Foreclosed and Fleeced
People claiming to be homeowners scoop up cash left after foreclosure
Franklin County Common Pleas Court received what appeared to be a routine motion one day in January.
Thurgood Linebarger filed a request to receive $38,636 in surplus funds that remained after the sheriff's sale of his foreclosed home on Mock Road on the Northeast Side. He asked that the check be sent to him at an address on Ellery Drive on the East Side.
Less than a month later, after no one opposed the motion, Judge Kimberly Cocroft approved the request. The clerk's office mailed the check in Linebarger's name to the Ellery Drive house on Feb. 14.
But Linebarger didn't live on Ellery Drive and hadn't filed the motion. Not until he was contacted by The Dispatch in July did Linebarger, a 65-year-old retired auto worker, discover that the auction of his foreclosed home yielded a surplus and that someone else had claimed it in his name.
"It's messed up," Linebarger said. "How can the judge approve that?"
Cocroft said the court "does not investigate to determine where the defendant lives currently" when it receives a motion like the one filed in Linebarger's name. She waits the time required by law to make sure no one opposes the motion, then issues her decision, she said.
"I don't see this as a failure of the court," she said, but an example of someone taking advantage of the system.
It also revealed a problem now being corrected.
In the past, the court's 17 judges and their magistrates rarely held hearings on requests for surplus foreclosure funds.
That is changing, said Judge Stephen L. McIntosh, the court's administrative judge, in response to concerns about possible fraud or theft in the disbursement of the funds. Soon all such requests will be scheduled for a hearing with a magistrate, he said. The hearings have become common in recent months.
"It's sad that people have been taken advantage of," McIntosh said. "There's no telling how much of this has been going on."
The canceled check in Linebarger's case, a copy of which was obtained by The Dispatch through a public records request, shows that someone signed Linebarger's name to the back of the check and wrote, "Pay to the order of Levell Holdings LLC."
Levell Holdings owns the Ellery Drive house, which it purchased in January, according to Franklin County auditor's records. Carl Levell Renier of Columbus is listed as the owner of Levell Holdings in articles of organization filed with the Ohio secretary of state's office in February 2017.
"I'm not sure what's going on," Renier said when asked whether he could explain how the check ended up with Levell Holdings. "I'll have to look into it."
Follow-up calls to Renier went unanswered.
At least three other motions nearly identical to the one in Linebarger's case were filed this year, supposedly by homeowners seeking surplus money from sheriff's auctions after their homes were in foreclosure.
After determining that the three requests were fraudulent, judges and magistrates denied them. Unlike in the Linebarger case, the fraud was uncovered because hearings were held and whoever filed the motions failed to show up. In two of the cases, the funds instead were granted to the real homeowners.
Perhaps the most egregious of those cases was a Jan. 14 motion from Jessie Marcum, requesting $19,602 in surplus funds from the sale of a Hilltop house that he had lost to foreclosure. The motion asked for a check to be sent to an address on Kirkwood Road on the East Side.
There were two problems with the request. Jessie Marcum had been dead nearly five years. And his only heir, a son named Jessie L. Marcum, hadn't filed a request for the money.
"Someone was holding themselves out to be a dead man," said Bradley Jeckering, a Mechanicsburg attorney who represents the son and his father's estate. "It was pretty brazen."
After Jeckering filed an objection on the son's behalf, Magistrate Mark Petrucci held a hearing in April. He denied the original motion and ordered that the surplus funds be paid to the estate of Jessie Marcum.
Neither Jessie Marcum nor his son ever lived at the Kirkwood Road address where the initial motion asked that the money be sent. But court records show that Renier lists the Kirkwood Road address as his residence in an ongoing Franklin County criminal case that accuses him of failing to pay child support.
A notice in the criminal case, mailed to Renier at that address in July, was returned to the court marked "vacant, unable to forward."
Renier, 47, told The Dispatch that the Kirkwood Road address is his residence. Asked whether he knew anything about the motion requesting that surplus funds be sent to the house, he replied, "nope."
The two other fraudulent motions were filed on March 26 and asked for the surplus funds — $44,743 in one case and $11,087 in the other — to be sent to an address on Bar Harbor Road on the Northeast Side. That house, abandoned and surrounded by overgrown grass and weeds, has been vacant for months, according to neighbors. Nothing in the public record links it to Renier or Levell Holdings.
One of the motions was filed on behalf of John L. Howard, 48. But Howard never heard of the Bar Harbor Road address, he told Magistrate Jennifer Cordle at a hearing she conducted in May because of the court's concerns about the motion.
Howard also said he was unaware that $11,087 was owed to him in surplus funds from the sheriff's sale of a home in Canal Winchester. He hadn't filed a motion seeking the money and didn't learn about it until he got a notice of the hearing.
After looking at Howard's driver's license, Cordle said the signature on the motion obviously wasn't his. Before the day was out, Cordle had denied the fraudulent motion and granted the money to the real John L. Howard.
"I think it's bizarre," Howard said of the failed impersonation scam. "I guess there are people who know the system well enough to get free money."