The ad Valerie Price found in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Sunday paper sounded promising. Located in Lithonia, the two-story, white-paneled house renting for $975 a month fit Price's budget as a postal service worker.
After Price called about the ad, a woman who said her name was Corenthia Davis responded and said she was leasing the house for Judge Laura Campbell, according to an affidavit filed in Douglas County Superior Court. On July 31, 2002, Price followed the woman, who she assumed was a real estate agent, to the home, Price's affidavit states.
When they arrived, another couple was waiting to see the house. At the end of the showing, the agent told Price that if her credit check passed, the house would be hers.
Price gave the woman $40 to pull her credit report and $300 as part of the deposit, court documents show. Once Price was approved to rent the home, she met the agent in a Douglas County parking lot to deliver the rest of the $975 deposit.
Two days before she was supposed to move, however, Price took her daughter to view the house and found a "For Sale" sign in the yard, according to court documents.
Price didn't return CL's calls. But documents show Price became more concerned when she contacted utility companies to set up the bills in her name, and the water company told her the home was a "repo."
Price then contacted the Georgia Board of Realtors and reached a conclusion that a judge would later support: A woman had posed as a real estate agent and tried to lease Price a home that wasn't a rental, but rather a foreclosed property being sold by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But as the case progressed, would the wrong woman be charged with the scam in a case of mistaken identity?
It appears Price's experience isn't an isolated one. The scenario is one of as many as 30 repo-rental scams that have occurred over the past three years in DeKalb County, says private investigator Traici Crutchfield, who's looking into the incident.
In at least nine cases, a woman -- known as Corenthia Davis or Rita Lester -- took potential renters to a HUD home that was supposedly owned by a judge, either Judge Laura Campbell or Judge Gloria Beneton, according to police reports. Neither judge exists.
In every case, the "agent" has a competing "renter" waiting at the home to create a sense of urgency, according to police reports in Douglas and DeKalb counties. The "agent" then asks for a partial deposit and a fee to pull a credit report.
With mortgage fraud and predatory lending on the rise in metro Atlanta, the repo-rental scam appears to be yet another trap snaring predominantly low-income and elderly home buyers and renters.
Such a scam is relatively easy, Crutchfield says, because a uniform key opens all HUD homes in a particular area. HUD's policy, however, is to never ask for money until a potential buyer has won the bid to buy a home.
But Price and others weren't even buyers. And the woman showing them the "rental" homes allegedly was doing so illegally.
According to her affidavit, Price learned that the Georgia Board of Realtors had no record of a real estate agent by the name of Corenthia Davis (nor does the board have record of a Rita Lester, the other name cited in police reports). But Price was told there was once an agent registered in Georgia under the name Lori Campbell -- a name similar to the "judge" who supposedly owned the home Price tried to rent.
On Nov. 30, 2002, Lori Campbell was washing dishes in her Jonesboro home when she heard a knock at her door. Campbell says when she answered, she saw police cars lining the street.
"You would've thought a mass murderer was on the run," Campbell tells CL.
According to a DeKalb County police report, investigators seized Campbell's computer and arrested her on charges of theft by deception. Friends came to pick up her 5-year-old twins so they wouldn't be taken into state custody.
Campbell posted bond two days later -- and was immediately transferred to the Douglas County jail. Although the home Price tried to rent was in DeKalb County and the first portion of the deposit was paid there, the second transaction took place in Douglas County. Price filed police reports in both counties, so Campbell faced the same charge in Douglas.
"They called me Lori Ann Campbell [in Douglas County]," Campbell says. "But I don't have a middle name. I kept telling them, 'That's not who I am.'"
On Oct. 4, 2004, a DeKalb police sergeant wrote a letter to the DeKalb district attorney's office stating no evidence of any crime was found in Campbell's home and that her fingerprints didn't match the prints on the back of several money orders and checks gathered from Price and other victims. The sergeant wrote: "Through my preliminary investigation, Lori Campbell does not appear to be the person who committed the fraud crimes."
But in Douglas County, the investigation continued. In December 2004, Campbell's case went to trial. According to Douglas County Assistant District Attorney Robert Lee O'Brien, Price identified Campbell in the courtroom as the woman who showed her the house.
"The case was tried appropriately and properly," prosecutor O'Brien says. "The fact that DeKalb decided not to prosecute doesn't have anything to do with our case."
But Campbell's attorney Kirby Clements and her private investigator Crutchfield point to discrepancies in Price's statements, such as the type of car the perpetrator drove, as well as the perpetrator's physical description. Clements notes that Campbell's looks don't match any of the police report descriptions. Campbell is 36 years old, 5-foot-2, 120 pounds, and has straight teeth. Police reports describe the perpetrator as a 5-foot-6, 150-pound, twentysomething African-American female with crooked teeth. And DeKalb County already found that Campbell's fingerprints didn't match evidence in the case.
Nonetheless, Price was sentenced in Douglas County Superior Court to 10 years' probation, 100 hours of community service, and a $2,500 fine. She also was ordered to pay a $975 restitution to Price.
"I'm stunned by the way Lori's case has been handled," Clements says. "It's like the police didn't even do a basic investigation."
On Aug. 3, Clements filed a motion for a new trial, stating that Douglas County should consider the results of DeKalb County's investigation.
Campbell, who now lives in Virginia, maintains her innocence.
"I understand [Price] is angry," Campbell says, "but I'm not the one that took her money."
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