Religious sect making fake claims on homes in Charlotte area, officials say

Published: Jul. 11, 2011 at 2:09 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 10, 2011 at 2:10 PM EDT
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WEDDINGTON, N.C. (AP) - Officials at Charlotte-area courthouses say they are seeing an epidemic of frivolous paperwork filed by people claiming the right to seize foreclosed property.

The bogus deeds are being filed by people who claim to belong to the Moorish Science Temple of America, an obscure religious sect founded in the 1920s with beliefs loosely connected to Islam.

In one incident, a real estate agent and a couple viewing a foreclosed $700,000 home in the Union County town of Weddington were confronted on June 1 by two men who produced a deed claiming the home in the name of the Moorish Science Temple, The Mecklenburg Times reported.

"These two guys came in, showed the purported deed and said the Moorish Temple now owned this house," Detective Brian Keziah of the Union County Sheriff's Department. "They took over the house."

The deed filed May 20 claims ownership of the house by the Moorish Science Temple of America "to have and to hold . forever." Officers found personal items inside the home, Keziah said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the sect as a rapidly growing black nationalist religious movement whose members consider themselves individually sovereign and independent of government authority.

The group says on its web site it doesn't subscribe to sovereign theory -- which means they don't think they are subject to any other power or state, including US laws or contracts.

The grand sheik of the Moorish Science Temple in Charlotte said his group is not affiliated with any effort to seize vacant properties. Christopher Bennett-Bey said he has heard of similar real estate scams around the country, which misrepresent a faith he has followed for more than two decades.

He said he does not believe people using the group's name are members.

"It really outrages me," Bennett-Bey said. "Our purpose is to teach our members to be law-abiding citizens, and then I hear something like this. It's a bad reflection on the entire organization."

J. David Granberry, Mecklenburg County's register of deeds, said at least 200 deeds and other documents filed in his office in the name of the Moorish Science Temple are "outright fraud."

Granberry said he's seen forgeries and notary fraud in the deeds claiming ownership of vacant, foreclosed properties. Many times, the documents appear official and legitimate, he said.

"My records are literally full of this stuff," he said. "It's like an epidemic, as far as I can tell."

In Union County, about 25 deeds have been filed this year in the name of the Moorish Science Temple, Register of Deeds Crystal Crump said.

Granberry and other officials said as more homes have fallen into foreclosure and been vacated, the more opportunity there's been for others to move in.

Real estate agents in Virginia and police in California warn of similar incidents there.

"Today, all you have to do is go on to the Internet to find sites that purport to tell you how to beat your mortgage," said Tom Miller, legal counsel for the North Carolina Real Estate Commission.

Registers of deeds say they are powerless in the face of fake deeds. As long as the deeds meet certain requirements, their offices must accept them, Crump said.

"We don't check to make sure the title is good," Crump said. "That's why people have an attorney. Anybody can do this, and there is nothing we can do to stop it."

The problem could be curbed if state law were changed to make it illegal to file worthless documents, including deeds which record the transfer of real estate ownership, Granberry said.

"We will still have to file (the deed), but they could be prosecuted," he said.

Police aren't powerless, however, when someone tries to exert control of property they falsely claim to own.

Asaru A. Ali, 39, and Kenneth W. Lewis, 52, both of Charlotte, were arrested after surprising the real estate agent and the potential buyers at the Weddington home.

Lewis was charged with breaking and entering, first-degree trespass, obtaining property by false pretenses and possession of stolen goods. He was being held Friday on $500,000 bond and had no listed attorney, a Union County jail officer said.

Calls left for him or his family on two answering machines were not returned Friday.

Ali was charged with breaking and entering and taking possession of a house without consent. He has been released from jail. A man answering a phone number listed in Ali's name said he didn't know Ali or how to reach him.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved