The house in Northwest Hialeah belonged to the Cleland family since the mid-1950s.
Linda Cleland, an only child, watched her mother plant a pine sapling that grew to tower over the home in the front yard. Eventually, her parents aged there, fell ill and died years apart. Cleland’s two dogs are buried in the home’s yard.
The house remained hers — until an April day when police suddenly came to evict Cleland, leaving her homeless while fighting to get her property back.
“My house was stolen from me. I couldn’t believe it was happening,” said Cleland, 60. “All my property was put in bags and tossed outside like garbage.”
In a scam that authorities say has proliferated in recent years, Cleland fell victim to swindlers who used bogus quitclaim deeds to secretly strip her of the property, then sold the home to a Pembroke Pines investment firm.
Spurred by cases like Cleland’s, the Miami-Dade Inspector General’s Office and prosecutors in recent weeks have begun meeting with the clerk of courts to figure out new procedures aimed at curbing quitclaim deed fraud.
“It’s just too easy to steal somebody’s property by filing a fraudulent quitclaim deed,” Miami-Dade Inspector General Mary Cagle told the Miami Herald and news partner WFOR-CBS4.
For seven months, Cleland lived on the streets, occasionally crashing with friends, usually sleeping in a grassy area outside the nearby Palm Springs Methodist Church. This week, with help from Legal Services of Greater Miami, a civil judge ordered Cleland be allowed to return to the three-bedroom home.
“She had been feeling hopeless, but I definitively saw a sense of relief. She was stoic,” said Legal Services attorney Lissette Labrousse.
OIG investigators are still probing Cleland's case and no arrests have been made.
A quitclaim deed allows a property owner to quickly transfer it to someone else. The document must be notarized and can be filed to the clerk of courts in person, via mail or through the Internet.
Investigators with the OIG believe the swindlers scour neighborhoods looking for abandoned or dilapidated homes in which the owners appear to have died. Fake quitclaim deeds are filed transferring ownership of the homes to “straw buyers,” who turn around and sell the homes.
Exactly how many fraudulent quitclaim deeds are filed with the clerk’s office is unknown, authorities say, but there are so many that police cannot come close to investigating them all.
“These scammers are usually very clever people who try and get around what you do,” said Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin. “We’re trying to stay a step ahead of them.”
Some of the remedies being considered: photocopying IDs of people who file quitclaim deeds in person, retaining clerk of courts security footage for longer periods of time and creating a complaint hotline at the state attorney’s office.
At least one major prosecution of a suspected quitclaim deed scammer is under way. The chief suspect is Yohany Garcia, 38.
Prosecutors in 2012 accused her and a group of others of bilking prospective home buyers out of over $2 million. Garcia and others claimed they could sell people homes that were to be auctioned for simply the price of delinquent taxes, according to the state.
While awaiting trial in that case, prosecutors said, Garcia this year tried to use two homes as collateral to help her bail out of jail.
But according to an arrest warrant, OIG investigator Juan Koop found that both homes had been stolen using fake quitclaim deeds. The real owners had died and the properties had languished in the hands of relatives.
Her defense attorney, Scott Sakin, said prosecutors do not “have a lot of evidence connecting her to wrongdoing.”
“They don’t have her going to the recorder’s office to file false documents,” Sakin said. “There is nothing connecting her to the case except people who don’t like her and cut a deal. It’s a typical snitch case.”
This type of forgery is not necessarily new either.
One decade ago, the Inspector General’s office arrested two people for using bogus quitclaim deeds to steal and sell homes of dead or sickly people. In response, the clerk of courts began automatically sending letters to the last person who paid the tax bill, notifying them that a quitclaim deed had been filed on their property.
Ruvin believes the letters have helped thwart some swindlers — in October alone, the clerk’s office sent 1,507 quitclaim deed notifications. But investigators believe some of the crooks actually retrieve the letters from mailboxes.
At least one letter made it into Cleland’s hands, but only because she happened to check her mail just as the mailman was delivering it to her box. Cleland wrote a letter to the court declaring she had been the victim of fraud – but a judge nonetheless ordered she be evicted from her home.
Exactly why and how Cleland’s house was targeted is unclear.
But in March 2014, someone filed a bogus quitclaim deed purporting to be from Linda Cleland transferring the property into the name of her mother, Louise Cleland. “My mother had been dead, at that time, for close to 11 years,” Linda Cleland said.
The form was supposedly witnessed by a notary named Kent Taylor — someone who does not exist.
The next month, a second sham quitclaim deed sent the property from Louise Cleland to a company called JSM Construccion Corp, an entity started by a handyman named Julio S. Morales.
By July 2014, Morales had sold the house for $100,000 to Stark Equity Group, of Pembroke Pines, which has no idea the property had been stolen. The company eventually had her evicted in April.
A judge on Monday ordered the eviction order be vacated. The legal fight is not over. Cleland’s lawyer will now ask a circuit court to return the title of the home to her. Stark Equity’s lawyer did not return a call for comment.
“These criminals are heartless. What they do is they prey upon the most vulnerable, the ones who are almost going to be homeless, the elderly,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told Natalia Zea of WFOR-CBS4. “We also know there are probably many other victims out there and we want to make sure they reach out to us so we can take action quickly.”