According to a press release by the California Department of Justice, five individuals were arrested in mid-January and charged with allegedly running a statewide housing scheme by using adverse possession laws to fraudulently take control of at least 23 homes in nine counties, Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Madera, Merced, Santa Barbara, San Mateo, Sonoma and Tulare.The
Sandra Elaine Barton, 30, Christopher Spencer Barton, 31, Daniel Paul Vedenoff, 29, Sheldon W. Feigel, 50, and Craig Merrill Mortensen, 60, all of Fresno, were arrested and charged with 288 felony counts including perjury, filing false court records and preparing false evidence. A sixth defendant, Cambria Lisa Barton, 21, turned herself in to authorities last week and entered a general time waiver.
Mortensen and Feigel are attorneys. According to the filing by the AG’s office, the non-attorneys were alleged to have identified abandoned homes and then filed for adverse possession with the courts in order to obtain title, after which the property would be sold or rented.
Under California law (Code of Civil Procedure 325), an individual can claim adverse possession of real property if he or she has occupied or claimed it continuously for at least five years and paid property taxes for that period of time, among other requirements.
The scheme unraveled when Nancy Zelepsky, the actual owner of a home in Santa Barbara County, contacted a title company to see if there were any liens against her property before applying for a home equity loan in 2010. The title company informed her that Sandra Barton was listed as the deed holder that same year and that the documents had been filed by Craig Mortensen.
Zelepsky received assistance from the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County and her property was restored to her after the court found that Sandra Barton’s claim was fraudulent. The court then contacted the California State Bar regarding Craig Mortensen and the California Attorney General’s office opened its own investigation in June 2011.
If found guilty, the defendants all face long prison sentences.
The Attorney General’s Office was assisted in this case by the State Bar of California, Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, Kern County Sheriff’s Department, Clovis Police Department and Fresno Police Department.
Following his arrest, Sheldon Feigel’s attorney held a press conference denying the charges filed against his client. He has since filed a lawsuit against the State of California seeking $1 million in damages for unreasonable search and seizure, being denied access to his attorney and for emotional distress inflicted on his children.
Read a copy of the felony complaint by clicking here.