West Philly man accused of real estate scams

Dwayne E. Stewart is already jailed under a Megan's Law violation.
Dwayne E. Stewart is already jailed under a Megan's Law violation.
Posted: April 06, 2013

A West Philadelphia man was charged Thursday with a variety of real estate scams, from stealing houses to renting properties that weren't his.

Philadelphia police and the District Attorney's Office accused Dwayne E. Stewart of 52 felony counts going back to 2009 that include forging deeds to illegally transfer three houses and two vacant lots to his own possession, "selling" properties he didn't own to unsuspecting third parties, and pocketing rent and security deposits for houses and apartments he didn't have authority to lease.

The District Attorney's Office had no trouble making the arrest; Stewart, a convicted sex offender, has been incarcerated in the city's House of Correction for the last month. He was picked up for failing to keep state police informed of his address under Megan's Law; he was convicted in 1997 in New Jersey of criminal sexual contact.

In the real estate case, Stewart allegedly wrote $1,403 worth of checks to the city to have bogus documents officially recorded - but the checks bounced when TD Bank informed the city the account they were drawn on had been closed.

It is the second investigation involving allegedly stolen houses in Philadelphia to lead to criminal charges this year.

In January, the District Attorney's Office's economic and cybercrime unit accused four people, including the son of former Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, of forging documents to steal 22 vacant properties in South Philadelphia and other neighborhoods that were often resold to innocent purchasers before the thefts were discovered.

The Stewart probe followed a different path, through the District Attorney's Office's private criminal complaint unit, headed by Assistant District Attorney Matthew Perks.

Perks said he was spurred by a 2011 article in the City Paper that described how Stewart started to negotiate a rent-to-own deal for a house on Chestnut Street near 49th, then borrowed the keys and moved in, changing the locks and ringing the house with security cameras.

The owners of the property, Heidi and Dave Conner, spent more than a year and thousands of dollars trying to get Stewart out of the property.

A spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office quoted in the City Paper at the time said the office declined to prosecute the Stewart/Conner case because it was "a real estate deal that didn't work out." As part of the new set of charges, Stewart is accused of defiant trespass, a felony, for taking over the property.

It's too late for the Conners, who lost the house in a sheriff's sale last year. Stewart lived there until February, when the new owners finally forced him out and he moved into the Holiday Inn Express on Columbus Boulevard.

Under Megan's Law, Stewart had three days to notify state police of his new address. But he neglected to, and on March 5, a state trooper met him in the hotel lobby and arrested him. He's been held at the House of Correction, unable to post $5,000 bail.

Perks said after reading about Stewart's alleged abuse of the Conners, he noticed a series of private criminal complaints from people who said Stewart had advertised properties for rent on Craigslist, accepted hundreds of dollars in advance security and rental payments, then failed to let them move in.

Perks entered Stewart's name in the Police Department's Integrated Information Network and got 50 references, some of which suggested Stewart had forged documents to steal properties.

"My response was, 'Holy Mackerel,' " Perks said. He asked Southwest Detectives to assign an investigator, and Detective Angela Torian spent close to a year documenting Stewart's alleged offenses.

Some victims questioned why bringing charges took so long.

"We wanted to make one strong case that made it clear he was engaged in a pattern of real estate fraud," Perks said.

In an article in November, the Philadelphia Daily News interviewed Leon Pinkney of North Philadelphia, who accused Stewart of stealing three properties through deed forgeries.

Donald Calabrese, a construction worker from Roselle, N.J., said he gave Stewart $1,500 in November as a deposit on a Dauphin Street house in North Philadelphia.

Stewart was "very smooth," Calabrese said. "He came off like a religious, God-fearing man. . . . It turned out the house was owned by a bank in Georgia."

Calabrese turned to police for help getting his money back. "I went down and filed charges against him. I gave them reams of information. They told me, 'Don't go near him, we're building a case against him.'. . . If you listen to all the cop said, he should have been arrested a long time ago."

Perks said it was reasonable to spend a year establishing the scope of Stewart's activity.

"You can prosecute individual cases, but in a vacuum, they're not necessarily strong cases," he said.

Contact Bob Warner

at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

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