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Woman to Face Trial in Rent Fraud Scheme : Courts: Investigators allege Mary Louise Johnson of Palmdale told would-be tenants and buyers that she bought foreclosure houses.

July 31, 1994|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LANCASTER — A Palmdale woman accused of running a fraud scheme in which she collected rent from tenants at houses she did not own has been ordered to stand trial on three counts of grand theft.

After a preliminary hearing that focused on complex real estate documents, Antelope Municipal Judge Chesley N. McKay Jr. on Friday found that there was sufficient evidence to order a trial for Mary Louise Johnson, who has also used the name Mary Thedford.

Investigators have alleged that Johnson told prospective tenants and buyers that she was a buyer of foreclosure homes. She persuaded low-income residents and others who were unsophisticated in real estate matters to rent or buy these properties without getting permission from the lenders, who had taken possession of the houses, investigators say.

Colleen Horowitz, a legally blind woman who testified at the hearing, said she rented a house from Johnson, then gave her a $6,000 down payment toward the purchase of the house.

She said Johnson appeared to be "a church lady" who presented herself as the legitimate owner of the house.

"It was a cruel act to take money, especially from people who can least afford it," Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph D. Payne said.

Johnson's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Lawrence Miller, argued that his client was legally entitled to sell the house to Horowitz because she had purchased a quit-claim deed from the previous owner, who had lost the house through foreclosure.

"There is no evidence of any intent to defraud," Miller said.

But Sheriff's Detective Jan Carroll testified that the lending institutions that took possession of the foreclosed houses had not given Johnson the right to rent or sell the dwellings.

In an interview, Carroll said she is looking into fraud allegations involving Johnson and at least six other victims, which may lead to additional charges.

She said deputies had seized "milk crates full of files on homes" after obtaining a warrant to search Johnson's home. She said these files will be reviewed as part of a continuing investigation into Johnson's real estate activities.

At the end of the court hearing, McKay ordered that Johnson remain in jail, in lieu of $500,000 bail, pending her Aug. 12 arraignment in Lancaster Superior Court.

Miller argued that Johnson's bail was excessively high, particularly in a case in which the alleged losses totaled only about $10,000. But McKay refused to reduce the bail, saying Johnson, who has used several different names, posed a flight risk, and that questions still surround her financial assets.

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