Housejacked: How it Works, Who's Involved, and Who Got Hurt

Housejacked: How it Works, Who's Involved, and Who Got Hurt
By: Kathy Sweeney
It's been 6 months since I interviewed longtime Sikeston landlord CD Alcorn about his stolen houses and started digging into an amazing property scheme running rampant in Scott County.  In this latest three part series, I'm laying out what I know on the record about how the scheme works, who's involved, and how it's affecting Sikeston's west side.  I can tell you I've heard many off-the-record accounts on this, but I can only report to you the facts I've found through court-filed documents and other transactions put into the public record.  While I cannot list out the names of everyone believed to be involved in this, the records I've found and the people I've interviewed all point a finger at Century Mortgage and its President, Todd McBride.  
(*In May of 2007, the Century Mortgage Web site listed offices in St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Sikeston, Poplar Bluff, Perryville, and Farmington.  Mr. McBride told me in a phone conversation in that same month that all these offices are closed and Century Mortgage is out of business.  McBride is from Cape Girardeau and served as chairman of the Cape County Democratic Party.  He ran unsuccessfully for Cape Girardeau City Council in 2005.  Last week, I tried to call McBride, but the two cell numbers, one home number, and one business number I had for him were all disconnected.)   
When I first talked to Mr. Alcorn, he told me he signed a contract with Century Mortgage to sell ten rental properties.  One month before he signed that contract, someone allegedly forged his name on three deeds and sold three of his homes to investors in St. Louis.  Since we last spoke, Alcorn was able to get one of his homes back.  He's still fighting to get back the other two.  He tells me he should be long since retired and living in the Smokey Mountains by now.  Instead, he's still managing properties in Sikeston and spending a lot of time with his attorney. 
I couldn't lay these stories out without the hard work and dedication of Scott County recorder Tom Dirnberger.  I joke with Tom that he's now the "housejacking" expert (I think he blames that title, in part, on my reports.)  Tom tells me not a day has gone by in the last six months where he hasn't spent at least two hours of his day working on what he calls a "multi-million dollar property scheme".  He has spoken with countless investors who all say they bought over-appraised properties on the west end of Sikeston.  Most are from St. Louis....but a few are from right here in the Heartland.  Tom's heard story after story of financial ruin......these folks realize the homes they bought were way over-priced and now they sit with mortgages they simply cannot pay.  His records show property after property on the brink of foreclosure. 
The best way for me to lay out this scheme is to rely on the signed, notarized statement of Donnie Jones.  Jones, of St. Louis, entered the statement in response to a civil suit filed by Sikeston attorney Jim Robison.  Robison represents CD Alcorn and others who lost properties through forged deeds.  Mr. Jones is accused of buying one of those properties and his statement lays out his side of the story.  I spoke with Jones on the phone just a few days ago and he told me to use this statement "with his blessing".  He also told me he's had to file for bankruptcy since getting involved with Century Mortgage.  I can tell you his story is identical to the stories of the six other investors I've talked to during my investigation. 
Here is what he told the court in his own words.
"I first became aquainted with Todd McBride from Century Mortgage Company in January 2006. "
"I did eventually agree to purchase 15 separate tracts, one of which is property at Benton, Missouri."
"I attended a closing conference at the Century Mortgage office on Craig Road in St. Louis County, Missouri.  Todd McBride was present at this closing."
"Later on, I did receive a check from Todd McBride for $3000.00."
"When a (mortgage) payment was due, Todd McBride would always bring me a check drawn on Century Mortgage Company or in some instances I would pick it up.  I used these to make the mortgage payments."
"Around December 2006, Mr. McBride became ill and ultimately had surgery.  He suggested I go ahead and make the payments.  I made the payments for January and February of 2007."
"By the end of February, I was out of money and could not possibly keep up with the payments, so to my knowledge, no payments have been made on any of these loans since February 2007."
"I have reviewed the lawsuit filed by ********* (name held at request of property owner) and after talking to *** daughter, I am satisfied that the deed which I received in February 2006 for (the Benton property) is a forgery and that I actually acquired no interest whatsoever in that property."
"I have been attempting to get in touch with Todd McBride, but he will not return my phone calls."

I mentioned earlier I've spoken with other St. Louis investors.  In July of this year, I went up to St. Louis and met with four of them.  Adrienne Davison and LaShonda Bostic agreed to be interviewed without disguising their identities.  The two men I interviewed did not want to show their faces or use their names.  All four have documentation to show they bought homes in Sikeston through Century Mortgage.  Two of them showed me cancelled checks from the personal account of Todd McBride.  Tom Dirnberger's records show all of their properties are headed into foreclosure or have been taken back by the banks involved.  (*All of these transactions went through out-of-state banks, many out in California.  All transactions went through a handful of St. Louis title companies.  Nearly all of the properties involved in the transactions were appraised by a single St. Louis appraiser.) 

All four told me about buying investment property in Sikeston through Century Mortgage.  (The two ladies became involved through their church.  One of the men has contact with an employee of Century Mortgage and brought a co-worker (the second man) in on the deal).  All four admit they never traveled to Sikeston to see the homes for themselves.  (Adrienne Davison says she saw what she now calls "faulty" appraisals.  One of the men had pictures of the home emailed to him, he says by Todd McBride).  All four now realize what their homes actually look like and how deeply in debt they are.
I recently went from house to house in Sikeston to see some of these properties for myself.  All the homes are single story, single family homes.  Tom Dirnberger tells me all appraise for between $15,000 to $40,000 (all were sold for between $40,000 to $60,000).  Some of these homes are in desperate need of repair.  I talked with some of the renters (including one of Adrienne Davison's tenants, and one of the second man's tenants).  Both tell me they've received letters stating they will face eviction as soon as the foreclosures on the homes go through.  I also spoke by phone with a man last night (11/26) who says he was forced out of his rental home on Kendall over the weekend. 
So now, the big question.....why Sikeston?  For that answer, I went to Sikeston city manager Doug Friend and community re-development coordinator Trey Hardy.  Hardy believes it has something do with the city's land clearance for re-development authority (LCRA).  The LCRA started around the same time Century Mortgage set up shop, but there's a clear difference between the two.  The LCRA identifies properties, then eventually tears them down and brings in new development.  Hardy believes Century Mortgage misunderstood this goal and thought buying and rehabbing old rental homes would match the LCRA's work and not stand out.
"In order for them to be as extensive as they were, I believe there was some stealth involved," Hardy told me. And it might have worked....if all the Century Mortgage homes hadn't started violating city ordinances at the same time.
"Here and there," Hardy tells me. "It didn't send up any red flags.  But when we got a vast number simultaneously and we can associate by our rental registration that, ‘holy cow, this is all Century Mortgage' --that's when we knew that there was something going on."
And this is where the scheme becomes both bad news and good news for Sikeston.
First the bad news.  The city must bear the cost of cleaning up or even tearing down derelict homes.  Hardy estimates the city's already spent nearly $50,000.
And now, the surprising good news from City Manager Doug Friend.  "In some cases, it's enabled us to take out dilapidated properties fairly quickly.  It's too early to tell what the long-range impact will be."
This is clearly not the end of this story.  There is an ongoing federal investigation and I will report the results as soon as they are made public.  In the meantime, dozens of you have emailed, called, or written me about your business dealings with Century Mortgage.  Please keep that information coming.  I have also talked to people who say they once worked for Century Mortgage and Todd McBride.  I welcome their input as well.  Click here to email me.
If Mr. McBride or anyone representing him is reading this, I would be happy to hear from you again.  Mr. McBride, I told you on the phone this summer I would be more than willing to report your side of this story.  You know how to contact me.