News Column

Snapping Up Homes on Dubious Deeds

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Scavenging the remnants of South Florida's housing crisis, a partnership called Presscott Rosche appeared to gobble up almost three dozen foreclosed homes in Miami-Dade County last year. The company is currently listed as the owner of 12 homes worth about $3.5 million, according to the Miami-Dade property appraiser.

But this seemingly thriving business is, in many ways, an illusion. The name of the company's agent listed in state records is fake. So are many of the deeds the company has filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court to stake its claim to more than 30 houses and condos, a Miami Herald investigation has found.

The company has gained control of these homes -- renting them out to unsuspecting tenants, in some cases -- by filing dubious deeds and documents filled with legal-sounding jargon and shoddy punctuation. The author of many of these documents calls himself an "attorney in fact," though he is not, in fact, a licensed attorney in Florida.

"I never saw anything like that. It wasn't even spelled right," said Shelley Hallen, an actual attorney who beat back Presscott Rosche's efforts to evict four college students from a Coral Gables, Fla., house last fall.

"They're brazen," said Frank Lopez, who says he found three people from Presscott Rosche inside a $700,000 Kendall, Fla., house he owns. "They forged my signature, forged my wife's signature."

Despite complaints about the company, Presscott Rosche has managed to vex police and prosecutors: A Presscott Rosche associate was arrested for burglary in November for allegedly breaking into a vacant home, yet Miami-Dade prosecutors dropped the case, saying they couldn't prove the man didn't have permission to use the house.

Miami-Dade police detectives are continuing to investigate the company for possible fraud, The Herald has learned. Presscott Rosche representatives declined to comment or could not be reached.

Presscott Rosche has primarily targeted homes in the legal limbo of foreclosure -- homes vacated by their owners, and left untended by the lenders holding mortgages on the houses. In Miami-Dade County, more than 6,200 residences are now owned by banks, with thousands more left abandoned by their owners -- and vulnerable to squatters.

The squatter problem is not unique to Miami-Dade. In the past year, at least two people have been arrested in Broward County, Fla., for trying to take homes with forged deeds. A Sarasota, Fla., couple was charged with real-estate fraud in March.

The drawn-out foreclosure process often makes it difficult for police or city inspectors to determine who owns a property. It can also lead to disputes over ownership that police are ill-equipped to handle. Two property owners told The Herald they complained to police about Presscott Rosche, but officers said the dispute was a civil, not criminal, matter.

"I called the police, and they said I didn't own the house because I wasn't in the records," said Denis Gutierrez, 37, whose Miami house, now in foreclosure, is being rented out by Presscott Rosche without his consent. "I called the bank, and the bank said it belongs to me."

Presscott Rosche -- or "Prescott Rosche," as the company has sometimes spelled its name -- was created in January 2012, and it quickly began filing deeds at the courthouse for homes from North Miami to Coral Gables and Kendall.

Many of the deeds, however, lacked a key element: The signatures of the original owners giving up the property. In some cases, a company representative appeared to sign the deed on behalf of the owner, the records show. Others contained only the signature "Presscott Rosche."

But Presscott Rosche -- or Prescott Rosche -- is not a person. It is a limited partnership registered with the state. The partnership's registration papers list no person with the name "Presscott Rosche," nor does anyone with that name appear in searches of public records or databases.

Nine homeowners told The Herald that the Presscott Rosche deeds for their houses are bogus. Some were unaware of the deeds until informed by a reporter.

"I haven't signed anything," said Diana Benintend of Ocala, Fla., whose house was transferred to Presscott Rosche -- without her knowledge, she says.

"Those signatures aren't even close," said attorney Timothy Kingcade, whose clients Gustavo Graziano and Cecilia Falzone appeared to give their house to Presscott Rosche last year. "The deed is defective in a lot of ways. ... My clients didn't know anything about this, I am absolutely certain."

Deeds and other official records are filed with Miami-Dade's clerk of courts. But the clerk's office does not have the authority to reject suspicious documents or investigate potential fraud, said David Rooney, head of the clerk's recording office. If a document meets all the formal requirements, it must be recorded, he said.

"We're just ministerial," Rooney said. "We can't judge whether something is fraudulent or not."

But Rooney conceded that some Presscott Rosche deeds should have been rejected because they didn't have the required signatures.

Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera is also investigating the Presscott Rosche transactions, to ensure that tax bills go to the true owners.

"There's definitely something fishy going on here," Lopez-Cantera said. "We're going to do our due diligence."

In addition to the deeds, Presscott Rosche has often submitted a document called a "Notice of Non-Abandonment" announcing its claim to the homes "before God Almighty under the Great Seal of Florida, and the laws of the united states of America (sic)."

Rooney said he has never seen such a document before, and he is unsure if it has any legal significance. "I can't tell you what that is," Rooney said.

These notices were signed by "David T. Boyd-Bey, Attorney In Fact." But Boyd-Bey is not licensed as an attorney in Florida, or in his home state of California, records show. Boyd-Bey could not be reached for comment.

Valid or not, the deeds have allowed Presscott Rosche to gain control of several homes -- and rent some of them to tenants.

For example, Presscott Rosche has rented out the Grazianos' home to John Martinez for the past seven months. Martinez said he was told Presscott Rosche is the owner of the house.

"These people are very legit," Martinez said of Presscott Rosche.

Frank Lopez disagrees.

In January 2012, Presscott Rosche filed a deed saying Lopez and his wife transferred their Kendall home to the partnership, records show. Lopez says the deed was forged; he first heard of Presscott Rosche months later, when he discovered three people inside his house, which had been left vacant after the couple divorced.

Lopez said he called the Miami-Dade Police Department to remove the three people. But after an officer arrived, a group of four men pulled up in a Mercedes Benz with a purported deed to his house. The officer told Lopez that it appeared he was no longer the owner and he had to leave, Lopez said. (The police department has no record of the incident.)

Three months after the front-yard confrontation, Presscott Rosche sent Lopez an apologetic letter, along with a deed that appeared to transfer the house back to Lopez's name.

"We understand that this may have been an inconvenience to you but we would like to mend this issue by giving you notice of such unpleasant incident," the June 20 letter said. "Thank you very much for your appreciative consideration and patience."

That same day, Presscott Rosche filed papers appearing to transfer 10 other houses back to their original owners, property records show. One of those owners, Jetsenia Coto, said she was unaware that Presscott Rosche had a deed to her home in the first place.

"I have no clue what you are talking about," Coto said when told of the Presscott Rosche transfer.

Lopez said he went back to the Miami-Dade police, where he met with detectives and examined photo line-ups. But no arrests were made following his complaint.

One of the men who came to his house, Lopez said, was Esteban Oviedo -- a notary who approved the Presscott Rosche deed on Lopez's house and other transactions. Lopez said he identified Oviedo from a photo lineup provided by detectives.

In November, Oviedo, 27, was arrested for burglary for squatting in a Kendall house owned by a German couple, Thorsten and Anke Meinberg, court records show. A neighbor told police that she saw Oviedo break into the house and change the locks in July.

"A whole family moved in. They even had parties there," said Fernando de Allende, a friend of the Meinbergs who watched the house for them and first complained to police. He said the Meinbergs' car was stolen from the garage, as was some furniture from the house.

But Oviedo told police he had a lease to the home, which was in foreclosure at the time, the records show. Prosecutors dropped the charges because they said they couldn't prove that Oviedo didn't believe he had a legitimate lease.

"It is possible that (Oviedo) was a victim as well," a prosecutor wrote in a memo dropping the case.

When contacted by The Herald, Oviedo said he had been "fired" by Presscott Rosche in November, and said he believed all deeds were handled properly. He did not respond to follow-up calls.

The property appraiser still lists the Meinberg house, valued at $257,000, as the property of Presscott Rosche.

Others have also complained about Presscott Rosche's tactics.

Last summer, Presscott Rosche went to court demanding $6,000 in rent from four University of Miami students leasing a Coral Gables house from a different owner. The partnership also sought to have the students evicted -- though the company offered no proof that it actually owned the home, court records show.

Nevertheless, Miami-Dade County Court Judge Nuria Saenz ordered the students out of the house, which was in foreclosure. The students then turned to Hallen, who discovered that Presscott Rosche's deed to the $853,000 house was flawed.

"There's nothing in these documents that would make anyone think these were real," Hallen said of Presscott Rosche's deed and other records. "They're just blatant, these people."

Hallen then went to court and asked the judge to hold a hearing to determine the true owner of the property. But when no one from Presscott Rosche showed up at the hearing, the judge rescinded the eviction order, court records show.

Much about Presscott Rosche remains obscure -- including who, exactly, are the partners in the organization. In state records, the company lists one of its partners as Joshua Isreal Corona. But a search of public-records databases could find no records of anyone with that name.

The partnership's agent is listed as Daya Oluz. No records of Oluz could be found either.

An address listed for Oluz in Presscott Rosche's registration form comes back to the home of Claudia Zuloaga, 41. A former business partner of Zuloaga's filed papers with the state last year saying that Zuloaga was now using the name Daya Oluz. Oviedo told The Herald that Zuloaga was an office manager at Presscott Rosche.

Zuloaga worked as a tax preparer until last year, when the Internal Revenue Service accused her of orchestrating a "tax-fraud scheme" for clients by submitting bogus tax-refund requests.

The IRS called her theory of tax law "pure fiction" -- after paying her clients $3 million in unjustified tax refunds, court records show. A federal judge issued an injunction preventing Zuloaga from working on any more tax returns.

Objecting to the IRS lawsuit, Zuloaga filed a 23-page response (without a lawyer) in which she challenged the authority of the IRS and the validity of U.S. tax laws. She referred to herself as "a living breathing self-aware woman," court records show. Her response was notarized by Oviedo.

Zuloaga could not be reached for comment for this report.

Records show that Zuloaga is also partners in other Florida businesses with Boyd-Bey, Presscott Rosche's "attorney in fact," and another California man, Jacob Orona. In 2010, Boyd-Bey filed a lawsuit in California on behalf of Presscott Rosche, though the judge in that case noted that Boyd-Bey is not a licensed lawyer in that state, court records show.

Neither Boyd-Bey nor Orona could be reached for comment.

While some homeowners are outraged that Presscott Rosche has apparently taken their homes, others are resigned to it. If Presscott Rosche didn't have the house, they figure, the bank would.

"It's a business, I guess," Gutierrez said.