Grave Robbers

Even in the great beyond, no one is safe from identity theft

Imagine Richard Surrell's astonishment when he learned that he owned a house he didn't buy, a Dallas house 1,400 miles away from his Southern California home.

Someone with a detailed knowledge of Surrell's credit history and a fake Texas drivers license stole his identity and used it to buy a $265,000 three-bedroom cottage in the respectable M Streets area of East Dallas.

Surely, Surrell recalls thinking when he first saw the big mortgage on his credit report in April 2001, this was a new high--or low--in the annals of identity theft.

A couple of mugs: William R. Tisdale Jr., left, and his brother Michael K. Tisdale are accused of sifting through the obits and stealing the identities of the recently deceased. Their alleged spree netted cash, cars and some free shopping at Neiman Marcus.
A couple of mugs: William R. Tisdale Jr., left, and his brother Michael K. Tisdale are accused of sifting through the obits and stealing the identities of the recently deceased. Their alleged spree netted cash, cars and some free shopping at Neiman Marcus.
Robbing the dead: Jennifer Koury, an Austin musician and restaurateur, was among more than a dozen Texans targeted by the identity theft ring. She hadn't even been buried by the time thieves had stolen her credit information, faked a drivers license and went to town with her accounts.
Robbing the dead: Jennifer Koury, an Austin musician and restaurateur, was among more than a dozen Texans targeted by the identity theft ring. She hadn't even been buried by the time thieves had stolen her credit information, faked a drivers license and went to town with her accounts.

"It was all stunning," says Surrell, a 57-year-old computer consultant who lives and works in Orange County, California. "The details of it are pretty bizarre." The thief, for one, went through all the customary channels to buy the house: a mortgage broker, a nationwide mortgage lender and a title company. A deed was even filed in Dallas County records stating the house legally belonged to Richard Surrell.

"I thought for a minute about going to Dallas and selling it," says the real Surrell of the 1940s-era Austin stone house in the 6100 block of Anita Street. But there was more to the scam than simply buying the place with fake ID.

The fictitious Richard Surrell had purchased the property for at least $70,000 more than it was worth and obtained two mortgages from Countrywide Home Loans totaling 100 percent of the purchase price. In other words, the property was awash in debt.

So how did the thief profit?

Try this one: He bought the house from himself, pocketed the pumped-up sales price and left Countrywide holding the note.

Deed records and documents listed last month as evidence in a federal criminal case suggest the house scam was one of the more elaborate cons pulled off by two Dallas brothers who authorities say combined their knowledge of insurance and consumer credit with some convincing acting and counterfeiting to create one of the most brazen ID theft rings the city has ever seen.

In July, a federal grand jury indicted Michael F. Tisdale and William R. Tisdale Jr. on charges of conspiracy, fraud and ID theft. Michael Tisdale, a 37-year-old Southlake resident, is a licensed insurance agent who at the time of the alleged conspiracy was working for Farmers Insurance in Flower Mound. His brother William, 39, of Plano, is a partner with former Dallas Cowboys Eugene Lockhart and Kevin Smith in a mortgage brokerage and a real estate investment company, corporate records show.

The Tisdales, who have pleaded not guilty, are accused of stealing the identities of the recently deceased and using them to obtain more than $1.5 million worth of luxury cars, loans and merchandise. Nine other people, seven of whom have pleaded guilty in the past month, are accused of being lower-level players in the Tisdale-led ring, which the federal indictment says operated from June 2001 to July 2002 and used the identities of more than a dozen dead people from Dallas to Corpus Christi.

The Anita Street house and several other real estate deals involving the Tisdales are not listed in the formal charges. But the government's evidence list in the case and other records suggest the East Dallas property and several others played a part in the brothers' alleged scheme.

Several of the fraudulently purchased vehicles--such as a stolen Porsche convertible William Tisdale drove, made payments on and apparently wanted to keep--were registered at houses associated with the Tisdales. The properties, one of which William Tisdale listed as his business address, apparently were used as mail drops for collecting the ongoing bills. They doubled as party houses, according to neighbors who complained about men in expensive clothes and flashy cars coming and going at all hours of the night.

A number of Michael Tisdale's former business acquaintances describe him as a talented, hardworking and successful insurance agent, and they can hardly fathom he would have resorted to such crimes. "He was outgoing, likable, personable," says Ken Hodge, who was Tisdale's landlord at the recently built one-story office complex where he ran his agency. Hodge's office was next door. "He would look you in the eye and greet you with a smile. I couldn't believe he'd be mixed up in something like this."

Again, real estate may provide the answer.

The two brothers embarked on the alleged ID theft ring within months after their efforts to build a legitimate real estate portfolio appear to have hit the skids. In late 2000, records show, banks and other lenders began foreclosing on properties the Tisdales owned in their own names. Among them was an elegant home in the Houston area valued at more than $500,000 and a new home in suburban Flower Mound worth $350,000.

On the heels of those foreclosures, the brothers began what the feds allege was a multifaceted conspiracy to pump money and merchandise out of credit unions, banks and other lenders using counterfeit identification and credit information Michael Tisdale allegedly obtained through his position as a Farmers agent.

Given the thick stack of documentary evidence Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Snipes has listed for the Tisdales' scheduled December 2 trial, the scheme in hindsight seems rather porous, obvious and destined to fail. Through search warrants and an arrest more than two years ago, authorities recovered from the Tisdales a stack of incriminating fake drivers licenses in the names of the deceased victims, copies of obituaries stapled to Farmers Insurance credit reports, credit cards in the names of the deceased, even a copy of the deed and title documents to the Anita Street house. The fake Richard Surrell bought the house from the Tisdales and purchased his homeowners insurance from Michael Tisdale. Federal agents say they found a copy of the policy in William Tisdale's things.

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