- Associated Press - Friday, September 25, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A man who tried to claim an $800,000 home for himself by filing a bogus deed document is staying in prison.

The state Supreme Court deadlocked 3-3 on Friday about whether Shawn Pendergraft was correctly charged with obtaining property by false pretenses after moving into the house in 2011. His lawyer had asked the court to throw out his conviction. He’s serving more than five years in prison.

Pendergraft’s squatting scheme was part of a wave of hundreds of frivolous property claims that rolled in at a time when registrars were already dealing with a flood of foreclosures amid the Great Recession’s housing market collapse. Scam artists were occupying foreclosed homes in Virginia, Georgia, New Jersey, California and elsewhere across the country.

Pendergraft worked at a Raleigh university and had only minor traffic violations on his criminal record when he read on the Internet that it was possible to collect empty houses by claiming adverse possession, according to his lawyer Michael Spivey. Adverse possession allows long-time occupants to take over ownership of a property if its previous owner abandons it or legal ownership can’t be determined.

In North Carolina’s most populous county, there were more than 200 bogus filings in 2011, said J. David Granberry, Mecklenburg County’s register of deeds. Many were written in confusing pseudo-legal jargon, some making outlandish claims about being exempt from U.S. law.

Last year, the county was down to 166 adverse possession documents, Granberry said. So far this year, Granberry’s office has seen only 16 as home foreclosures have diminished.

The Supreme Court was asked to erase Pendergraft’s conviction because the original criminal indictment failed to explain why Pendergraft’s claim of owning the property would have caused someone to give up ownership, his attorney said.

Spivey did not respond to requests for comment Friday. Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper, said state attorneys were pleased the Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling.

Cooper got a court order in 2011 to stop four phony land trusts and the individuals behind them, including Pendergraft, from filing bogus ownership deeds claiming someone else’s property.

In 2012, a judge ordered Pendergraft to pay civil penalties of $45,000 for unfair or deceptive commercial practices. He has not paid, Talley said.

The split Supreme Court vote happened because new Justice Sam Ervin IV bowed out of deliberations. He was on the lower Court of Appeals when it ruled on Pendergraft’s case last year. The remaining Supreme Court justices didn’t disclose how they voted.

Pendergraft is projected to be released from prison in a year.


Emery Dalesio can be reached at https://twitter.com/emerydalesio

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