Three people have been arrested in connection with a real estate fraud scheme that targeted an elderly woman after they attempted to sell her family's century-old properties out from under her.
At a press conference this afternoon, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced the arrests of Jason Webley Sr., Otis Lathen Powell, and Shantel Vennissa Chang in connection with the alleged fraud scheme perpetrated against 86-year-old Shirley Gibson.
In early March, Gibson found out that her lot at 3540 Plaza St. in Coconut Grove had been fraudulently sold when she went to pay taxes on the property and the cashier told her they had already been paid. When Gibson said that was impossible, she was presented with a warranty deed that showed her property had been sold to a Brooklyn firm called Ollie Development LLC.
The deed bore a signature with her name, but Gibson had neither put the property up for sale nor dealt with Ollie Development. County records show the company bought the property for $230,000 on March 4.
Shortly after that exchange at the tax office, a neighbor warned Gibson that another of her properties, a lot on historic Charles Avenue in Coconut Grove, was listed by someone claiming to be Clarence Gibson — Gibson's father — on Zillow. While the property is still listed under his name in county records, he's been dead since 1987.
Both properties have been in Gibson's family for over a century and were bought by her grandfather, who came to Miami from the Bahamas in 1904 and settled in the Grove.
"I remember [the properties] being in my family all my life," Gibson tells New Times. "I never intend to sell them. As long as I'm living, I'm going to keep them."
When Gibson found out that her properties were being targeted by fraudsters, she reached out to attorney David Winker. Winker contacted Zillow to remove the ad for her Charles Avenue lot and reached out to Trans-State Title Insurance Agency, the closing agents on the sale of her Plaza Street property to Ollie Development.
Gary Bodzin, president of Trans-State Title, tells New Times that someone claiming to be Shirley Gibson had listed the Plaza Street property online, and a broker for Ollie Development contacted them to buy the lot. Bodzin says property closings are normally done in person, but the pandemic has led to many documents being signed remotely, leaving a situation ripe for fraudulent activity.
"People didn't want to come in person to a conference room. Apparently, criminals took advantage of that," Bodzin says.
Bodzin says the scam constitutes a theft from the buyer, Ollie Development, and that the property still belongs to Gibson if it was sold fraudulently.
Scams similar to the one allegedly pulled on Gibson have been running rampant, often targeting elderly property owners in historically Black neighborhoods. Miami-Dade police have received more than 50 complaints of houses being sold without the owner's knowledge, according to NBC 6.
Gibson says she's relieved that the perpetrators have been caught.
"It was scary to think that people could just take your property from you and sell it, and sometimes they get away with it. This time, it didn't go that way," she says.
The Miami Police Department's felony apprehensions team arrested the three defendants in Broward County on June 16 after the economic crimes unit investigated a series of bank transfers and deposits that linked to the fraudulent sale of Gibson's property to Ollie Development LLC. The defendants are charged with six felony counts, including grand theft, money laundering, and theft from a person 65 years or older.
Bodzin told police that his company sent a check for $224,348.42 to someone who claimed to be Gibson. According to an arrest warrant application, the Miami Police Department found that on March 11, a Chase Bank surveillance snapshot captured Powell depositing a check bearing Gibson's name for that exact amount into a business account for a company called Total Fire Protection Co., founded by Webley Sr.
On March 16, Powell deposited a check for $200,000 from Total Fire Protection into an account for C&P All States Services, a company that lists Powell and Chang as managers.
Over the course of a few months after the fraudulent sale of Gibson's property, thousands of dollars were transferred between Total Fire Protection, C&P All States Services, and the three defendants' personal bank accounts.
According to the warrant application, much of the nearly $230,000 from Ollie Development was depleted by the time Miami police contacted Chase to freeze the accounts on May 20. By that time, only $94,000 remained in the C&P All States account. Police say most of the funds from the fraudulent purchase were withdrawn by Powell and Webley Sr.
At the press conference, Rundle said she and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava would be creating a task force to deal with instances of elder abuse and fraudulent deed transfers in response to Gibson's case and a rising wave of fraud schemes targeting elderly homeowners.
Rundle recommends that homeowners, especially owners of vacant lots, check their properties on the property appraiser's website frequently to make sure their land hasn't been fraudulently sold.