A New Low: Stealing From the Dead

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Did William Ernest Johnson III steal the homes of the dead by forging notary signatures to transfer ownership and flip them for a profit in Philadelphia neighborhoods ripe for gentrification, or is he — as he maintains — a victim too? Craig R. McCoy investigates at the Philadelphia Enquirer.

They are all dead. Yet if city records are to be believed, they all walked into the office of a notary public and signed away their homes, which just happened to be in gentrifying neighborhoods with soaring property values.

Gail Harrison lived alone in the house where she grew up on Seybert Street in North Philadelphia. She had her quirks, but neighbors looked out for her. “She was a nice, friendly, Christian-hearted woman,” one said.

Harriet Dunn and Dorcas Moone lived quietly in a North 27th Street rowhouse in Brewerytown that they bought in 1950 after leaving the Army.

Alex Krasheninnikow survived a Nazi concentration camp. He later handed out the Communist Party paper on the streets of Philadelphia. His home on Agate Street in Port Richmond was overflowing with books.

Their properties all ended up in the hands of a stranger, a 43-year-old man named William Ernest Johnson III, who wrapped up some of the deals while still on parole from a long prison term for a string of violent crimes.

In all, an Inquirer investigation has linked Johnson to at least six suspicious home transfers over the last 2½ years. In case after case, he acquired vacant houses with longtime owners who were dead or so aged that their grown children would later say they never participated in the transactions.

The taking of Gail Harrison’s house was the first of a string of suspicious acquisitions involving Johnson. To look into them is to find more dead sellers, doctored deeds, and a city bureaucracy blind to it all. The thefts took place so quietly that in two cases the relatives did not know about the illegitimate sales until they were contacted by the Inquirer.

One theft required the forging of two signatures — those of longtime companions Harriett Dunn and Dorcas Moone. Dunn had been dead a quarter century and Moone a decade when someone signed their names to the deed selling their three-story house at 1323 N. 27th St., another Brewerytown address. Moone’s signature on the deed misspelled her name.

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