Over several years, William Ernest Johnson III, allegedly forged paperwork to steal at least seven different homes around Philadelphia, the Philadelphia DA recently announced.
Johnson, 42, was arrested on Feb. 6 and charged with more than 60 counts allegedly relating to years of deed theft that he accomplished by allegedly forging the signatures of recently deceased homeowners and additionally faking notary seals on the falsified deeds.
"Mr. Johnson stole at least seven houses by falsifying and forging documents to make it appears as though he were the legitimate owner of these properties, despite the fact that the rightful owners had not consented to any sale," Philly DA Larry Krasner said at a press conference announcing the charges.
City Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez (D-7th Councilmanic District) joined Krasner for the announcement of charges on Sunday, saying that deed fraud "has plagued my district."
"Historically, the illegal transfer of real property, deed fraud, has festered in gentrifying neighborhoods across Philadelphia," Quiñones-Sánchez said in a statement no her Facebook page. "Deed fraud requires the coordinated efforts of numerous government agencies and private institutions."
The DA's offices' Economic Crime Unit undertook a prolonged investigation into the case, which was also reported on in a recent Inquirer investigation.
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"It robs low-income families, especially African Americans and Latinos, of the opportunity to build generational wealth," Krasner said of crimes like deed theft.
Johnson previously told the Inquirer that he had been deceived as well, telling them "I assumed the seller of the home was legitimate. ... I’m just a person trying to earn an honest living," a few weeks before he was formally charged.
Johnson is alleged to have begun falsifying deeds in 2016 while on parole after 16 years spent in prison for two past convictions.
In some cases a woman signed paperwork then transferred the deed to Johnson; in others, possibly made up people who could not be tracked down signed the deed. After a deed theft has been finalized, family members of the rightful property-owners can face thousands in legal fees trying to reclaim their property.
Several thefts were reported in in the rapidly gentrifying section of Brewerytown in North Philadelphia, others in West Philly and different parts of North Philly, including Kensington. Two properties illegally stolen were flipped for $50,000 each, the Inquirer found.
Meanwhile, the city's process of requiring photos and ID from people changing deeds did not stop or deter Johnson from falsifying these deeds.
Krasner said broader changes to Philly's property records system are needed to end the risk of such crimes reoccurring in the future.
"This problem is not going to just be solved by the prosecution of individuals who have done this. This problem grows out of failures in legislation that make it too easy to do this, it grows out of failures in regulation that make it to easy to do this," Krasner said. "Unless we change things, it will be more difficult to go buy groceries with your credit card than it is to get away with house fraud in Philadelphia."
The charges against Johnson, of the 5000 block of Copley Street, include theft, criminal conspiracy, unlawful taking and forgery. No defense attorney could immediately be reached for comment.
Watch Krasner's full press conference announcing the charges below.