OKLAHOMA CITY – Attorney General Mike Hunter and U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Downing today announced a federal grand jury has indicted three individuals after an investigation uncovered allegations of a scheme involving home title fraud.
Laura Johnson, 44, Thomas Johnson, Sr., 51, and Cheryl Ashley, 69, all of Oklahoma City, have been indicted for conspiracy, fraud, identity theft and other related crimes. The trio is accused of using falsified documents to obtain titles on at least 12 homes without the owners’ knowledge.
Home title fraud typically occurs when someone steals an individual’s identity, forges the individual’s name on a deed and takes the title to the individual’s home. Abandoned, rarely used or unoccupied homes are the primary targets of deed fraud. However, occupied homes can also be targeted.
“The elaborate coordination by these defendants and lengths to which they defrauded property owners is disturbing,” Attorney General Hunter said. “They not only preyed on victims whose properties were vacant, but they also used forged eviction notices and court documents to remove people from their homes and even targeted the deceased. I appreciate the leadership of U.S. Attorney Downing and our other law enforcement partners for making this case a priority.”
According to court documents, some homeowners in this case claim to have vacated their homes based on phony eviction notices posted as part of the conspiracy. When certain victims fought the takeover of their homes in court, the defendants filed pleadings and submitted affidavits signed by attorneys who do not exist.
Along with the Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the United States Secret Service assisted in the investigation.
“Oklahomans have to be able to rely on records county officials maintain to establish ownership of real property,” said U.S. Attorney Downing. “When federal charges help uphold the integrity of governmental property records, the Department of Justice will eagerly work with state investigators and prosecute fraud. Thank you to Attorney General Hunter and his team for this outstanding example of federal-state cooperation.”
Another method the defendants used to obtain home titles was targeting properties with delinquent property taxes that were subject to auction by the Oklahoma County Treasurer’s Office.
The defendants would pay one or more years of taxes on the properties to avoid auctions. Then, the defendants would file fraudulent warranty deeds to transfer properties into the names of companies and individuals that did not exist.
One home, of which the defendants gained possession, had been owned by a woman who died in 2012. Once they occupied the property, the defendants used records found in the home to abscond with $63,950 from the deceased’s bank accounts and $45,000 from her oil and gas interests.
If convicted, the defendants face fines and prison time.
Individuals seeking to protect themselves against deed fraud should regularly monitor their credit reports. All home owners should watch for potential deed fraud red flags and report them to authorities, such as: no longer receiving typical monthly bills, receiving a foreclosure notice on a property that does not have a mortgage or discovering evidence of activity at a vacation home or empty rental property.