CLEVELAND — A Cuyahoga County Grand Jury has indicted three men accused of using forged documents to steal and then attempt to sell houses across Cleveland and Garfield Heights.
Dwayne Mitchell, David Garner and Marquis Lomax were charged in a 15-count indictment accusing the men of forgery, tampering with records, grand theft, theft and identity fraud.
Investigators say the group forged signatures on quit claim deeds and then filed them with the county recorder's office to make it appear as though they owned the properties. Police say the group then listed the properties on the internet in hopes of finding buyers. According to court records, at least four homes were fraudulently transferred in the scheme.
Cleveland Police told 5 On Your Side Investigators they've received more than a dozen reports of similar cases in recent months. They have not said if all the cases are connected.
"They in effect steal the house and then they just make money on it right away," said Cleveland Police spokesperson Sgt. Jennifer Ciaccia.
Jeff Kovatch, owner of Kovatch Property Investments, said the scheme held up his plans to purchase, renovate and move renters into a now-vacant home on Tioga Avenue on Cleveland's East Side.
"At face value it sounds like that can't be possible, right? You can't steal a house can you?" said Kovatch. "Well, yeah, you can."
Kovatch said he was just days from closing on the purchase of the home, when his title company alerted him to the fact the owners Kovatch was dealing with didn't actually own the house, according to a quit claim deed on file with Cuyahaoga County.
"Somebody went through a lot of work," said Kovatch, "they had an attorney's name on there, they had a notary on there, they had stamps and everything looked official."
But investigators say it was fraud.
"It all looks like it adds up, and sometimes it just doesn't," Ciaccia said.
But spotting the crime can be difficult. When a crook files fraudulent quit claim deeds, county records reflect the change in property ownership.
"It's hard because if you do your research and look up who owns the house, you're seeing the name of the person who's trying to sell it to you," said Ciaccia.
Police suggest going through a reputable realtor or title company when purchasing a house and avoiding buying from someone who insists on using a quit claim deed to transfer ownership.
"Typically these documents are made to make it easy to transfer property between trusted parties," said Ciaccia. "They're not really meant for sales."
Now, months after he was set to close on the home, Kovatch said his purchase has stalled. No work has started. No one has moved in.
The house on Tioga remains an empty eyesore while it's caught in what investigators believe is a web of fraud.
"Everything rolls downhill and everybody is affected," said Kovatch. "Everybody is on hold. Everybody is now at the whim of what this person did."