Four people pleaded guilty Tuesday, Feb. 19, in federal court in Alexandria to conspiring to fraudulently take over the titles of homes in Washington, D.C., without the real property owners’ knowledge, selling those homes and keeping the profit. Among those entering a plea was Melissa McWilliams, 35, of Chantilly.
According to court records, Jamaul Roberts, 25, College Park, Md., conspired with others to visit the D.C. tax courts to identify properties with overdue property tax bills. They used sources such as Ancestry.com and the D.C. property tax database to locate vulnerable properties where they could take over the home’s title without the real owners’ knowledge.
These homes included those left vacant, passed on to heirs after the owner’s death, or owned by elderly, nursing-home residents who didn’t understand the transactions taking place.
The fraudulent sales were facilitated by two settlement agents, Patricia Mantilla, 35, of Lorton, and McWilliams. Both worked at Ace Title & Escrow in Annandale.
The agents knew the home sales were fraudulent and that the owners appearing at settlement were not the rightful owners. They also assisted the conspirators in hiding profits on the property sales from other parties involved in the sale through fictitious invoices to be paid at closing.
The conspirators, including Michael Brown, 41, Hyattsville, Md., recruited straw sellers to sign documents and falsely represent themselves as the property owners. Brown, for example, appointed himself the personal representative of the rightful owner of a property and prepared a fake death certificate for the owner, even though the owner was still living. He then tried selling that property to another member of the conspiracy for $350,000.
During the course of the scheme, numerous properties were fraudulently sold, resulting in more than $1 million in actual and intended losses.
On Tuesday, in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, before Judge Gerald Bruce Lee, Mantilla and McWilliams both pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit wire fraud. They each face a possible maximum penalty of five years in prison when they’re sentenced on April 26 and June 7, respectively.
Roberts and Brown both pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit wire fraud. They each face a possible maximum penalty of 20 years in prison when Lee sentences them on May 10 and May 3, respectively.
The ongoing investigation is being conducted by the FBI’s Washington Field Office. Assistant U.S. Attorney Chad Golder of the office’s Financial Fraud and Public Corruption Unit is prosecuting the case.