Five people from Fresno were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of running a statewide housing scheme that led to the fraudulent seizure of 23 houses in nine counties, the California Attorney General's Office announced.
Arrested were Sandra Elaine Barton, 30, Christopher Spencer Barton, 31, Daniel Paul Vedenoff, 29, Sheldon W. Feigel, 50, and Craig Merrill Mortensen, 60, all of Fresno. Feigel and Mortensen are lawyers.
They were charged with 288 felony counts including perjury, filing false court records and preparing false evidence. Another suspect, Cambria Lisa Barton, 21, remains at large.
All were booked into the Fresno County Jail in lieu of bail ranging from $27,500 to $1.8 million and face restitution payments of at least $3.5 million, the Attorney General's Office said.
The Barton family, along with Vedenoff, Sandra Barton's boyfriend, worked with Feigel and Mortensen to identify abandoned houses and file for adverse possession of the property to obtain the title, according to the complaint filed in Fresno County Superior Court.
Under state law, an individual can claim adverse possession of property if he or she has occupied or claimed it and paid property taxes continuously for at least five years.
The Barton family and their attorneys provided fraudulent statements in court between 2006 and 2013 to obtain at least 23 homes in Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Madera, Merced, Santa Barbara, San Mateo, Sonoma and Tulare counties, the complaint said.
Most of the other homes involved in the scam were sold to new owners or have renters living in them, the attorney general's office said.
"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 Kamala D. Harris said in a news release. "The conduct of the attorneys in this scheme is even more offensive because they violated their ethical duty to be honest to the courts."
The scheme was uncovered in 2010 when Nancy Zelepsky, a Santa Barbara County homeowner, had a title company search her property for any liens against it.
The company told her that Sandra Barton was the deed holder through documents filed by Mortensen.
With help from the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County, a court determined that Barton's claim to the property was fraudulent and restored ownership to Zelepsky.
The court then notified the California State Bar about Mortensen and the attorney general's office opened its investigation in June 2011.
The case was headed by Harris' Mortgage Fraud Strike Force, which was created in May 2011 to investigate and prosecute misconduct at all stages of the mortgage process.
This is not the first time Mortensen's name has come up in a contested real estate practice.
In 2002, Mortensen resigned as lawyer for the Fresno Irrigation District after the district's method of collecting delinquent assessments from 1998 to 2001 came under fire.
During that four-year period, the district collected back assessments by selling dozens of foreclosed farms, houses and lots worth millions of dollars for a fraction of their value to Fresno businessman Roger K. Boman and his company, Public Properties Inc. Boman was a friend, client and corporate associate of Mortensen's.
At the time, Mortensen said in a letter that he took "complete responsibility" for the district's debt-collection methods.
Neither Mortensen nor Feigel, a Sanger attorney, currently have any disciplinary actions recorded against them, according to data posted on the state bar's website.
A state bar spokeswoman said a criminal conviction would be grounds for suspending or disbarring an attorney.
Mortensen faces a maximum state prison sentence of approximately 108 years, Sandra Barton faces 103 years, Feigel faces 15 years, Christopher Barton faces seven years and Vedenoff faces eight years, the Attorney General's Office said.
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