An Atlanta woman wants to warn homeowners after she said someone stole her house and then had it demolished.
She told Channel 2 investigative reporter Ashli Lincoln all she has now is an empty lot that sits nestled between two historic homes on Ralph McGill Boulevard in the heart of the Old Fourth Ward.
Linda Willis reached out to Channel 2 Action News after she said her home was targeted by strangers because of its prime location.
“This is a historical area. This is why you would buy over here,” Linda Willis said.
Willis said she’d intended to own the home she bought in 1990 for the rest of her life.
“This is a sad day. After 30 years of paying a mortgage, it has become dangerous to be a senior and own gentrified urban property,” she said.
On Nov. 2, 2021, Linda Willis said she arrived home to find a bulldozer in her front yard tearing down her home.
“I went to the crane operator and said, ‘Who gave you permission to tear down my property?’” she said.
The operator told her that he had been hired by a company that recently bought the home from a woman named Cencera Willis.
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The problem, according to Linda Willis, is that she never put her home up for sale and had no idea who Cencera Willis was.
Lincoln obtained documents from the Fulton County Probate Court showing Cencera Willis filed to be administrator over Linda Willis’ property last year, appointing her deceased mother who just so happened to have the same first and last name as Linda Willis.
Records from Fulton County Superior Court show in April 2021, Cencera conveyed the property by acquiring an administrator’s deed.
Probate court documents reveal Cencera’s signature on the administrator’s deed paperwork.
Linda Willis first told Channel 2 Action News about this nightmare last year.
She said shortly after our interview, the company who purchased her home took her to court after she refused to give up her property.
During the court hearings, attorneys representing Spencer Love Homes discovered Cencera Willis’ mother died in 2014.
Property tax records show that taxes were paid on the home in 2015.
“She never paid taxes. If her mother died in 2014 and you never pay the tax bill, you wouldn’t have owned it anyway,” Linda Willis said.
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In just four months, Cencera Willis conveyed the property to Parkwood Living by limited warranty deed. Parkwood then sold the home to Spencer Love Homes for $500,000.
Channel 2 Action News attempted to contact Parkwood Living and Spencer Love Homes, LLC. and they have not responded to our request.
In court transcripts from that case, attorneys representing Spencer Love Homes discovered Linda Willis was a victim of deed fraud. Attorneys stated based off the tax records, Linda Willis was the rightful owner.
They deposed Linda Willis’ next-door neighbor who confirmed she’s been living there since 1990.
Court documents reveal attorneys tried questioning Cencera Willis, but she cited her 5th Amendment right to not comment.
Lincoln went to two DeKalb County homes listed as Cencera Willis’ place of residence.
A woman inside one home told Lincoln she did not know who Cencera Willis was.
Lincoln spoke with Cencera Willis in 2022, she declined to comment back then.
“The judge put an order together to say that I’m the rightful owner and that this property needs to be put back in my name,” Willis said.
Willis said she simply can’t afford to rebuild.
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Attorney Diane Baker said her office is seeing an increase of seniors wanting protection against deed fraud.
“They’re very concerned about it. Especially older clients,” Baker said.
She said the best protection is getting a living trust, which would have helped Linda Willis.
“Then the administrator of the estate, the person committing the fraud, would not have been entitled to sell the property,” Baker said.
Attorney Rick Alembik said there are also other options homeowners can take.
He said to set up a doorbell camera, register your home with a fraud registry with your area municipality or take out a reverse mortgage.
“A lot of ways these fraudulent deeds are done is by people who steal,” Alembik told Lincoln. “The extent in which it’s reported is probably under-reported, but we’re seeing it, we’re seeing more of it.”
Both attorneys said thieves typically go after homes that are paid off, appear abandoned and will target homeowners who have common names.
Willis said she’s tried filing criminal charges multiple times against Cencera Willis.
She said Atlanta police told her this was a civil matter. No one has been charged.
Both the Atlanta Police Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation say in these cases, victims have taken action through civil litigation.
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