In an unusual move, a Fresno County judge has not only dismissed fraud charges against a Sanger lawyer, but apologized to him for a nearly three-year legal ordeal during which his wife died and he was disbarred.
In dismissing charges against Sheldon Feigel, Superior Court Judge W. Kent Hamlin dealt a major blow to a high-profile California Department of Justice investigation. State officials accused Feigel, 53, and Fresno lawyer Craig Mortensen, 63, of engaging in a housing scheme that led to the fraudulent seizure of two dozen homes in several counties, including Fresno County.
On Wednesday, Hamlin granted the prosecution’s motion to dismiss the case against Feigel with prejudice, meaning charges can’t be refiled against Feigel.
“Honestly, as I look at this case, I am puzzled as to how you were ever charged in this case and I’m disturbed by everything I’ve read about this case and how you and your family were treated in this case,” Hamlin told Feigel. “And since you won’t get the apology from the attorney general or the Department of Justice, on their behalf I’ll apologize for them.”
But Hamlin said Mortensen will stand trial on 94 fraud charges.
Hamlin made his ruling after hearing five days of testimony in a preliminary hearing. He said Thursday that the prosecution faces an uphill battle because Sandra Barton, the key witness against Mortensen, has pleaded guilty to perjury charges for her role in the housing scam.
“We have a witness who is obviously a horrible liar,” the judge said.
But because Barton told the truth at times, Hamlin said it would be up to a jury to decide if Mortensen was guilty.
Afterward, Fresno defense attorneys Roger Nuttall and Wayne Green, who represent Mortensen, bristled at the ruling.
“The judge basically said maybe a jury will believe some of what she says,” Nuttall said.
“Maybe is not enough,” said Nuttall, who described Mortensen as a “respected lawyer” who is still practicing law.
‘Gone through a lot’
On the other hand, Feigel is relieved to be exonerated, said Fresno defense lawyer Mark Coleman, who represents Feigel. “He and his family have gone through a lot in the past few years,” he said, noting that at the time of Feigel’s arrest, he had no criminal history.
And since you won’t get the apology from the attorney general or the Department of Justice, on their behalf I’ll apologize for them.
Judge W. Kent Hamlin
Feigel’s ordeal began in January 2014, when armed DOJ special agents raided his Sanger home, pointing weapons at him, his wife and children, Coleman said. The raid happened around 6:30 a.m. and when the Feigels were sleeping, said Coleman, who called the raided “heavy-handed and unprofessional.”
State agents later searched Feigel’s office. Feigel asked to speak to his attorney, but was denied. “He was then held in custody for 26 hours and denied his constitutional right to speak with his attorney,” Coleman said.
The California Attorney General’s Office issued a news release, announcing the arrests of Feigel, Mortensen, Barton, Christopher Spencer Barton, Cambria Lisa Barton and Daniel Paul Vedenoff.
They were charged in Fresno County Superior Court with 288 felony counts, including perjury, filing false court records and preparing false evidence. They were booked into the Fresno County Jail in lieu of bail ranging from $27,500 to $1.8 million and faced restitution payments of at least $3.5 million, the Attorney General’s Office said at the time. The penalties ranged from 108 years in prison for Mortensen if convicted to eight years for Vedenoff. Feigel faced 15 years in prison if convicted.
Coleman said Wednesday that the raid and pending felony charges put a lot of stress on Feigel and his wife, Stacey.
Feigel is no longer a lawyer; he was disbarred in 2015. He now sells solar panels.
A month after the raid, Stacey Feigel, 48, was headed to court to support her husband when she collapsed while going through security of the downtown Fresno courthouse. Coleman said she suffered an apparent heart attack. She later was pronounced dead at Community Regional Medical Center, leaving her husband of more than 26 years with five children to raise.
He was then held in custody for 26 hours and denied his constitutional right to speak with his attorney.
Fresno defense lawyer Mark Coleman
The state’s case
According to the criminal complaint, the Barton family along with Vedenoff worked with Feigel and Mortensen to identify abandoned houses and file for adverse possession of the property to obtain the title. 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 complaint accused the Barton family and the two attorneys of providing 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 case was led by Attorney General Kamala Harris’ Mortgage Fraud Strike Force, which was created in May 2011 to investigate and prosecute misconduct at all stages of the mortgage process.
But in May 2015, state prosecutors dismissed the case against the seven defendants, with the intention of refiling it, court records say.
When it was refiled in February this year, only Feigel and Mortensen were charged: Feigel faced 28 felony charges and Mortensen faced about 145 felony charges, court records say. The other defendants were given plea deals, lawyers said.
In her testimony, Sandra Barton said she pleaded to perjury charges with hopes of remaining free on an ankle monitor.
Sandra Barton testified Feigel never told her to lie in court filings or in court declarations. She also said Feigel didn’t know she was lying in the court filings and declarations.
In addition, she testified that Feigel trusted her and that he was honest.
With Sandra Barton’s help, state prosecutors linked Mortensen to seven properties in such places as Pasadena, Rosemead, Van Nuys, Lancaster, Kernville and Fresno. The key evidence against Mortensen is that he ended up getting title to one piece of property. He also paid taxes on another piece of property.
Nuttall argued Mortensen’s actions don’t constitute a criminal act. He also said Mortensen didn’t know Sandra Barton was filing fraudulent documents to obtain the properties.
But Hamlin said Mortensen’s getting title to one of the properties and paying taxes on another suggests he had knowledge of what Sandra Barton was doing.