A Guerneville house is among 23 residential properties at the center of a suspected scheme through which a Fresno family is accused of fraudulently claiming "squatters' rights" to take possession of what they contended were abandoned homes around California.
State Attorney General Kamala Harris unveiled the charges Wednesday after the early morning arrests of five suspects, including two adult siblings and two attorneys suspected of facilitating a series of property acquisitions based on falsified documents and evidence. A sixth suspect remained at large.
The ongoing investigation so far has uncovered claims made to 23 houses in nine counties since 2006, including a hillside house at 14200 Cherry St., west of Guerneville and Old Cazadero Road, the Department of Justice said.
A felony complaint filed late Tuesday in Fresno County Superior Court contends the suspects identified seemingly abandoned properties during a period with a high volume of home foreclosures and walkaways.
They then filed court papers to take title to the properties by claiming to have fulfilled the requirements of state code for what's called "adverse possession," including having occupied and paid taxes on the properties continuously for five years. They also claimed to have made attempts to contact previous owners, asserting what the Attorney General's Office called "factually impossible and knowingly fraudulent evidence and statements in court under penalty of perjury."
The Attorney General's Office said the suspects typically restored the properties once they claimed ownership, and then sold or rented them for profit.
Investigation into the matter was sparked after a Santa Barbara County woman attempted in 2010 to take out an equity loan on her residence, which she had inherited, and discovered that a woman unknown to her held the deed, the complaint states.
The complaint includes 288 separate counts of perjury, filing false court records and preparing false evidence in connection with title transfers in the various counties, including Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Madera, Merced, Santa Barbara, San Mateo, Tulare and Sonoma counties.
The majority of the charges involve Fresno resident Sandra Elaine Barton, 30, and a Fresno attorney named Craig Merrill Mortensen, 60. The two face maximum prison time of 103 years and 108 years respectively if they're convicted, authorities said.
Also charged are Barton's boyfriend, Daniel Paul Vedenoff, 29; her brother, Christopher Spencer Barton, 31; another family member, Cambria Lisa Barton, 21; and attorney Sheldon W. Feigel, 50. Cambria Barton has not yet been arrested, authorities said.
The suspects are liable for a minimum $3.5 million restitution, if found guilty, authorities said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.