A Crook Stole a North Portland House, Exposing a Gaping Vulnerability in Property Records: Forged Signatures

Vigilant neighbors saved Ron Henne’s childhood home.

Ron Henne & Sarah Ron and Sarah Henne foiled a house thief. (Nigel Jaquiss)

Somebody stole Ron Henne’s house.

Henne, 83, a retired maintenance engineer for Frito-Lay, spends most of the year in Bakersfield, Calif., but owns his childhood home, across from Pier Park in North Portland. He held on to it after his mother died in 2009, and plans to leave it to his children.

Last month, a neighbor telephoned Henne in Bakersfield to tell him a locksmith, accompanied by a strange man, was changing the locks on the door of Henne’s home in the St Johns neighborhood.

“My neighbor went over and said, ‘What are you doing?’” Henne says. “The guy told her he’d bought the house, but the keys he’d been given didn’t work.”

The neighbor knew, however, that Henne loved the home where he’d grown up, visited it regularly, and kept it in good shape. She also knew the home had never been listed for sale, had no tenants, and still contained decades’ worth of Henne family possessions. She called the police.

When a squad car rolled up, the neighbor later told Henne, the strange man accompanying the locksmith jumped into a vehicle and drove away.

In Bakersfield, Henne was puzzled. At first, he thought perhaps police had foiled a home invasion.

But then earlier this month, the same neighbor called again. She had checked Henne’s mail and found several letters offering various services to the home’s “new owner,” a man named Silvestre Garcia.

“I said what the hell?” Henne recalls. “My house was never for sale, and I have no idea who Silvestre Garcia is.”

A call to the Multnomah County Recorder’s Office thickened the plot: Henne learned that Garcia had registered a deed with the county Jan. 29 showing he had purchased Henne’s house for $236,000.

Never mind that the price was less than half the real market value of $596,900: Henne hadn’t seen a penny of the alleged sale price.

That put Garcia or whoever forged the title in a position to sell it immediately to one of the cash buyers who advertise around town or to mortgage the property, pocket the money, and walk away. “It shook me to my core,” Henne says. “I own the home free and clear—no mortgage. It’s what I have to leave to my kids. What if my neighbors hadn’t been watching?”

It’s common for Portland thieves to steal cash, catalytic converters, and cars. Home theft? That’s a new one for local officials.

Tim Mercer, a manager in the county’s assessment division, later informed Henne’s daughter, Sarah, that her father had been the victim of a novel but rapidly growing scam: Garcia had forged the legal documents giving him title to Henne’s home.

“We hadn’t seen a case of fraud like this until last summer (I’ve been in the business for over 20 years and had never seen anything like this),” Mercer wrote Sarah Henne in a March 21 email. “And yet, in the last few weeks we’ve uncovered multiple cases of fraudulent/forged deeds.”

Henne’s daughter, Sarah, a California teachers’ union official who lives in Santa Cruz, leaped into action after her father told her what was going on.

She contacted the Multnomah County ombudsperson, Cheryl Taylor. Taylor put her in touch with the assessor’s office, which is responsible for recording the property deeds that memorialize real estate transactions and show property ownership.

When Henne explained to the assessor’s office her father had never sold his property or heard of the alleged buyer, the office changed the name of owner back to Ronald Henne. But that was only the first step. The assessor’s office told Henne her father would also have to go to court to get the title legally restored.

The family hired an attorney, former state Rep. Julie Parrish (R-West Linn). Parrish, who has worked on signature gathering for political campaigns, got a copy of the deed Garcia filed showing he’d purchased the Henne property. The deed included what Parrish and the Henne family say are clearly fake signatures—both for Ronald Henne and the notary public who allegedly witnessed his signature. (The notary confirmed in an email filed in court that she’d had nothing to do with the disputed transaction.)

Parrish says those fake signatures are evidence of a gaping vulnerability in the system meant to safeguard property. Anybody with internet access to public research terminals at any county assessor’s office can pull copies of deeds and then, using Adobe PhotoShop or even lower-tech means, forge signatures.

Mercer, the official in the assessor’s office, acknowledged to the Hennes and Parrish that the system for recording property ownership is ripe for fraud.

“Given the current law, and systems in place, there’s no feasible way for us to verify signatures (for either the grantor or notary) on all deeds being recorded in our office,” Mercer wrote in a March 21 email.

He added that the assessor’s office has, after a “dramatic rise in fraudulent deeds over the last month,” notified local, state and federal authorities. “We now have a process in place to notify and cooperate with law enforcement when we become aware of these fraud issues,” Mercer wrote.

WW tried to contact the man whose name is on the deed—Silvestre Garcia of Clovis, Calif.—without success. Sarah Henne says she’s going to push the Oregon Department of Justice and the FBI to investigate.

“We don’t want to see what happened to my father happen to others,” she says.

Parrish says the Oregon secretary of state, who regulates notaries and elections officials who validate signatures, could help county clerks develop a process to detect deed fraud. The Legislature could also scrub signatures from property records (as lawmakers have done with dates of birth and Social Security numbers on other public documents) in order to make forgery more difficult.

Whatever the fix, the Hennes hope it comes soon.

“What happened to my father was such a quiet crime,” Sarah Henne says. “If our neighbors hadn’t been on this, it would have been devastating.”

Ron Henne (Nigel Jaquiss)

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