May 19, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
This is the story about Fred, age 52, who has lived the past 20 years in Hanford, California, when he isn’t at the office. The “office” for Fred can be an oilfield in Venezuela, or somewhere in the Arabian desert. While a large man–with tattoos from his days in the Marine Corps that give him a rough appearance, Fred is anything but that. True to the values of rural Texas — where he was raised — he takes people at their word. “That’s what my momma told us, growing up, and what we learned in Church. Do the right thing and trust others to do the same,” he told me in his delightful Texas accent.
“I’ve read your column for years and plan to be in Bakersfield later today. Could you please look at a bill of sale I have on a house that I bought here last August? Now, I have to pay you for your time, so how much is it?” he asked.
“But, Fred, I do not charge my readers. It’s my pleasure to be of help, and besides, I get new story ideas this way,” I replied.
Anything for a milk shake
That response was not acceptable to Fred. “Now, just you listen, Beaver, if you won’t take money, do you like ice cream, because if you do, right now I’m in my car, in front of the Superior Dairy in downtown Hanford. Suppose I bring you and your staff some of their ice cream, instead of paying for a consultation?”
Fred found my breaking point: Ice cream from Hanford’s Superior Dairy — well worth a visit for anyone within 100 miles of this delightful, old-fashioned ice cream parlor. “O.K., I give up, one large vanilla shake for me and two chocolate for my paralegals — but do you have an ice chest, as it’s almost two hours away and it’s summer?” Fred indeed had an ice chest, and at 1:00 p.m. everything stopped in the office as we dug into the best milk shakes anywhere.
Bill of sale
While destroying my diet, I read a “bill of sale” Fred handed me. It was for a home in the Hanford area that he was buying, after living in it as a tenant for 2 years. The language was simple. “Seller sells to buyer a three bedroom house at (address) for $75,000 dollars, payments at the rate of $600 a month. $5,000 deposit paid today. Home is free of all encumbrances and liens.”
Fred had asked for an escrow, but for some reason, the seller refused. Within the past two weeks my reader learned that property taxes had not been paid for almost 4 years! By the end of the year, the house would be sold for delinquent taxes.
“What can I do? Should I pay all those back, unpaid property taxes?” he asked. Something just seemed fishy here. “Why would a seller refuse to open an escrow if everything was on the up and up?” Then the likely answer came to me. “I will bet you money the guy you bought this house from does not own it,” I told Fred, while dialing the number of a title company in Hanford.
They looked up the address: it was owned, not by the seller, but by a woman who died over 10 years ago — the seller’s mother! The house was still in her name, with indeed over 4 years of delinquent property taxes piling up.
Fred was sold a house the seller did not own. Unless there was an error somewhere, in my opinion, we were looking at fraud, pure and simple.
What the seller told us
“Fred, my recommendation is that we call the seller and ask for an explanation. If he has documents proving the house really is in his name, he will volunteer to show them to us at once. If not, then we need to get your deposit refunded immediately,” I said.
He agreed and we called the seller, who also reads this column.
“You mean it isn’t in my name? How did you find that out?” He stammered when I explained what the title company told us. “No it isn’t, and, by the way, is the house free and clear, or is anything owed on it?” I asked. “Oh yeah, well I got a private loan for $17,000.00 — that’s owed,” he replied. “Then you did three things wrong here, you sold Fred a house you do not own, somehow convinced someone naive to loan you money against it, failed to disclose that to Fred, and you have refused to pay the property taxes for almost 5 years. Good job! Do you have proof that the house went through probate, or some other way of showing that this house belongs to you?” I asked.
He remained silent
Things you can and cannot say
The seller committed fraud — there was no doubt about it, both civil and criminal fraud, based upon what I had seen. But it is against the law to threaten criminal prosecution as a way of getting someone to pay back money, so diplomacy was called for at this time.
“I think you realize what could happen, and therefore here is what I want you to do. Fred will drive back to Hanford and will meet you at your bank at 4:30 this afternoon. I want you to hand him $5,000 in cash. He will move out of the house in a month, and that’s that. Do you agree?” I asked in a tone of voice that left room for only one possible answer.
We walked Fred to his car, and as he was just about to drive back to Hanford, my paralegal, Anne, said, “If you get your money today, it’s because of the best investment you ever made — three milk shakes!”
It was a hot Monday afternoon and we left the office early. But in checking our voice mail that evening, one message had come in. It was from Fred. “Beaver, I got my money! Thank y’all! I went right over to my bank deposited that $5,000. Your paralegal was right!”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.