Five charged with deed fraud involving North and West Philly properties
After serving 15 years for a murder conviction, Lance Felder went free in 2013 after another man confessed to the crime. Felder shared in a $3 million payout to settle his allegation he was framed.
Now he is facing new charges.
Felder, 42, was among five people who city prosecutors said Monday had been arrested on charges that they used forged deeds to steal houses. They face counts of fraud, conspiracy, and other offenses in the alleged theft of 11 properties, all but two in North Philadelphia.
Most of the allegedly fraudulent transactions were certified by notary Demeshia Harris-Bey, 42, who is also among those charged. Also charged was Harris-Bey’s husband, Robert Harris-Bey, 58; he and his wife are accused in the theft of nine of the properties.
The charges come as Philadelphia continues to grapple with an entrenched scam — fraudsters who try to cash in on rapidly increasing property values in long-disadvantaged neighborhoods. They identify the owners’ of derelict properties, then forge their names on deeds of sale to themselves or other buyers.
Often the “sellers” in these bogus deals are long dead, as documented in reporting by The Inquirer.
“When someone steals a home or commits deed fraud, they are stealing and taking away from a family’s memory, that family’s legacy. They are stealing wealth,” said State Rep. Donna Bullock, who joined District Attorney Larry Krasner and lawyers on his financial-crimes team to announce the charges.
Bullock, whose district includes Strawberry Mansion, the Art Museum area, and parts of West Philadelphia, said the thefts also encourage the displacement of longtime residents of gentrifying neighborhoods, since they’re often resold at inflated prices that drive up nearby home values.
“Homes being stolen through this process are part of a bigger issue,” she said.
At the time of the earliest allegation involving Felder in 2019, he had been out of prison for five years and had recently been awarded $3 million — to be shared with fellow exoneree Eugene Gilyard — to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the city of Philadelphia.
Felder and Gilyard had accused former police detectives of coercing eyewitnesses to wrongly accuse them and of ignoring other potential suspects in the murder of a North Philadelphia businessman, for which they were arrested as teenagers in 1998.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which works to exonerate people convicted of crimes they did not commit and to prevent innocent people from being convicted, won Felder’s and Gilyard’s release after the other man confessed and charges against them were dismissed as they awaited retrial.
Felder came to the attention of police investigating deed fraud in recent years after a woman reported that she checked on the water bill for a rowhouse on the 2800 block of North Stillman Street that had been owned by her deceased mother — and saw Felder listed as the owner.
Investigators determined that Felder had taken ownership of the house using a deed on which the mother’s signature had been forged, then resold the property to an investor for $8,500, according to a police affidavit.
Notaries, licensed by the state, are generally seen as a first line of defense against such frauds, since they are normally required to confirm the identity of a property’s seller before giving it the stamped endorsement required by records offices.
But Demeshia Harris Bey, who notarized the deed of sale to Felder, acknowledged to police that she’d endorsed the document without doing so, according to the affidavit.
In another instance, Harris Bey notarized a deed for the sale of a property on the 2500 block of West Sergeant Street to Felder from a company called S 3. Enterprise LLC, according to the affidavit.
In this case, a person named John Wright is recorded as signing off on the sale for the company. But the property’s actual owner, identified in the affidavit as “A.S.,” said he hadn’t sold the house and did not know a John Wright.
Attorneys for Felder and Harris-Bey had no immediate comment on the charges.
In a separate set of allegations, Demeshia Harris-Bey is accused of aiding her husband, Robert, in executing other bogus sales.
In most of those cases, which date as far back as 2016, Robert and Demeshia Harris-Bey are accused of fraudulently transferring properties into their own names or that of a company that bears their initials, R & DHB Islamic Community Inc., according to a separate affidavit.
In three instances, Demeshia Harris-Bey notarized sale documents bearing the allegedly forged signature of owners of properties on the 4800 block of Fairmount Avenue, the 2500 block of West Sergeant Street, and the 2500 block of West Cumberland Street. In all but one of those, investigators found that the “sellers” were deceased, according to the affidavit.
At two other properties, on the 2800 block of Chalmers Avenue and the 2100 block of West Clearfield Street, documents recording sales to the couple were certified by notaries who told investigators that they had never signed off on the transactions.
Two other men were also named in connection with charges against the couple: Damon Omar Urquhart, 41, and Hockessin, Del.-resident Robert Foster, 54.
Urquhart allegedly resold a property after buying it using a deed with a bogus seller’s signature that had been notarized by Demeshia Harris-Bey, according to the affidavit.
An attorney for Urquhart did not respond to a phone message. Court records do not identify attorneys for Robert Harris-Bey and Foster.
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