FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- The California attorney general on Wednesday charged six Fresno residents with fraudulently obtaining ownership of nearly two dozen abandoned homes.
Attorney General Kamala Harris said the six people conspired to illegally exploit a California law that allows someone to gain ownership of an abandoned property if they pay taxes and prove they have lived on the premises for more than five years.
Harris charged the six with a combined 288 felony counts, including perjury, filing false court records and preparing false evidence to gain ownership of 23 homes. Harris said Sandra Elaine Barton, Christopher Spencer Barton, Daniel Paul Vedenoff and Cambria Lisa Barton, working with two attorneys, falsely told courts in nine counties that they occupied and paid taxes on the properties for more than five years to obtain title to the homes.
Once the four gained title to the seemingly abandoned homes, they refurbished them and sold or rented them, the attorney general alleged.
The four and the attorneys, Sheldon Feigel and Craig Mortensen, were all charged. All but Cambria Barton were booked in Fresno County Jail and couldn't be reached for comment. Authorities say Cambria Barton remains at large.
"It is reprehensible that these individuals lied to the courts in order to steal homes and in some cases to demand payment from the rightful owners," Harris said. "The conduct of the attorneys in this scheme is even more offensive because they violated their ethical duty to be honest to the courts."
The attorney general said the alleged scheme began to unravel in 2010 when Nancy Zelepsky, an owner of one of the homes, decided to take out a loan against the property. When Zelepsky discovered Sandra Barton was listed as the deed holder of the Santa Barbara property, she filed a lawsuit against Sandra Barton to retain ownership.
A Santa Barbara County judge ruled in favor of Zelepsky and gave her title to the house. The judge also reported the two attorneys arrested in Fresno to the State Bar of California for a possible perjury investigation. The attorney general opened an investigation in 2011.