As home fraud investigation widens in Broward, suspects face new charges – Sun Sentinel
Two women are facing additional charges this week in an alleged South Florida real estate scam that involved illegally taking over people’s homes and swiping profits from rightful heirs, authorities say.
The women were arrested as part of a new investigative division commissioned by the Broward Property Appraiser’s Office — in response to mounting complaints of property deed fraud across the region.
Authorities last month detained the married couple, Samantha Johnson, 57, and Sandra Shea, 56, after investigators say they worked together to persuade a rightful heir to take a fraction of what a home in Cooper City was really worth, misled him about work that needed to be done and never paid him anything.
Additional charges involving a second house came Wednesday in what officials describe as a “ongoing and systematic course of conduct,” according to a police report. And investigators say there may be more charges for additional homes still coming.
This latest case was an effort of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department and the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office. Investigators said after a Fort Lauderdale man died in 2018, Johnson told his heir that she would help get the deed transferred and handle everything with the probate process.
The heir — who was the man’s sister and a disabled 66-year-old woman — agreed.
“Johnson assured the victim that she did not have to worry about a thing, that she would take care of everything,” according to the police report.
Johnson told her the house was not worth much, and told her she would get $20,000, according to the police report. But after the woman signed over the house to Shea and Johnson, she was handed a check for $10,000, and told the house wasn’t worth more than $65,000, the report said.
The woman took the $10,000, telling authorities she needed the money for mounting bills.
But investigators say the property was really valued at $126,000.
Within a month, in December 2019, the duo sold the house for $139,000, the report said. Photographs of the home before it was purchased by the new owner showed no renovations were made, authorities said.
The latest charges included organized fraud, grand theft and the exploitation of the elderly.
Johnson’s defense attorney, Jamie Benjamin, said Thursday it was “mere allegations and we’re going to defend them vigorously.”
Shea’s defense attorney, Jason Kreiss, said in an email Thursday that his client will be pleading not guilty on all counts. “We look forward to seeing the state’s evidence and challenging these allegations in court,” he said.
“It’s exceptionally important we make it one of our main priorities in our office,” said Marty Kiar, Broward’s appraiser, on Thursday. “People thinking about this need to know if they commit property fraud against the people of Broward County, we’re going to work with law enforcement to put them in jail.
“We’re working on a lot of different investigations right now,” he said of the ongoing tips and complaints pouring into his office.
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Kiar said the crime itself is particularly harsh, which is why he’s looking to grow his team. He now has eight investigators who concentrate on homestead fraud and has plans to expand his office by two investigators to work solely on deed fraud.
“People work their whole lives to achieve the American dream. There are people trying to defraud people of their homes, it’s so disgusting, it just irks me like you wouldn’t believe. This is my big crusade,” he said.
The newest charges Wednesday were filed after the women were already scheduled to turn themselves in to start serving time in federal prison.
In a separate case from years ago, prosecutors say Shea was working at Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood as a secretary from 2012 through 2016, where she had access to patients’ personal information including Social Security numbers and dates of death. The women used that information “to obtain leads and contact information” in 22 instances to get title for their real estate companies, prosecutors say.
They pleaded guilty on federal charges and in March, Johnson was sentenced to 30 months in prison, and Shea received two years, and a $10,000 fine.
They were scheduled to turn themselves in by noon on May 23 but investigators say they remain in Broward’s jail. Documents show a judge has recommended a different federal prison for each of the women, with Shea to go to Marianna, near Alabama, and Johnson to be sent to Tallahassee.
Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at [email protected] or 954-572-2008. Follow on Twitter @LisaHuriash