Following four arrests in a three-year-long investigation into deed fraud, one victim, a Philly man with properties just outside Northern Liberties, shares his story.
It was all discovered by accident.
Steven Grosik, a Philly native who owns a home on Spring Garden Street and N. 11th St., as well as the rear vacant lot at 1026 Brandywine St. — both blocks away from Northern Liberties — said that in 2009, he struck up a conversation with a local realtor.
The realtor told Grosik that he had just sent his bid on Grosik’s back lot to the lot’s new owner, a man named “Anthony Mitchell.”
“He knew before I was notified that somebody had bought my property – and he was already trying to buy it from Anthony Mitchell,” Grosik said last week.
There was a problem, though.
Grosik hadn’t sold his property. He hadn’t received a dime from the transaction. And he had never heard of “Anthony Mitchell.”
He was a victim of deed fraud – a crime that occurred using paperwork and taking advantage of the city’s bureaucracy, Grosik said.
“It was so ridiculous,” Grosik fumed. “They took my property without using my name, and they used a fraudulent, expired notary seal.”
On January 9, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced the arrests of Zachary Stokes, Steven Johnson, Oscar Ketter and Elhadi Ibrahim, after a three-year investigation into the thefts of 22 properties, including 1026 Brandywine St., Grosik’s back lot. Johnson is the son of former Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Sylvester Johnson.
“Anthony Mitchell” was allegedly an alias used by these suspects, according to Tasha Jamerson, director of communications for the D.A.’s office.
“As to which person it is, that will come out at trial,” she said.
The four men are charged with numerous counts of criminal conspiracy, forgery and tampering with public records or information.
Jamerson stated that these suspects would allegedly drive through neighborhoods and identify lots that were vacant and unoccupied. Some of these lots were then sold to unsuspecting victims, turning a profit for the suspects, she said. No occupied homes were stolen, she said.
But for Grosik, that doesn’t make the crime any less of a violation.
“No one should have to go through this,” he said. “It was such a hassle to fix this, it was such a nightmare … I reported it to the DA, to the police, they assigned me to some detective who never followed through and never got back to me. Nobody in law enforcement ever helped me at all.”
Grosik, a Pathmark grocery store employee, said that he bought the vacant lot at 1026 Brandywine St. in the 90s for “a couple thousand dollars” and converted into his backyard.
After the accidental encounter with the real estate agent who happened to mention that Grosik’s back lot was on the market, he sought out answers from the Philadelphia Department of City Records, he said. He found the deed to his property, transferred into the name of Anthony Mitchell, with forged signatures from the property’s former owner and a forged notary public signature.
“There were probably three or four mistakes. They made my deed so garbage, everyone was amazed that the records department took this and filed it,” he said. “A kindergartener could have looked at this and told you this shouldn’t have happened.”
The city’s Department of Records is required by state law to record any deed they receive that comes with a signature, notary stamp and fee, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia City Paper. They also reported that past efforts at a bill to change the system by City Councilman-At-Large Bill Greenlee have been unsuccessful.
Grosik went on to spend more than a year in court to get the deed renewed in his name. A friend assisted him with paperwork and legwork. Grosik appeared before two judges before winning the case.
“It probably would have cost me $10,000 or more to do it legally [with a lawyer]. By doing it myself, it probably cost 500 bucks, with the filing costs. But to be an innocent party — it shouldn’t even have cost that,” he said.
Because Grosik responded quickly, he was able to place a hold on the property in the city records office, which barred anyone from altering it.
He later was told that after he placed the hold, “Anthony Mitchell” returned to the city records office to try to sell his property, only to be blocked by the hold.
“Anthony Mitchell came in during the time that I was fighting this, to try and change the property, and they just sent him on his way. They wouldn’t let him touch it,” Grosik said. “They didn’t try to arrest him. How could they let this scumbag come in there and do this again?”
Years later, Grosik is still upset about the legal battle he went through and keeps a large file of all the paperwork related to his case. He tried to track down Anthony Mitchell at the various addresses listed in paperwork for that name to serve him legal papers for a lawsuit, but never found any person by that name, he said.
Grosik’s reaction to the arrests on January 9 was mixed.
“What about everybody who helped? There’s a lot more going on here, I believe,” he said, calling the crime “an inside job.”
Jamerson said that if Grosik believes more crimes took place, he should report them to the District Attorney’s Office or to police.
Johnson, Stokes and Ibrahim are next due in court for a pretrial hearing on Feb. 8. Ketter is not listed in the Philadelphia Criminal Courts calendars online.
Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you concerned about protecting your original deed from theft? Here’s what you can do:
To get a copy of your property’s deed or mortgage by mail or in person from the Department of Records, visit or write Room 154, City Hall, Philadelphia, PA, 19107 to verify all information is correct.
If you suspect you are the victim of “deed theft:”
-Contact the police department with your concerns.
-Contact the District Attorney’s Economic and Cybercrime Unit at 215-686-9902.
-Contact a lawyer to help you file an “Action to Quiet Title” civil complaint. For help finding an attorney, call the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Lawyer’s Referral and Information Services line at 215-238-6333, or Community Legal Services at 215-227-2400.
-If you want to represent yourself, contact the Prothonotary’s Office at 215-686-8863. ••