St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Dubious housing deals line avenue

Sales in a Tampa neighborhood lead to an investigation into whether prices were artificially inflated.

JEFF TESTERMAN
Published December 14, 2003

TAMPA - In September, as city officials were preparing to declare a dilapidated boarding house in Tampa Heights unfit for habitation, owner David A. Walker sold the peach-colored building for $552,000.

The price still has city and county officials scratching their heads. The shabby, unoccupied apartment house at 104 W Amelia Ave. has serious structural, electrical and plumbing deficiencies. The Hillsborough County property appraiser figures it's worth about $85,000.

"It's ridiculous, it's crazy," Tampa code inspection officer Linda Coomey said. "I know that area is growing, but that property doesn't warrant that type of price."

On another part of Amelia Avenue a block away, Walker and his partners in a real estate investment firm called Urban Equity turned another quick profit. The company bought three older homes for the package price of $225,000, then turned around the same day and sold them to three buyers for $688,500 total.

"Flipping properties the same day like that does happen," deputy county property appraiser Warren Weathers said. "But to see three go up that fast in that area is like asking us to believe in the tooth fairy."

A St. Petersburg Times investigation shows the big real estate markups on Amelia Avenue might indeed be as true as fairy tales.

The Times investigation into the Amelia Avenue sales found:

A buyer who does not appear to exist.

A series of deeds bearing the name and seal of a false notary public.

Allegations of a forgery used to execute a fraudulent mortgage payoff.

A buyer who says she did not know of her involvement in paying an inflated price for one of the homes.

The property appraiser's office believes the revelations point to a pattern of activity designed to artificially inflate property values. The beneficiaries of such a plan would be investors who already hold numerous parcels in a real estate market ready for a renaissance.

The Amelia Avenue sales come as the city and the Tampa Housing Authority are considering huge redevelopment plans that could spark real estate buying in Tampa Heights, Ybor City and other older Tampa neighborhoods.

Now, local and federal law enforcement agencies have begun investigations.

After a request by county property appraiser Rob Turner, Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober asked Tampa police to look into the Tampa Heights property sales. Detectives began collecting property records several days ago.

The FBI also has been asked to investigate by a Maryland company that discovered the forged signature of one of its executives on a mortgage payoff filed in county records.

What concerns the property appraiser's office is that contrived land speculation could improperly push up tax assessments in Tampa Heights and surrounding neighborhoods, increasing the tax burden without just cause.

"Sometimes you see red flags in patterns like this," Weathers said. "If you see wildly inflated values and there is no justification for them, it could be harmful to the overall tax roll."

Urban Equity Inc. was started in May 2002 by Walker, 46, and Rudy L. Arnauts, 37. Walker, once a tangible tax analyst for former county property appraiser Ron Alderman, now runs the United Capital Trust mortgage brokerage company out of an office in a Busch Boulevard strip center. Arnauts, a broker with Alpha Omega Real Estate Corp., works out of a yellow brick building in Ybor City's historic district.

Urban Equity's Web site lists Matthew B. Cox as its director of acquisitions. Cox is on probation after pleading guilty to grand theft and mortgage fraud last year. On July 31, Urban Equity initiated its three-home investment on E Amelia Avenue, about a mile north of downtown. The firm borrowed $265,000 from a trust and paid an evangelical group $225,000 for the properties at 101, 103 and 105 E Amelia Ave.

It isn't the best section of Tampa Heights in which to invest. Drug activity is high, vagrants frequently sleep in unoccupied buildings, and the view from the three homes is the dingy rear parking lot of a Blue Ribbon Supermarket.

Aside from the poor neighborhood, all three homes needed extensive work. Nonetheless, Urban Equity was able to sell the three on the same day for more than triple the value set by the county property appraiser, according to the deeds.

The 1,855-square-foot home at 101 E Amelia was sold for $233,000 to Janet Cruz, a South Tampa woman who ran former City Council member Bob Buckhorn's unsuccessful mayoral campaign and who did some part-time public relations work for Urban Equity.

The two-story home at 103 E Amelia was sold for $229,000 to Julie Blecker, a woman who is the sister of an officer of a company called Core Funding Group, which shares Urban Equity's office address at 2714 N 16th St.

Arnauts bought the bungalow-style home at 105 E Amelia for $226,500.

Urban Equity initially filed improperly executed, handwritten deeds on the sales, then filed corrective deeds in September. Walker and Arnauts signed the deeds. Cox witnessed them. The notarization on the deeds was under the name Edward Ringer Jr.

But the state of Florida has no record of any notary license issued to an Edward Ringer. The number on Ringer's notary stamp, DD 107801, belongs to a licensed notary public by another name in New Smyrna Beach. And the Troy Fain Insurance Co., listed on Ringer's seal as his bonding agent, has never heard of him.

"We have no record of this person and the state has no record of him," said David Rankin of Troy Fain. "It's criminal."

Edward Ringer showed up again as the notary when Arnauts obtained two mortgages totaling $358,000 on his Amelia Avenue property, a home the county appraiser says is worth just more than $56,500.

On Oct. 1, Arnauts pledged the home as collateral and signed for a $180,000 mortgage loan from Fieldstone Mortgage Co. of Maryland. He paid off that loan, according to records, on Nov. 5, then signed for a new mortgage loan of $178,000 on Nov. 21 from a second lender, Option One Mortgage of California.

But Fieldstone officials say the loan payoff document is fraudulent. In an affidavit filed in county records Nov. 20, Fieldstone said the payoff of Arnauts' loan, called a mortgage satisfaction, was accomplished with the forgery of a signature of a Fieldstone executive in Columbia, Md.

The name of the notary on the mortgage satisfaction? Edward Ringer, the false notary.

Fieldstone has turned the matter over to the FBI, said Cynthia Gilman, a Washington, D.C., attorney representing the mortgage company.

"Unfortunately, there are people out there doing things like this," Gilman said.

Arnauts declined to discuss the Amelia Avenue transactions.

Blecker, who bought the property at 103 E Amelia, obtained a construction permit, had the two-story home renovated into a duplex and put the property up for sale.

Reached by phone last week, Blecker said she was asking $115,000. That's about half what she paid for it, according to her deed. Blecker declined to explain.

Buyer Cruz, through her attorney, indicated that she did not pay the price reflected in county records.

"Janet Cruz first learned that the property at 101 E Amelia had been deeded to her at an inflated price when you brought it to her attention," attorney Paul Duval Johnson told a Times reporter.

At the peach-colored boarding house at 104 W Amelia, the only tenants today are the pigeons, which have used a broken window to gain access to an upstairs apartment, and the occasional homeless person who discovers the building is not locked up.

The city, having posted orange "unfit for human habitation" signs on the front door, helped relocate the last rent-paying tenants in October. That was shortly after Walker sold the decrepit building to someone named Alex Antioch, according to the deed, for $552,000.

Back in June 2000, the property had been sold to a construction company at a tax deed auction for $13,710. Fifteen months later, Walker bought it for $205,000, the deed says.

But by January this year, the city had discovered a host of violations at the apartment building, including electrical problems, sewage leaks and a lack of heat and smoke alarms in the apartments. Walker was threatened with fines if the problems weren't fixed.

He got a permit for repairs, but before work was done, he sold the place for a huge profit to Antioch. On the deed, the notarization again was by Edward Ringer.

Who is the mysterious investor who paid more than a half-million dollars for the property?

The Times tried to find Alex Antioch but could locate no record of him: no driver's license, no address, no recorded document in the state.

County tax collector Doug Belden sent a tax bill to Antioch at the property in early November, but it came back. Belden then asked law enforcement officials to see whether they could locate Antioch. They could not.

"We can't find anything," Belden said. "It appears to be a questionable transfer."

On Sept. 30, when the Antioch deed was filed in county records, someone filled out a Florida Department of Revenue form, under penalty of perjury, and attested that the sale price at 104 W Amelia was $552,000. The same person presented $3,864 to buy documentary stamps (at the state's rate of $7 per $1,000 of the purchase price) to affix to the deed.

The signature on the Department of Revenue form is illegible. The cashier's check used to pay for the state documentary stamps lists "A. Antioch" as the remitter. But records show the check was drawn on the Carrollwood bank account of Matthew B. Cox, the man previously listed on Urban Equity's Web site as its acquisitions director.

Cox did not respond to several phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Florida parole and probation files say Cox is a $96,000-a-year broker with Walker's United Capital Trust company.

Walker said last week that Cox "no longer works for me." Records show Walker tendered his resignation from Urban Equity in mid-November. He wouldn't say why.

In a brief interview at his office, Walker was asked about Alex Antioch.

"I don't know him," Walker replied.

Told that Antioch was the name of the person who bought the boarding house at 104 W Amelia from Walker, Walker said, "Oh, right. But I don't know where he is."

Walker said he was too busy to talk and cut off the interview. In a followup telephone call, he said, "I would like to talk to you. But my attorney has advised me not to."

- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story. Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.