Editor’s note: The Chauncey Bailey Project just won a major national award, the Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. The award honors “outstanding reporting covering organized crime or other criminal acts” According to the IRE press release, tho award went to A.C. Thompson, Thomas Peele, Josh Richman, Angela Hill, Mary Fricker, G.W. Schulz, Cecily Burt, Bob Butler, Paul T. Rosynsky and Harry Harris for “The Chauncey Bailey Project.” Thompson works with New American Media, Peele, Richan, Burt, Rosynsky, Hill and Harris are from the Bay Area News Group. Fricker is a retired reporter from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Bob Butler is a freelance radio reporter. Schulz works for the Bay Guardian. The coordinator of the project is Robert Rosenthal, director of the Center for Investigative Reporting. “These stories would have been difficult to pursue under any circumstances,” the organization noted, “but it took extreme dedication to get at the truth following the assassination of Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey. In the tradition of the Arizona Project, this coalition of Bay area journalists delved into questionable real estate deals and contracts involving the owners of Your Muslim Bakery in Oakland. The reporters raised questions about the thoroughness of a police investigation into the group before Bailey’s murder. They probed the interrogation and confession of Bailey’s alleged killer. And they carried on the work that Bailey intended to pursue before his death. (IRE is providing data analysis and computer services for the project). “ —————————————————————- SANTA BARBARA – Police here, responding to inquiries by the Chauncey Bailey Project, have re-opened an investigation into the unsolved 1968 shooting deaths of a couple affiliated with a mosque that was the forerunner to Your Black Muslim Bakery. Detectives could arrive in Oakland as early as this week to question Abdul Raab Mohammad, 71, formerly known as Billy X Stephens. He is the brother of late Your Black Muslim Bakery patriarch Yusuf Ali Bey, who was born Joseph H. Stephens. In the mid-1960s, the brothers converted to Islam in this seaside city 90 miles north of Los Angeles and founded a now-defunct mosque, planting the seeds of what eventually became the Bey organization, its Oakland bakery and a culture of African-American defiance and self-reliance. But just as those aspects of the bakery began in Southern California, so too did allegations of intimidation and crimes ranging from fraud to murder. On Aug. 17, 1968, two members of the Santa Barbara mosque, Birdie Mae Scott, 33, and her husband, Wendell Scott, 30, were slain with a 30.30 rifle as they slept in an apartment they shared with her two children, ages 13 and 10. Though he was never named as a suspect, records show the police investigation at the time focused largely on Billy X Stephens, who was the organization’s top leader as minister. Joseph Stephens served as its secretary. No arrests were made in the case. Police reports were copied to microfilm, archived and remained untouched for decades. Nearly 200 pages of documents about the Scott killings released by Santa Barbara police to the Chauncey Bailey Project show that detectives in 1968 focused on internal mosque disputes as the motive in the Scott killings. Wendell Scott, according to police documents, had written a letter to Nation of Islam leaders in Chicago complaining that he had been forced to burn two cars belonging to the Stephens brothers’ mother so insurance money could be collected. Billy Stevens learned of the letter and suspended the Scotts from the mosque, the documents said. The couple was killed weeks later. Documents also show similarities to the Aug. 2 killing of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey, who was investigating the bakery’s finances and internal disputes. A handyman at the bakery has been arrested and charged with murder in connection with the shooting. The handyman, Devaughndre Broussard, 20, told authorities he shot Bailey because he wanted to be a “good soldier” for bakery leaders; he has since recanted that confession. In both the Scott and Bailey cases, police have theorized the slayings were carried out to silence critics of the Stephens/Bey family and their organizations. Another look Santa Barbara police said they will investigate the Scott killing again. “There has been some recent information from some cases up in Oakland that have some similarities,” said Santa Barbara Police Lt. Amando Martel. Detectives will “see maybe if there are any connections with the case in Oakland and the one here in 1968.” Billy X Stephens, in a telephone interview from his home in Oakland, denied last week having anything to do with the double slaying in Santa Barbara. “I didn’t do it. I don’t know who did it, nor did I know beforehand that it was going to happen,” he said. “I don’t have anything to hide.” He said the shooting had nothing to do with the mosque and that “outsiders” committed the crime. In their 1968 reports, Santa Barbara police wrote they suspected Wendell Scott was targeted because of his complaints about Billy and Joseph Stephens. Police noted that Birdie Scott’s brother, Toby Jackson, told them Wendell Scott was “trying to drop out” of the organization. “In those days … the only way you left the Black Muslims was feet first because you were privy to information that may have involved possible criminal activity,” said retired Santa Barbara officer Keene Grand, who worked on the case. In investigating the Scotts’ killing, police found a pattern of intimidation and fear within the mosque’s members. The mosque was a closed group that resolved its own problems and had little contact with outsiders, especially police, records show. “There were a lot of discussions and rumors (in 1968) of the potential of a connection (between the killings and) the mosque and some of (its) leaders,” Martel said. “People were reluctant to talk.” Detectives also ran into a tangle of family intrigue – Birdie Scott was the sister of Billy X Stephens’ former wife, Mary. Documents show that detectives believed Mary Stephens, who still lives in Santa Barbara, may have known more about the killings than she said at the time. In a brief telephone interview last week, Mary Stephens said she would welcome justice for her late sister but declined to discuss the slaying. “It’s been 40 years and I’ve put it out my mind and I don’t want to put my mind back on it,” she said. Five weeks after the killings, Billy and Mary Stephens married for a second time. Police reports note that several people told detectives the couple remarried because Billy X Stephens believed Mary could not be forced to testify against him if she was his wife. The couple divorced again in 1976. The early investigation Much of the investigation in 1968 focused on Billy X Stephens and a phone call he made to police the night of the shooting – a call that other mosque members told police was in direct violation of Stephens’ stringent policy against bringing outsiders into mosque affairs, according to police reports. Stephens, however, said no such policy existed. “There was no rule about not calling the police,” he said last week. “You wouldn’t do it if it was a family disturbance. Any time I hear a gunshot I call the police.” Documents show that Stephens phoned police at 2:30 a.m. Aug. 17, 1968, but didn’t report hearing gunshots from the Scotts’ apartment, which was directly above his in a shoebox-shaped complex Stephens managed just yards from U.S. Highway 101. Stephens “said he just finished a business phone call and had gone to bed and was just in ‘twilight’ sleep when he heard what sounded like a door slam,” a detective wrote. Stephens told police he called the Scotts’ phone several times to inquire about their welfare and became worried when no one answered, records show. Police found the Scotts’ apartment door kicked in and the couple dead in their bed. Each was shot twice. The children in the next room were unharmed. Police began an aggressive canvas of the neighborhood at dawn. At least six people interviewed said they’d heard four gun shots roughly 20 minutes earlier than Stephens’ call to police, the reports said. One man, who lived about 75 yards away, told detectives the shots came during the climactic scene of a movie he was watching on television. The detectives contacted the Los Angeles television station that broadcast the movie and found the scene the man described aired about 2:10 a.m. Other people who lived nearby told police they also heard the shots, followed by a more dull, cracking sound, and police speculated that the gunman may have entered the apartment with a key and kicked in the door when leaving to make it look as if entry was forced, according to documents. Police noted that Stephens managed the apartment complex. Stephens said he never heard any shots and suggested the killer used a rifle with a silencer attached. “I didn’t hear any shots,” he told the Chauncey Bailey Project. “I heard them rumbling down the stairs.” There is no reference in the police reports to Stephens telling police he heard anyone on the stairs. When detectives confronted Stevens with the time discrepancy and other questions, he became angry and refused their request to take a lie detector test, according to reports. Last week, Stephens said he didn’t take the lie detector test because a woman phoned him anonymously and told him police would use the results to arrest him. “They were trying to build a case against me,” he said. Another person named in police reports in 1968 was a former U.S Army soldier named Ermond Givens. He is a retired school janitor, now 70, who changed his name to Ali Omar and lives in Alameda. He served as the mosque’s lieutenant and was responsible for what he described in a recent interview as “training the Muslim soldier.” In an interview at his Alameda home, Omar first said there were never any problems at the Santa Barbara mosque during his tenure there. When reminded of the double killing, he remembered that police had never solved the case but said he knew little about it. Police reports show that a woman named Ida Hamilton, who was also a member of the mosque, told detectives that Omar was among those closest to Billy X Stephens. Omar said last week he had no information about the shooting. Birdie Scott’s daughter, Audrey Hazelwood, who was 13 the night of the killing and in the next bedroom, cannot recall hearing the fatal shots. She said her family deserves to know who killed her mother and stepfather. “Of course we do,” said Hazelwood, now 53 and living in Santa Barbara, “My (late grandmother) always said that she would live to see the day” when the case would be investigated again. “But I guess it’ll be in my lifetime.” Investigation hits a dead end Police continued to investigate through the end of 1968, documents show, but hit a dead-end when 30.30 shell casings found in the Scott’s bedroom didn’t have any fingerprints on them. In the days before DNA testing, police were left with little physical evidence. Martel, the Santa Barbara police lieutenant, said any breaks in the case will have to come from someone with knowledge of it who talks to detectives. Detectives, he said, will question people in both Santa Barbara and Oakland, where the Stephens brothers moved in 1970 with orders from a Nation of Islam leader to open another mosque. A year later, the brothers split – Billy X became Abdul Raab Mohammad and stayed with the Nation of Islam. He served as a minister in the organization for 44 years and is now living in Oakland. Joseph Stephens took the name Yusuf Bey and broke away from the Nation of Islam. He started his own organization, which became Your Black Muslim Bakery and served as a center of empowerment and employment for African Americans in Oakland. It was one of the few places where ex-convicts could find work. Cracks in the bakery’s respectability began to appear in 1994 when four of its associates were charged with assaulting and torturing a man over a real estate deal. Bey died in 2003 while awaiting trial on statutory rape charges, and the bakery soon descended into chaos. Yusuf Bey’s hand-picked successor, Waajid Aliawwaad, 51, soon disappeared and was found five months later in a shallow grave. Another of Bey’s protégés left town after several men opened fire on him as he left his house for work. Police suspected other members of the organization were involved in both crimes, which remain unsolved, largely because police have found no one willing to provide them with information, a decades long pattern of silence that apparently began in Santa Barbara. Bob Butler is a freelance journalist. Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group. Contact Butler at email@example.com and Peele at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Chauncey Bailey Project is a consortium of news organizations dedicated to continuing the reporting that Bailey, editor of the Oakland Post, was pursuing when he was killed Aug. 2. For information, contact Dori J. Maynard of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education at 510-684-3071. E-mail tips to email@example.com.
Since a trio of shotgun blasts killed Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey on Aug. 2, police and prosecutors have charged only one man with the crime: 20-year-old Devaunghndre Broussard, a handyman at Your Black Muslim Bakery, who is expected to be arraigned this morning.
But Oakland police records raise questions whether a second man, a 21-year-old former San Francisco resident with an extensive and violent criminal history, may have played a role in the journalist’s slaying.
That man, Antoine Mackey, who lived with Broussard and worked at the bakery, remains free. It’s unclear whether police are actively seeking to question him about possible connections to the crime.
Reached on a cell phone with an Atlanta area code earlier this week, Mackey denied any involvement in Bailey’s death.
But a bakery associate, Rigoberto Magana, told detectives that on the morning of theslaying, Mackey drove away from the bakery in a white Dodge Caravan belonging to Magana, according to handwritten police interview notes.
The vehicle in question figures prominently in the crime: Broussard later told homicide detectives he’d used the van to get to and from the scene of Bailey’s killing near 14th and Alice streets in downtown Oakland, and witnesses reported seeing a white van in the vicinity.
One witness said the gunman got in on the passenger side of an older Dodge Caravan shortly before shooting; another saw the assailant flee the crime scene in a waiting white van, police incident reports state.
When homicide detectives questioned Magana, he told them Mackey drove the van away from the bakery’s San Pablo Avenue headquarters at between 5:30 and 6 a.m., returning it to the bakery between 7:30 and 7:35 a.m. with a damaged rearview mirror. Bailey was shot at 7:25 a.m., according to police reports.
Magana, who was living at the bakery, identified Antoine Mackey immediately when shown Mackey’s photograph as the person who drove away in his van and later returned it, the police notes state.
Bakery leader Yusuf Bey IV and Broussard gave police accounts of driving around the night before the killing with Mackey and also met him at the bakery immediately after the shooting and drove to the scene together, according to interview transcripts obtained by the Chauncey Bailey Project.
Broussard, who, like Mackey was raised in San Francisco, told police he shot Bailey three times because the journalist was working on stories about the bakery’s financial woes. He later recanted.
Days after Broussard’s Aug. 3 confession, Oakland police told the media their probe was ongoing and suggested Broussard likely had help. “We don’t believe he acted on his own,” Assistant Chief Howard Jordan said days after Bailey died.
Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker did not return telephone calls Wednesday and Thursday to answer questions about Mackey. In earlier interviews, Tucker and other officers refused to discuss him.
Officer Roland Holgren, a department spokesman, said Thursday he couldn’t answer any questions about the Bailey case.
Broussard’s defense attorney said he believes Mackey was involved in Bailey’s killing, and police may have detained him when they raided the bakery compound Aug. 3 but allowed him to go free.
Soon after, Mackey became a fugitive.
He failed to appear for a criminal hearing in San Francisco on Aug. 17, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
He disappeared, attorney LaRue Grim said this week. “We are hoping he will be picked up sometime in the future.”
Grim said he believes Mackey was involved. “He drove the van. Broussard is very reluctant to point the finger at anyone but I think he will be willing to do so at trial. If he does, he can implicate Mackey and Yusef Bey and couple of others.”
Bey, who is jailed for unrelated offenses, has denied any involvement in the slaying.
In addition to the revelations about the van, a review of police investigative documents by the Chauncey Bailey Project shows:
* In a taped jailhouse telephone conversation with a man identified only as “unc,” the man asked Broussard “what they do with Mackey?” “Mackey got out,” Broussard replied, an apparent reference to police possibly detaining Mackey and releasing him.
* Broussard told police he smoked a cigar laced with cocaine “when we were driving over there” to the corner where Bailey was ambushed. According to the transcript of the recorded portion of the interview, the homicide detective interviewing him, Sgt. Derwin Longmire, didn’t ask Broussard who he meant by “we.”
* Under questioning by Longmire, Broussard said he, Mackey and Bey IV drove past Bailey’s apartment near Lake Merritt the night before the slaying.
* Bey IV told police Mackey and Broussard drove with him to the scene of Bailey’s shooting shortly after it happened, and then went to Lake Merritt, where Bey IV claimed Broussard confessed to him he was the gunman.
* In interviews with detectives, Bey IV identified Mackey as a member of his security team.
Contacted Tuesday night, Mackey said he had nothing to do with Bailey’s shooting.
“I don’t know anything about that. I’d never even consider talking about anything like that,” he said, adding he knew Broussard, whom he described as “the dude from the Muslim bakery.”
Oakland Tribune staff writer Josh Richman and reporter Kenneth Kim of New America Media contributed to this report.
Editor’s Note: The Chauncey Bailey Project, a collaboration of local media outlets including the Guardian, is investigating the circumstances surrounding the Aug. 2 murder of Bailey, an Oakland journalist who was reporting on the financial dealings of the Bey family’s Your Black Muslim Bakery at the time he was killed. For more information, including audio, video, and updates on the case, click here.
Since 2003, Esperanza Johnson, a former key figure within Oakland’s Bey organization, and her husband, Antron Thurman, have acquired nearly $2 million worth of East Bay real estate through a string of controversial deals tainted with allegations of deceit.
In five cases those deals led to litigation. Johnson, of Antioch, who also goes by the name Noor Jehan Bey, has twice been accused of fraud. Court records indicate that one of those transactions involved falsified documents.
One sale involving Johnson, a licensed real estate broker, led to criminal charges: Alameda County prosecutors in 2006 convicted a Johnson associate on fraud charges stemming from a deal that cost an East Oakland couple their home.
A broad array of characters have tangled with Johnson and Thurman in court, including a disabled Berkeley bus porter forced from his family home, an Antioch couple now facing foreclosure, and East Bay Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that builds homes for the poor and struggling. Combined, they claim to have lost at least $1.77 million in property, cash and equity in the deals.
The revelations about Johnson and Thurman come as authorities scrutinize the extensive real estate dealings of the Bey family and their bankrupt business, Your Black Muslim Bakery, including Johnson’s role as the broker for an Oakland woman named Paulette Arbuckle who is attempting to buy the bakery’s San Pablo Avenue headquarters. Johnson bore four of the Bey family patriarch’s dozens of children.
Bakery CEO Yusuf Ali Bey IV, 21, jailed without bail on kidnapping and torture charges, also is charged with real estate fraud: prosecutors say he bought an Oakland property under a false identity.
And bankruptcy trustee Tevis Thompson, who is overseeing the liquidation of Your Black Muslim Bakery’s assets, has claimed in court papers that Bey IV transferred $2.28 million in bakery properties to his mother, Daulet Bey, in a bid to “defraud creditors.” The trustee has sued for those properties’ return.
Devaughndre Broussard, a 20-year-old bakery associate, is charged with the Aug. 2 shotgun slaying of Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey as he walked to work in downtown Oakland. Police say Broussard made a confession – later recanted – that he killed Bailey because the journalist was working on a story about the bakery’s finances and bankruptcy case.
Johnson, whose state business registration was suspended more than a year ago for failure to pay taxes and who with Thurman has more than $1 million in state and federal tax liens recorded against them, didn’t return numerous telephone calls and emails, and didn’t answer the gate at her Antioch home on two recent occasions.
Thurman refused to speak to reporters who approached him recently in Oakland.
A Los Angeles real estate consultant who reviewed Johnson’s transactions for the Chauncey Bailey Project said the trustee and judge handling the bakery’s bankruptcy should examine Johnson’s record.
They “should be made aware that a realtor on a transaction which requires the trustee’s approval has a murky… background,” said Eric Forster.
The attorney for the court appointed bankruptcy trustee charged with liquidating the bakery said Johnson’s transaction history would be probed.
“Obviously it is of some concern to us and we’re looking into it,” Eric Nyberg, attorney for trustee Tevis Thompson, said when informed of the cases.
He also noted that Arbuckle may not, in the end, be the highest bidder for the bakery. A hearing on her offer is scheduled for Nov. 29. If the $899,999 bid of Johnson’s client, Arbuckle, is successful and Johnson is “entitled to receive the commission, then we really don’t have an issue with it,” Nyberg said.
A spokesperson for the state Department of Real Estate, Tom Pool, wouldn’t discuss the Johnson and Thurman transactions.
Markus Machado and Gail Mateo said that when they wanted to buy a newer and bigger home in 2005, they went to a real estate broker they thought they could trust: Esperanza Johnson.
A Compton native, Johnson became involved with the Bey organization, a spin-off of the Nation of Islam, at the age of 12, taking the name Noor Jehan Bey.
She’s returned to using the name Esperanza Johnson, though she’s been listed in judgments against her by banks and credit-card companies as Nellie Bey, Nuri Bey, Noojean Bey and Noor Jehan Esperanza, a review of records by the Chauncey Bailey Project shows. And, in 2005 testimony, she said she still occasionally uses the name Noor Jehan Bey.
Johnson had hired Machado, a graphic artist, to create flyers for her Signature One Mortgage and Real Estate.
In a recent interview at his lawyer’s office, Machado described her as warm and gregarious – at first, anyway. Machado said Johnson arranged what seemed like an incredible deal: the couple could sell their 50-year-old Pittsburg house and move into a spacious four-bedroom home in a verdant Antioch subdivision, an ideal place to raise their three children and grow old together.
Johnson promised they’d pay about $1,600 a month for the new home, only a little more than their mortgage at the time. Machado said Johnson even agreed to forgo her usual commissions “because we were like family.”
They said Johnson had told them their credit was poor, and talked them into selling their Pittsburg house to one of her employees, Araceli Moreno, for $350,000 while putting the new home and mortgage in Moreno’s name as well. They expected to refinance the loan in about a year, when Moreno would sign the house over to them.
It seemed perfect – until the bills arrived.
The payments were $2,700 a month and soon ballooned higher, they now say in court records. And then Johnson – who in sealing the deal had diverted almost $58,000 of equity from their old home to others, and had won large commissions for herself by getting them an unfavorable mortgage – stopped taking their calls, Machado said as his wife sat next to him weeping.
The couple had trouble making the payments almost immediately and Moreno began receiving calls from the mortgage company. She sued Machado and Mateo last year.
“The point of (Moreno’s) lawsuit was to get them to refinance to get my client’s name off the loan and for her to go ahead and salvage what of her credit picture she could,” said Moreno’s attorney, Richard G. Hyppa of Tracy.
The couple counter-sued in November 2006, naming Moreno and Johnson as defendants, claiming that Johnson defrauded them. They are now months behind on the payments and stressed to exhaustion.
“I don’t sleep. Gail doesn’t sleep,” Machado said. “I was very naive. We were led down this primrose path because I trusted (Johnson) implicitly.”
After paying off what they owed on the Pittsburg house, about $190,000 was left over that should have been used for the down payment on the Antioch house. But the suit alleges that Moreno used only $77,973 toward the down payment.
Meanwhile, court records say Johnson arranged for another $10,000 to be paid out to Moreno, and for someone named Harry Hawkins to get $45,830 as “repayment of loans.” Machado’s lawyer, Ken Koenen, said attempts to locate Hawkins have been fruitless.
The suit also claims Johnson structured the Antioch mortgage so monthly payments would increase dramatically after a year, and so Machado and Mateo would have to pay an $18,000 penalty in order to refinance – thereby earning her a much larger commission.
Machado and Mateo now are several months in arrears on the mortgage in Moreno’s name. Default notices have arrived at the house.
“It’s an extremely painful thing,” Machado said. “We have been robbed of our peace of mind. We have to make decisions about whether to put food in the refrigerator or gas in the car. We’ve not even sure we’re going to have a place to live.”
Johnson hasn’t responded to the couple’s lawsuit and will likely be subject to a default judgment, Koenen said.
Johnson and Thurman in 2004 acquired a Hercules home after a federal judge had ordered it frozen as an asset of an investment company, Chicago D&P, that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had accused of fraud.
The property was supposed to be sold to help pay back investors – reportedly including at least 30 active-duty Marines and several churches – which had been cheated out of millions through Chicago D&P’s pyramid schemes.
The daughter of the company’s president had bought the property years earlier using a straw purchaser – a friend with better credit – as a front, according to court records.
That friend had been trying to get her name off the title for some time, and the daughter’s attorney – Githaiga Ramsey, who also worked for Thurman and Johnson on another case – persuaded her to sign the house over to them. Records shows Ramsey offered the friend $20,500 to complete the transaction but that the payment was never made.
The transfer of the house occurred after U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer ordered the property frozen. Thurman then turned around and sold it a month later to one of the employees of his bail bond business, Jamie Bonilla, for $460,000. Johnson filed Bonilla’s loan application.
Most of that money appears to have eventually gone to pay mortgages against the property when Thurman and Johnson acquired it for free. But first, Thurman received $60,213 from the deal’s escrow; and Ramsey got $31,000.
It remains unclear who lived in the house after Bonilla bought it.
Stephen Anderson, the receiver representing Chicago D&P’s bilked investors, wrote in April 2005 that he believed Johnson’s daughter, Nisa Bey, had lived there.
Other documents show Madeeah Bey – another mother to several of patriarch Yusuf Bey’s children – used it as her mailing address in two December 2004 real estate deals.
It’s also unclear whether Thurman and Johnson knew of the court order freezing the house when they took possession of it. But in February 2005 Breyer held Ramsey in contempt of court for defying his order.
Ramsey and Thurman both repaid the money they received from the escrow when Thurman sold the house to Bonilla.
Bonilla, within a few months, then sold the house for $625,000 – a profit of $211,690 from a property that the receiver had originally wanted to sell to help repay the defrauded investors.
Anderson said a long legal battle to regain title to the house would’ve been too costly.
“We made an economic decision,” he said. “The objective of the receiver is to return as much money as possible back to the investors, and it was not difficult to determine we were going to get more money” by taking the $91,000 from Thurman and Ramsey than by “trying to unscramble that whole mess.”
Ramsey, who surrendered his law license while facing disciplinary charges from an unrelated case, wouldn’t discuss this case or others in which he was involved with Johnson and Thurman.
“My God, am I never going to get away from this?” he said. “I’m not involved and I don’t want to be. I’m not in contact with these people anymore.”
Bonilla could not be located.
Habitat for Humanity house
Antron Thurman married a woman named Sharon Clements in December 1987. Records show they separated seven months later and eventually filed for a divorce that was never made final.
In early 2000, Clements, as a single mother, moved into a home on 105th Avenue in Oakland built by the low-income housing nonprofit East Bay Habitat for Humanity. It gave Clements a no-interest $112,000 loan with no down payment.
Clements died in April 2003, leaving no will. Usually either there’s a clear legal inheritance, or else the nonprofit passes the deed to someone qualified for low-income aid, executive director Janice Jensen said. But Clements’ son was still a minor.
Clements’ home stood vacant for three years while her estate was sorted out in Alameda County Probate Court.
Then, in mid-2006, Thurman argued he was entitled to the low-income property as Clements’ surviving spouse, records show – even as he listed his address as Johnson’s Antioch home, and other records showed that in the previous few years he had bought and sold in excess of $1 million in East Bay real estate.
“Frankly, I didn’t even know about Mr. Thurman,” Habitat’s Jensen said. “I had no idea who he was or that he even existed until the attorneys got involved. When we looked at the deed, she was the only signature, so she bought that home herself.”
Still, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Marshall L. Whitley awarded Thurman the house, which had restrictions in place to preserve its affordability for low income people.
Thurman then sold it back to Habitat for Humanity for the $13,500 in equity that had accrued during the three years Clements owned it.
Alana Conner, an attorney for Thurman at the time, said she couldn’t independently recall details of the case and declined to discuss it.
Mitzie Peters befriended Brandy Stewart in 2001, studying the Bible with her eventual victim, court records say.
Peters persuaded the cash-strapped AC Transit bus driver to deed the home at 1565 77th Ave. – which Stewart had inherited from her mother, and in which she, her husband and her three children lived – into Peters name and use Peters’ credit to get an equity loan. Peters promised to return the deed after a few days, keeping $12,000 from the loan as a fee.
“She said that because she loved me so much, she would never, ever think about doing this for anyone else, but she would help me to get the house refinanced,” Stewart would later testify.
Stewart deeded the house to Peters on March 11, 2003. But rather than sticking to the deal, Peters drained the property of all equity and gave nothing to Stewart, court records show.
Peters couldn’t have conducted the transaction without Johnson and her family.
As Peters’ broker, Johnson submitted a series of loan applications reporting Peters’ income as increasingly higher until the bank accepted the deal; she also allegedly coached Stewart in writing to the title company and falsely claiming Peters was her cousin.
Johnson’s sister, Ruquayya Jasmine Pennix, prepared Peters’ tax returns to send to the loan company, showing self-employment income that Peters later admitted was bogus; it’s unclear if Pennix knew that at the time.
Another of Johnson’s sisters – Fatima Ismail, who worked in Johnson’s office – drew up a phony lease showing Peters had derived rental income from Stewart’s house, according to court records.
Three months after she took title to Stewart’s house, Peters sold it to one of Johnson’s sons, Amir Bey. Under oath, Amir Bey later admitted he was just a straw buyer for his mother.
When arrested and charged with unrelated public benefits fraud, perjury and grand theft in July 2004, Peters made bail with Thurman’s Sinbad’s Bail Bonds.
As investigators also began probing her real estate activities, Peters gifted her Hayward condo to Johnson’s daughter, Nisa Bey, who sold it a month later for about $400,000.
Peters then lived with Nisa Bey in Pittsburg until going to prison. Because her bail had been secured with the condo, Thurman later asked a judge to exonerate the bail and return more than $50,000 – to Nisa Bey.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s office interviewed Johnson, Thurman, and their attorney, Githaiga Ramsey – who had represented Peters until just two months earlier, and who had just arranged the Chicago D&P deal for them – in September 2004.
“Johnson seemed evasive when questioned about irregularities in the loan and application process,” inspector Paul Wallace wrote in court papers.
But Johnson wasn’t charged.
“We didn’t think we could prove the case against her beyond a reasonable doubt,” Deputy District Attorney Alyce Sandbach said. “We didn’t have enough to make her on a case of fraud… of having made knowing misrepresentations.”
Among additional charges filed against Peters in November 2004 was a felony grand-theft count for equity and title to the Stewarts’ home; she pleaded no contest to that and 15 other, unrelated counts a year later, and was sentenced in February 2006.
The Stewarts got the $50,374.10 bail money Thurman had tried to direct to Nisa Bey. A judge in January ordered Peters to pay $486,083.90 in the Stewarts’ civil lawsuit, but they haven’t seen a dime, their lawyers say.
Amir Bey and Johnson tried to evict the Stewarts, court documents show, but backed off when the couple obtained free legal help.
The Stewarts then sued Johnson, Peters and Amir Bey; Johnson eventually offered to deed the house back to Stewart, but with the equity drained, the Stewarts couldn’t afford the higher mortgage payments.
A judge in September 2006 ordered Johnson and Amir Bey to pay the Stewarts $100,000 – $20,000 up front and $1,667 per month for 48 months.
Rebecca Saelao, the Stewarts’ attorney, said this civil judgment became a lien on the house, and was subordinated to massive mortgages Johnson and Amir Bey had taken on the property and eventually defaulted on. The house was sold at auction last year for $80,900, public records show.
The Stewarts got only about $5,000 from the sale of the home they’d lost. They no longer live in the Bay Area, and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Wrapped in a thin, sea-green blanket, Donald Taylor lay in a narrow bed at a Stockton nursing home recently, his frail 61-year-old body ravaged by diabetes and hypertension. His wheelchair was parked at his bedside, a walker he wants to learn to use, a few feet away.
Taylor is broke and relies on Medi-Cal, the state insurance program for the indigent, to bankroll his care and board at the Elm Haven Care Center.
His room is dingy and, fluorescent-lit with peeling blue wallpaper and a television, foil wrapped around its rabbit-ear antennae, issuing forth static-filled sound. He spends his days “just doing nothing.”
He said he wonders what his life might be like now if he never encountered Antron Thurman. “I think about it quite often, but there’s nothing I can do… I think about how they took the house from me,” Taylor said haltingly in a soft, gravelly voice that contained little emotion.
In the 1950s Taylor’s parents bought a cozy two-bedroom home on a tree-shaded street in north Berkeley. He grew up there and lived there still as an adult, while working as a bus-station porter. When his parents died, he and his sister, Loretta Alexander, inherited the house; the mortgage was paid off.
In early 2001, according to interviews and court documents, stepbrother Frederick Myers Jr., approached the siblings with a plan: He would help them form a company to manage the house and another property they had inherited, an undeveloped Lake County parcel.
Myers asked them to transfer the two deeds to the new corporation, which he would helm for them. Taylor said he agreed at his sister’s urging, believing the three of them could profit from development of the Lake County parcel.
But Myers suddenly sold the Berkeley house to Thurman, pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars and disappeared, court documents say, catching Taylor and Alexander completely off guard.
“I felt I had been cheated,” Taylor said, adding that he believes Thurman and Myers worked in concert. “Fred Jr. took the house and sold it to (Thurman) and it’s been downhill ever since. He sold it out from underneath us.”
Myers could not be located. Thurman, asked if he remembered Taylor, refused to answer as he climbed into a Cadillac Escalade outside a home in the Oakland hills.
Alexander’s son, Tony Cole, expressed disgust at the way his mother and uncle were played. “That property slipped right out from underneath them,” he said in a phone interview. “They didn’t have the business sense to know what was going on.”
Taylor and Alexander in 2004 sued to reclaim the house. Myers never appeared in court, but Thurman – represented by Githaiga Ramsey – responded by filing his own suit, claiming he had legitimately bought the property for $374,388 and demanding that Taylor pay $1,500 in monthly rent or get out.
Taylor and Alexander eventually settled the case for $55,000; it took Thurman 10 months to pay them, court records indicate. Taylor’s attorney, Frederic Harvey, refused to discuss the case.
The two-story, beige stucco house with a large garage has steadily appreciated in value. Public records show Thurman sold it in 2004 to Madeeah Bey – the same relative who used the Chicago D&P house in Hercules as her address – for $520,000; she sold it for $850,000 less than a year later. The house is now assessed at $867,000.
Alexander died last year. Taylor lost most of his possessions including photos of his mother when he left the property.
“I’d like to tell him to go (screw) himself,” Taylor said of Thurman, his legs twitching quietly under the blanket.
University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism students Lisa Pickoff-White, Robert Lewis, Nick Kusnetz, Vianna Risa Davila, Marnette Federis and Lucie Schwartz contributed to this story.
Thomas Peele and Josh Richman are staff writers for the Bay Area News Group; A.C. Thompson is a free-lance reporter working for New America Media and Bay Area News Group-East Bay; Bob Butler is a freelance reporter and president of the Bay Area Black Journalists Association.