local partners, continue to investigate and prosecute these crimes against our people and our economy."

Sandra Elaine Barton, Christopher Spencer Barton, Daniel Paul Vedenoff, Sheldon W. Feigel  and Craig Merrill Mortensen, all of Fresno, Calif., were arrested and charged with 288 felony counts including perjury, filing false court records and preparing false evidence. Cambria Lisa Barton remains at large.

All were booked into the Fresno County Jail on bail ranging from $27,500 to $1,795,000 and face restitution payments of at least $3.5 million.

According to the Attorney General’s filing, the Barton family, along with Vedenoff, Sandra Barton’s boyfriend, allegedly worked with two lawyers, Mortensen and Feigel, to identify seemingly abandoned residential properties and file for adverse possession of the property in court in order to obtain title. Once a Barton family member obtained ownership, the property would then allegedly be restored and was typically sold or rented.

Under California law (Code of Civil Procedure 325), an individual can claim adverse possession of real property if he or she has occupied or claimed it continuously for at least five years and paid property taxes for that period of time, among other requirements.

According to the Attorney General’s filing, since 2006, Barton family members and their attorneys allegedly provided factually impossible and knowingly fraudulent evidence and statements in court under penalty of perjury in order to obtain at least 23 residential properties in nine counties. These counties include: Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Madera, Merced, Santa Barbara, San Mateo, Sonoma and Tulare.

The alleged scheme was uncovered when Nancy Zelepsky, the true owner of a residence in Santa Barbara County, sought an equity loan in 2010 and contacted a title company in order to determine if there were any 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. After seeking assistance from the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County, a court determined that Sandra Barton’s prior claim to the property was fraudulent and restored ownership to Zelepsky. The court then notified the California State Bar regarding Mortensen and the California Attorney General’s office opened an investigation in June 2011.

This case was headed by Attorney General Harris’ Mortgage Fraud Strike Force, which was created in May 2011 to investigate and prosecute misconduct at all stages of the mortgage process.

Sandra Barton faces a maximum state prison sentence of approximately 103 years, Mortensen faces 108 years, Feigel faces 15 years, Christopher Barton faces seven years and Vedenoff faces eight years.

The Attorney General’s Office was assisted in this case by the State Bar of California, Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, Kern County Sheriff’s Department, Clovis Police Department and Fresno Police Department.

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