California Attorney General Kamala Harris today announced the arrests of five Fresno residents on charges of running a scheme to seize possession of vacant houses from their rightful owners in nine counties. The five defendants — including a sister and brother, a friend and two lawyers — are accused in a criminal complaint filed in Fresno County Superior Court on Monday with fraudulently seizing at least 23 houses by misusing state adverse possession laws.
Those arrested today are Sandra Barton, 30; her brother, Christopher Barton, 31; her boyfriend, Daniel Paul Vedenoff, 29; and attorneys Sheldon Feigel, 50, and Craig Mortensen, 60. A sixth defendant, Cambria Barton, 21, who is the sister of Sandra and Christopher Barton, was also charged but is at large, Harris said. Adverse possession is a process in which a person can take over another person’s property by continuously occupying it for specified period of time, if the true owner has not taken any steps to prevent the action.
The occupation is sometimes known colloquially as squatting. California law allows a person to claim adverse possession after continuously occupying a property and paying all property taxes for five years. To gain title, the occupier must go to court to prove he or she has met the requirements. Many of the allegedly fraudulently seized houses were in Fresno County but the scheme allegedly extended to Kern, Los Angeles, Madera, Merced, Santa Barbara, San Mateo, Sonoma and Tulare counties as well.
The two Bay Area houses listed in the complaint were in Brisbane and Guerneville. The complaint, filed by prosecutors in Harris’s office, charges the various defendants with a total of 288 felony counts including perjury, filing false court records and preparing false evidence. Sandra Barton, who allegedly falsely claimed in court filings to have been continuously living in a number of different houses simultaneously, is accused of acquiring most of the properties.
Her brother and sister are charged with fraudulently seizing several houses, while Vedenoff faces charges related to the serving of court documents and posting notices. The two lawyers are accused of suborning perjury and preparing and filing false court documents. “It is reprehensible that these individuals lied to the courts in order to steal homes,” Harris said in statement.
“The conduct of the attorneys in this scheme is even more offensive because they violated their ethical duty to be honest to the courts,” she said. Harris said the defendants allegedly worked together to identify houses that appeared to be abandoned. After a Barton family member gained possession of a property, it would typically be restored and then rented or sold, Harris said. If convicted of all charges, Sandra Barton could face up to 103 years in prison and Mortensen up to 108 years. Feigel could be imprisoned for up to 15 years, Cambria Barton to 10 years, Vedenoff to eight years and Christopher Barton to seven years, if convicted.
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