Veteran detective Lt. Charles Duelley was initially asked by a colleague to investigate how people were living in her vacant house in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The detective had no idea that he would uncover an unprecedented countywide real-estate scam.
His efforts led to the prosecution of three women for forging property records to make it seem like they owned homes that were being foreclosed on or had been abandoned. The ringleader was former real-estate agent Shannon E. Lee.
Along with Shamika Staggs and Quiana Johnson, Lee took over eight properties and was eyeing about 24 others when she was caught. The perpetrators rented the properties on Craigslist, lived in them, or made almost $200,000 for selling one of the properties.
Lee first cased abandoned homes in Cheltenham and Upper Marlboro and kept pictures of them on her computer. Then she used her background as a real estate agent to forge the deeds and titles to make it appear that one of the group owned the houses. The next step was to break into the houses to change the locks and rig electricity to them.
Unfortunately, Lee and her associates were able to make it seem like they were the rightful owners and took advantage of renters. In one case, she told a couple that she had inherited the house from a dead uncle.
Even though the prospective renter had worked for a mortgage company, Lee was able to convince the woman that she owned the house. The scheme unraveled as the electric company cut power to the house, and the family had to move and were out thousands of dollars with no recompense.
Duelley said that it was just a matter of time before the scheme would have unraveled, since the deeds and titles were full of misspellings. Also, some of the notary signatures were from people who had been retired for a long time.
Lee faced charges ranging from burglary to forgery and is expected to serve two years in prison. This egregious case led Prince George’s county to set up a task force to tackle issues arising from the large number of vacant homes in the county, and the county set up an online registry for neighbors to report abandoned properties.