In the middle of Elder Abuse Prevention Month, three arrests have been made in connection to the real estate fraud scheme that targeted a West Grove native earlier this year, prompting commitments from elected officials to do more to protect seniors.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced the arrests of Jason Webley Sr., Otis Lahan Powell and Shantel Venissa Chang at a news conference Friday, alleging they are the individuals who attempted to steal 86-year-old Shirley Gibson’s property in early March.
As previously reported in The Miami Times, Gibson went to pay the property taxes she owed on three vacant lots in the West Grove when she discovered that taxes due on one of the properties had already been paid. Confused, she asked county staff at the tax collector’s office to explain the situation. That’s when she learned the horrifying news: Her property had been sold without her knowledge.
A quitclaim deed, bearing a signature Gibson maintains was forged, had initiated the transaction. County records showed that Ollie Development LLC, a company based in New York, had purchased Gibson’s property for $230,000. But Gibson insisted she never put the lot up for sale.
“The properties have been in the Gibson family over 100 years,” she said. “I would never sell them.”
The empty lot is located on historic Charles Avenue in west Coconut Grove. Gibson’s family were some of the original settlers of the area, after immigrating to South Florida from the Bahamas in the late 1890s.
West Grove used to be a cornerstone of South Florida’s Black immigrant community, boasting safe suburban streets and hard-working middle-class families. Urban decay and commercialization of the area in recent years have made it a community in transition. The vacant lots have become increasingly valuable to real estate developers looking to invest in up-and-coming neighborhoods.
After learning of the property theft, Gibson immediately contacted her friend and lawyer, David Winker, who helped her notify police. Her case is one of at least 50 other similar financial crimes in Miami-Dade’s historically Black neighborhoods, according to authorities.
Miami Assistant Police Chief Armando Aguilar Jr. said the pandemic has prompted real estate transactions to go virtual, making it easier for fraudsters to pose as someone else and pull off these types of schemes.
Police believe the elaborate criminal enterprise included a fraudulent deed transfer of Gibson’s property, the impersonation of a notary to officiate the documents, deceiving Trans-State Title Insurance Agency LLC – the title company that oversaw the sale – and a complicated series of deposits and wire transfers. Investigators said they followed the money, which led them to the suspects.
Webley, Powell and Chang were apprehended on June 16 and charged with several felonies, including money laundering, grand theft, organized scheme to defraud and theft from a person 65 years or older. It’s possible this was not the trio’s first offense.
“I think that when we’re looking at a crime this sophisticated and really this bold, we’re again just scratching the surface,” Aguilar said at the conference.
Gibson said she is relieved the perpetrators have been caught, and that they can’t victimize anyone else.
“I’m blessed to have such wonderful people like the entire Miami Police Department. I’m just so thankful,” she said. “They (the alleged perpetrators) are in the right place. Now I am leaving it up to God.”
Because June is Elder Abuse Awareness Month, the news conference and apprehension of the accused are all the more timely.
Florida currently ranks second in the country for elder abuse and fraud, with more than $84,000,000 lost by those over the age of 60 last year alone, according to a recent FBI report.
Fernandez Rundle said that crimes against the elderly are largely underreported, with only about 1 in 6 cases reaching the desks of law enforcement.
“Victimizing our elderly can be devastating,” she said. “Without doubt, those who exploit and prey on our elderly residents have a cold, cold heart. They deliberately inflict pain and horror on so many of our senior citizens.”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava also attended the news conference, announcing alongside the state attorney that a special task force will soon be created to take on financial crimes against the elderly. She said the Miami-Dade Police Department has returned more than $1 million to elderly victims of fraud over the last year, and it’s time to step it up.
“We are going to muster our forces and work together to tackle this head-on,” Levine Cava said. “I am personally committed. Our grandparents, our elderly neighbors, they need our help.”
She added that she’s had to help her own aging parents avoid situations where they could have been targeted.
Warning signs of fraud include receiving mail addressed to someone else at your address or receiving strange phone calls. Real estate that has been inherited or paid off, as in Gibson’s case, can be particularly at risk for fraud attempts.
Fernandez Rundle recommended property owners, especially those of vacant lots, to frequently monitor the property appraiser’s website and make sure their land hasn’t been fraudulently sold.
The Florida Department of Children and Families can also investigate and report suspected elder abuse. A 24-hour statewide hotline is available to provide help in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole. That number is 800.962.2873.
The last few months have been a whirlwind for Gibson, who told The Miami Times that meditation and prayer have given her the strength to get through the ordeal. But now, she understands why this had to happen to her.
“It happened to me, and I’m glad it did because it brought elderly abuse to the forefront,” she said.
This story was written by Selena Stanley for the Miami Times newspaper.