By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Mildred Avery thought she had a sweet deal to keep her house. Wrong.
When Mildred Avery met Jimmy L. Johnson, the Mesquite financial advisor made her feel hopeful again, despite her cancer and foreclosure notices. Soothing and compassionate, Johnson promised to help Avery save her house. She could sell her house to an investor and continue to live there.
Less than a year after selling her home in a transaction Avery says Johnson arranged, Avery has been evicted from her home, and the bulk of her equity in the property has vanished. Her pleas for help to the Mesquite police, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office and state District Judge Anne Ashby went nowhere. The Texas Savings & Loan Commission is now investigating.
Mortgage scams usually rely on three things: a smooth talker, an inexperienced (or not too bright) home buyer or seller, and tricky paperwork. Avery's case had all three and more.
When Avery bought her East Dallas townhouse in 1989, she worked at AT&T and had no trouble paying her bills, but after leaving her job two years later because of poor health and depression, Avery survived on disability and Social Security payments.
In 1994, Avery filed for bankruptcy. Through the five years it took to pay off her debts, she clung to her two-bedroom home on Josephine Street. But last March, Avery received notice that her mortgage company was going to foreclose. Three months behind on her $582 payments, Avery was battling cancer of the fallopian tubes and had no way to pay.
"I was getting nervous and sick," says Avery, 57. "The mortgage company kept calling." When an acquaintance at church said she'd met someone who could help her stay in her house, Avery jumped at the opportunity.
She met Johnson at a Jack-in-the-Box on Interstate 30. His card read "J.L. & Associates," and "Capitol Source Plus: Creative Lending Solutions." Johnson explained that he was a middleman who would find an investor to buy the property then rent it back to her. In a year, Avery could buy her home back. She signed no contract with him, but a month later, Johnson came by with the news that he'd found an investor and a sample contract. Avery felt relieved but didn't ask important questions, such as how much the investor had agreed to pay for her house and how much she would net from the sale.
On June 11, 2004, Johnson met Avery at the Mesquite office of North American Title Co. to sign the papers. When a young man walked into the office, Johnson explained that he was the investor: Terrence Stenline. Avery had no further contact with him.
Avery met Cookie Ray, the loan closer, and signed documents selling her home for $110,000 to Stenline, but Ray ran through the papers so quickly, Avery says, that she became confused. (On vacation until April 18, Ray was unavailable for comment. Jimmy Johnson did not return phone calls from the Dallas Observer.)
Avery says Ray then gave her a typed page indicating how the disbursement--totaling about $27,000--should be made. This peculiar document listed eight lines: five spelled out "$1,000 check payable to Mildred Avery." Three additional lines show payments of $9,500, $9,500, and $3,587.94, with blank spaces showing the recipient.
Avery says she had not requested the $5,000 in five different checks, so she has no idea why Ray handled the transaction that way. Avery signed the document, cashed the five checks and believed she'd receive more the following week.
She admits it wasn't smart to sign something with blanks. Avery received only a few papers at closing; that document wasn't among them. "I wasn't thinking," Avery says. "I was relieved I was going to save my house."
Suddenly, Johnson wasn't answering his cell phone when she called. But he surfaced a month later to say he'd stop by to pick up her $765 rent. Avery asked if she should make the check payable to Stenline.
"No," Johnson told her. "Make it out to me." When she asked him about the rest of her proceeds, Johnson told Avery, "You know the investor has got to make some money." She later got another check for $280.
Avery made three rent payments but became suspicious because Johnson had never given her a lease to sign. The air conditioner needed to be repaired, and Johnson wouldn't give her Stenline's phone number. Mail to Stenline was piling up at her house. She sent Johnson certified letters, but he didn't respond. When she withheld her October rent because of undone repairs, however, Johnson called and demanded the check plus late fees.
"He called and got real irate," Avery says. "He was a totally different person."
Foreclosure notices to Stenline began to fill Avery's mailbox. Where was her rent going? A friend who worked at another title company put her in touch with a lawyer, who informed Avery that it sounded like a scam and she needed to call the police. "I got in the car and started to cry," Avery says.
Mesquite police Detective C.B. Johnson (no relation to Jimmy Johnson) talked to Johnson and Ray. Telling Avery that the sale seemed legitimate and no criminal charges were warranted, the detective recommended that Avery hire a lawyer. So Avery went to the Legal Aid Society, but her pro-bono lawyer said there was little he could do. She finally scraped some money together and hired Carl Oates, a real estate attorney.