By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
An angry Jimmy Johnson later appeared at her house. "I've had the police to my house," she says Johnson told her. "I can't be hounded by the police." Shutting the door in his face, Avery told him to talk to her attorney.
When Oates became involved, the mystery deepened. The HUD settlement statement of the sale shows that Avery, as seller, should have received $27,847.94 from Sebring Capital Partners, a Dallas-based lender. Oates calculated that the title company owed Avery about $22,500. He tried to locate Stenline with no success. Was the buyer even a real person? Was it a case of identity theft? Oates talked to an investigator at the Dallas County DA's Office but was told that because the Mesquite police brought no criminal charges, they could do nothing.
On December 15, North American Title sent Oates Avery's file and a snippy letter. "This escrow is not outstanding," wrote Stephanie Moore, a legal assistant. "In fact, upon review of the file, there is evidence that shows the authorization by your client to disburse a portion of her proceeds to Jimmy L. Johnson."
The file included the document with the three blanks, now filled in with "Jimmy L. Johnson," who had no connection to the sale. Based on his attached hand-written instructions, dated three days after the closing, Johnson on June 15 received a wire for $9,500 and two checks for $9,500 and $3,587.94.
"It is unfortunate that Mrs. Avery has not received any money she feels is owed to her," Moore wrote. "However, this is between Mrs. Avery and Jimmy L. Johnson. North American Title has followed all procedures in closing this transaction."
But there are numerous problems with the transaction besides the unusual method of payments.
Realtor Patricia Ratcliffe of Keller Williams is listed as the broker, but she hadn't signed the sales contract and no commission is shown as having been paid. Ratcliffe says she had nothing to do with the sale and had left Keller Williams two months before the transaction closed. She knows Johnson but hadn't done any deals with him in years.
"He's a smooth talker," Ratcliffe says. "I never thought he'd cheat an old lady out of her money."
In addition, Stenline lied on his application, saying he was going to live in the house. His photo ID wasn't in the file. He put down no earnest money, and he'd never lived at the address listed for him on Ledbetter Drive in Oak Cliff.
The Dallas Observer found Stenline at a dumpy apartment in Rowlett. The Fed-Ex courier makes about $37,000 a year and lives with his mother. He'd met Johnson seven years ago when both worked at Fed-Ex.
"I was just trying to build some credit," says Stenline, 30. "Jim came to me and said he knew a lady who was going to lose her house, and it was a good investment."
Stenline says he didn't really read the documents he signed and assumed Johnson was applying Avery's rent toward the mortgage payments. Stenline got a shock last month while trying to buy a truck; his loan was declined because the mortgage was in arrears. He was astonished to learn Johnson had never made a single mortgage payment, instead pocketing the "rent."
"When it comes to money, I don't know anything," Stenline says. "I trusted him. Shame on me. Now I have to clear my name." He declined to say how much money he put into the transaction.
Cynthia Johnson (no relation), owner of Express 1 Mortgage, did the initial paperwork for Stenline's home loan and placed it with Sebring.
"Terrence had decent credit scores, and he made enough money," Cynthia Johnson says, but she declined to handle Jimmy Johnson's next deal after discovering the second applicant's income had been inflated and that she'd been evicted several times.
"I feel so bad for Terrence, because that poor child had no idea what was going on," Cynthia Johnson says.
Facing eviction, Avery tried to forestall the foreclosure by EMC Mortgage, which had purchased Stenline's note from Sebring, but Judge Ann Ashby refused to grant a restraining order. Avery then filed a lawsuit against EMC Mortgage.
"Based on my investigation, and what Ms. Avery says, I think she's been defrauded," says Mike McElroy, attorney for EMC. "[But] we are just as big a victim of the fraud. My client buys bundles of notes. It's not logistically possible that we would know anything about the transaction. Her remedy is against the people who defrauded her."
On April 1, out of legal options, Avery moved out of her home in return for EMC's "cash for keys" offer of $1,000. Her cancer is now in remission.
"It just hurts me, baby," says Avery, now living with her sister in Wills Point. "I learned you can be too trusting." --Glenna Whitley
Members of the Dallas City Council have been asking questions in recent weeks about whether they can dethrone The Dallas Morning News as the city's "official newspaper."
To summarize the legal authority on this question: Sure they can. Just do it!
The official newspaper is where the city publishes all of that stuff in tiny black type beneath the city seal--requests for bids, zoning proposals, street closings and so on. It's a trade worth the better part of a million bucks a year to the Morning News.