Felony charges were dismissed Friday against a Fresno lawyer who was arrested four years ago in a high-profile investigation into a statewide housing scheme.
Fresno Superior Court Judge W. Kent Hamlin dismissed 14 fraud and perjury charges against 64-year-old Craig Mortensen after a jury in April could not convict the lawyer on the 14 counts and found him not guilty of 10 other perjury charges.
"In essence, the judge dismissed the case because he did not believe the prosecution could prove the remaining charges beyond a reasonable doubt," said Fresno attorney Roger Nuttall, who defended Mortensen.
It was the second time Hamlin had made such a decision in the California Department of Justice case.
In December 2016, Hamlin dismissed fraud charges against Sanger lawyer Sheldon Feigel and apologized to him for enduring a nearly three-year legal ordeal during which his wife died inside the courthouse.
"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."
The case started in January 2014, when DOJ agents announced the arrests of Mortensen, Feigel and three other people in a scheme that state prosecutors said led to the fraudulent seizure of two dozen homes in several counties, including Fresno County.
The five defendants were initially charged with 288 felony counts including perjury, filing false court records and preparing false evidence. All 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.
A criminal complaint accused Sandra Barton, Christopher Barton and Daniel Paul Vedenoff of working 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 them 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 then-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 by May 2015, state prosecutors dismissed the case against the defendants with the intention of refiling it, court records say. When it was refiled, only Feigel and Mortensen were charged; the other defendants were given plea deals, lawyers said.
In his December 2016 ruling, Hamilin said the prosecution faced an uphill battle because Sandra Barton, the key witness against Mortensen, had pleaded guilty to perjury charges for her role in the housing scam. "We have a witness who is obviously a horrible liar," Hamlin said at the time.
But because Barton told the truth at times, Hamlin said it would be up to a jury to decide if Mortensen was guilty.
Mortensen's trial began in mid-March and ended April 13. He was represented by Nuttall and Fresno attorney H. Wayne Green.
On Friday, Nuttall said Sandra Barton, the prosecution's key witness, "had no credibility."
"What's sad is that Craig is a jewel of a man, a wonderful guy," Nuttall said. "He got into this because he wanted to help the other defendants, who were members of his Mormon Church. But they ended up turning on him."
Feigel, who was disbarred in 2015, also has suffered, Nuttall said. A month after DOJ agents raided Feigel's home in Sanger in January 2014, his wife, Stacey Feigel, 48, was headed to court to support her husband when she suddently collapsed while going through the security checkpoint at the downtown Fresno courthouse. She later was pronounced dead at Community Regional Medical Center, leaving her husband of more than 26 years with five children to raise.