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Jeanette Johnson’s neighbors in Delray Beach, Fla.’s Carver Park subdivision have freshly painted houses with well-tended lawns and toys corralled behind wood fences. Yet the most luxurious things in Johnson’s yard are the two Norfolk pines she bought for 75 cents in 1965. The trees now tower above the power lines and shade her tiny house, which is in need of paint and repairs. As the trees grew throughout the years, Johnson worked in the tomato fields, at a gladiolus nursery and as a hotel maid, chipping away at her mortgage until 1995, when she completed payments and assumed she owned the house free and clear. At least that’s what she thought. Instead of owning her home, Johnson these days is battling to keep the house where she lives with seven relatives, including three 2-year-olds and a 5-month-old infant. Her two-year ordeal is apparently the result of a simple fraud, in which, her attorney says, someone went to the County Courthouse, faked her signature and took title to her property — all without Johnson’s knowledge. “This illegal, ‘wild deed’ transferred the property to a company by the name of Piranha Investments Inc.,” said Johnson’s attorney, Adam Palmer. “Subsequently, there were at least two other transfers of the deed, which further confused the chain of title to the property.” After Piranha’s principal, Anthony Overington, took title to Johnson’s property in 1985, he obtained a $16,500 mortgage on it from Brea Mortgage Corp. in Sunrise, Fla., according to documents filed in the case. Plantation, Fla., lawyer Harvey Rubinchik, the former attorney for Brea, said in a sworn affidavit given on March 26, 1998, that he recalled several other property owners who disputed the validity of their signatures on the deeds purporting to transfer their property to Piranha. Palmer said that as far as he could determine, Overington fled the country years ago. The corporation, which had a Fort Lauderdale address, was dissolved in 1988, according to Florida Department of State records. But because Johnson no longer held title, she became ensnared in accepted property laws that now threaten to leave her homeless. And even though she may be eligible for government help, that assistance may not be enough. For Johnson, the first sign of trouble appeared in January 1998, when a man came to the house and served her with a suit alleging Palmco Properties Inc., a North Miami-based real estate investment firm, owned the home, which is assessed at about $42,000. A month earlier, Palmco had acquired rights to the property by purchasing a tax deed from the clerk of the circuit court, according to public records. Palmco won the deed in an auction by bidding $21,030, which covered $4,790 owed in back taxes. The additional $16,000 was a profit for the county. “I didn’t know what to think when I heard about the house,” says Johnson, 68, who cannot read or write and lives on disability and Social Security payments of $527 per month. “I went to the courthouse, and the clerk said the house wasn’t in my name. I went to Legal Aid and got a lawyer.” Palmer, a partner at Elk Bankier Palmer & Christu in Boca Raton, Fla., who has handled Johnson’s case pro bono for more than two years, said an investigation into the property records showed that in 1985 someone unknown to Johnson prepared and recorded a fraudulent deed in the Palm Beach County Courthouse. Johnson did not receive an annual notice from the tax collector’s office to pay her real property taxes. When the taxes went unpaid, her tax deed was sold at auction to the highest bidder, Palmco. The problem never arose during the years Johnson was paying her mortgage because the taxes were escrowed with her payment and she was not required to make a separate tax payment. But after she made her last mortgage payment in 1995, that all changed and tax payments needed to be made directly to the county. But no tax bill ever came Johnson’s way because, according to court records, she was not the title holder. Johnson’s attorney says she didn’t know any better and didn’t realize something was amiss. When Palmco filed a lawsuit to “quiet title,” requesting the court to declare the property was rightfully Palmco’s because it had purchased the tax deed, Johnson was uncovered as the owner. Palmer stepped in to get Johnson’s house back for her and estimates he has worked 150 hours on the case, plus paying about $1,000 in court costs himself. To pay the money owed to Palmco, he obtained a $5,000 grant from the Palm Beach County Department of Housing and Community Development and filed documents to have the county return to Palmco the $16,000 profit the county made from the auction, bringing the total payment to Palmco to $21,000. Palmco, which deeded the house back to Johnson in July, still is waiting for Johnson to pay another $12,000 — to cover expenses, attorney fees and three years’ worth of taxes. To pay the money, Johnson tried to get another mortgage, but that effort failed. In March, Palmco filed for foreclosure. Palmer turned to the Urban League of Palm Beach County’s south county coordinator, Jimmy Weatherspoon, who is working with David Levitt of Circle Mortgage in Hollywood, Fla., to obtain Johnson a reverse mortgage, a loan in which a lender gives the homeowner money for a house and takes title to the property later, usually upon the person’s death. That would give Johnson the money she needs to pay off the $12,000 debt. But there’s another hitch: The house needs an estimated $25,000 to $30,000 in repairs before it can qualify for an insured loan. To pay for the repairs, Weatherspoon is working to obtain federal money through Delray Beach’s Community Development block grant program. Johnson would not have to pay for the repairs. “If we can get this done, and bring the house up to code, then we can get a reverse mortgage to pay off the debt,” Weatherspoon said. The application process is just beginning, but Kenneth Thomas, Delray’s community development coordinator is optimistic and said, “She’s a prime candidate for our program. Her chances are very good. We don’t see any problems with her not receiving the funds.” Because of the foreclosure, the city is working to expedite the repairs, but Thomas, who said he does not know yet when they will be approved, put out for bids and completed. Circle Mortgage’s president, Levitt, estimates that once the house is in good repair, it will be worth about $60,000, and after costs are paid, Johnson could receive about $22,800, giving her the funds to pay off the debt owed Palmco. But how much longer is Palmco willing to wait? Palmco’s attorney, Steven Jones of Larson and Jones in Miami Shores, said he and his client, Palmco’s principal, Jon Kant, have been sympathetic and have waited patiently for Johnson to pay the rest of the money owed. They had put the foreclosure on hold but expect to file a motion for summary judgment within the next couple of weeks. He estimates Johnson has about two months to settle before a foreclosure would become final. “My client is a business investor. Business is business. By the same token, he has taken his time and tried to keep this in abeyance,” Jones said. “People lose properties every single solitary day. That’s just the way of the world.” Meanwhile, Johnson still can’t believe the nightmare that has unfolded. “All I can do is pray and ask God’s guidance,” she says. “If it don’t work out, we’re going to be out the door. I keep thinking, Lord, where am I going to go and where am I going to stay? Some nights I don’t sleep all night long.”

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