Equity Erased Pt 6: Hunting for dead dad’s missing money, grieving son finds pain, anger and a clue
[This story was originally published by Asheville Watchdog, www.avlwatchdog.org]
George Jones died on Christmas Day 2019, rear-ended while pulled over on the shoulder of Interstate 26 in Woodfin.
Jones, 85, wore pants over his pajama bottoms, one shoe, two shirts, and a hat. His deteriorating mental state was the only explanation his son, Drake Jones, could fathom for why his father wound up on the highway’s edge at nearly 2 a.m.
But sorting through his father’s affairs, Jones came away with more unsettling questions: How was his dad able to apply for and receive a reverse mortgage on his Asheville home when, Drake Jones said, he barely recognized his own son?
What happened to the proceeds of the loan, two payments totaling $74,617, that were wired into his father’s bank account and immediately transferred out? And why was the address on his dad’s bank account changed to a postal box and back to his house after each transfer?
One name emerged, buried in hundreds of pages of financial records obtained by Drake Jones and examined by Asheville Watchdog: Lisa K. Roberts, an Asheville woman who is currently facing nine felony fraud charges in other real estate-related cases.
Roberts, the records show, was listed as an alternate contact on George Jones’s mortgage application. The $74,617 went into an account for her company, VLM Investments, LLC. And the address on Jones’s bank account was changed to P.O. Box 111 in a South Asheville area post office. The mailing address for VLM Investments was P.O. Box 112 in the same post office.
Roberts did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment. Her Asheville attorneys, defense lawyer Jack Stewart, and Ile Adaramola, who has represented Roberts and VLM Investments in civil matters, did not respond to emailed questions from Asheville Watchdog.
Drake Jones has filed fraud complaints with consumer protection and law enforcement agencies. The North Carolina Secretary of State, the lead agency in a criminal investigation of Roberts and others, cannot comment “on matters that may be under investigation,” said spokesman Tim Crowley.
Asheville Police spokesman Bill Davis confirmed that “our APD investigators have received documentation from Mr. Jones, and that this an active investigation, coordinating with state and local agencies as part of an ongoing investigation.”
Not a penny from the reverse mortgage ended up with George Jones, according to his bank statements. But fees, costs and interest on the loan have ballooned the debt to more than $124,000 — which the lender says his estate still owes.
Drake Jones has been in court for more than a year fighting to save his father’s house from foreclosure – while undergoing treatment for cancer.
“It’s been horrible,” he said. “I’m just full of dismay and pain and anger.”
From ladies’ man to vulnerable senior
George Jones crisscrossed the country as a truck driver for Mayflower Moving before he retired at 65. “Gorgeous George,” as he was called, was “a notorious ladies man,” his obituary said, listing among his survivors a sister and “at least 5 grandsons, at least 2 granddaughters, at least 9 great grandsons and at least 2 great granddaughters.”
In his later years, he became a recluse. His only surviving child, Drake, a retired information technology executive who lives in Jamaica, N.Y., visited about once a year and said his dad’s memory began to slip after triple bypass surgery around 2015.
“I always took him out to dinner,” he said. “He would just nod and smile. He’d just talk about familiar things, you know, fishing, which he loved to do.”
His dad, he said, sometimes thought he was another son. “Even when I told him, ‘It’s your son, Drake,’ he still thought I was my brother, who is no longer with us.”
Drake Jones said his father never mentioned Roberts, and he doesn’t know how they met.
Roberts, 60, has described herself as a “housing advocate.” Through her companies and on behalf of Asheville investor Robert Perry Tucker II, she negotiated deals that resulted in Buncombe homeowners, many of them elderly and Black, losing years if not generations of equity, as reported in Asheville Watchdog’s investigative series, Equity Erased.
Roberts was arrested in February and charged with nine counts of notarizing an action by fraud or forgery stemming from two cases profiled in Equity Erased. She is free on bond awaiting court hearings.
Several homeowners interviewed for the series said Roberts contacted them, usually showing up at their house, after a mortgage or tax foreclosure had been filed in court.
Records show George Jones missed a property tax payment that was due by January 2017, and on May 11, 2017, Buncombe County initiated a tax foreclosure on his home, south of downtown Asheville.
By June 16, 2017, a reverse mortgage in Jones’s name had been approved. Roberts, using her married name Allen and her home address, is listed as an “alternative contact person” on the mortgage application. And under borrower information, Roberts’s phone number is in the box for Jones’s home phone.
Her number was also listed as the contact for George Jones on the appraisal ordered for the mortgage, the appraiser, Devin Chapman, told Asheville Watchdog. He recalled visiting the house and meeting an elderly man and a woman. After reviewing photos of Roberts online, Chapman said, “That is how I remember the person who was there.”
Money in and out, same day
Drake Jones said the signatures on the loan paperwork appear to match his dad’s, but he doesn’t believe his father had the mental acuity to understand or complete the application.
“There’s no way he knew what was going on,” Drake Jones said. “He barely remembered who I was. You’d tell him something, he’d forget.”
Bank records show George Jones received an initial payment of $45,488.82 that was transferred into his Bank of America account on July 28, 2017. On that same day, $45,488.82 was transferred out and wired to an account for VLM Investments, Roberts’s company.
Jones’s bank statement for the month beginning July 15, 2017, also shows the mailing address on his account had been changed from his home to P.O. Box 111, Skyland, NC 28776. The mailing address for VLM in state corporation records was P.O. Box 112, Skyland, NC 28776. On Nov. 27, 2017, the mailing address on Jones’s account was changed back to his home, a bank official later told Drake Jones.
As Asheville Watchdog previously reported, VLM, the initials of Roberts’s late grandmother, was incorporated in 2017 with Roberts’s uncle, Eddie George of Gary, Ind., as chairman. But George said in a 2018 complaint to the North Carolina Secretary of State that he had no knowledge of VLM or its business dealings and did not sign the legal documents bearing his name.
VLM bought and sold four properties in Buncombe beginning in June 2017, and signatures purporting to be Eddie George’s appeared on deeds and mortgages notarized by Roberts’s attorney, Ilesanmi “Ile” Adaramola. Adaramola has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
George’s 2018 complaint was inadvertently overlooked by the Secretary of State until inquiries by Asheville Watchdog in December.
George Jones’s mortgage documents show he was eligible for a second payment 12 months after the first.
On July 27, 2018, a payment of $29,128.03 was wired into his Bank of America account, and $29,128.03 was transferred out the same day to the account of VLM Investments. Like before, the address on Jones’s bank account was changed to P.O. Box 111, Skyland, and three months later back to his home.
In response to questions from Asheville Watchdog in mid May, a Bank of America executive called Drake Jones. He said the bank official told him the address changes were done online and the wire transfers to VLM Investments occurred in person at a branch, 1896 Hendersonville Road. That location is six miles from George Jones’s house; he lived 1.5 miles from a Bank of America in Biltmore Village.
Drake Jones said the bank executive told him photo identification would have been required for the transfers and that video from the transactions should still be on file, but would only be accessible to law enforcement.
Drake Jones said his father had “no computer or online presence,” and he believes someone else set up the online access to the account. He also wonders if an imposter posed as his dad at the bank to request the wire transfers.
A photocopy of a North Carolina driver’s license used as ID for George Jones in the mortgage documents provided by the lender shows a man with a receding hairline that Drake Jones said does not appear to be his father. The valid license for George Jones issued in June 2017 shows a man with a full head of hair.
No money owed, records show
Public records and George Jones’s private financial documents provide no explanation for the money transfers to VLM.
A notation on the first transfer said, “Trade related Payoff for Mortgage.” Property records show the only mortgage Jones had was one taken in 1984 with a balance of $1,732, and that was paid off as part of the first installment of the reverse mortgage.
VLM Investments recorded a lien against George Jones on May 22, 2017, claiming he owed $90,000 for services described as “Heavy Duty Equipment placement for foundation work. Two room addition requested, AC unit replaced, electrical, pluming (sic), windows, siding, driveway, backyard work requested.”
According to the lien, the first – and last day – VLM “furnished labor and/or materials” was May 15, 2017.
“All of that done on one day? C’mon,” said Drake Jones. “I visited the house, and none of that work was done.”
Asheville city records show no permits for any work on the property in 2017. And the appraisal ordered for the reverse mortgage, done in June 2017, noted, “No updates in the prior 15 years.”
Adaramola, the attorney for VLM, filed a cancellation of the lien, as “being satisfied and paid in full,” on July 17, 2017, three days before the reverse mortgage closed.
The mortgage application, signed July 20, 2017, required Jones to list his debts. It shows no money owed to VLM or Lisa Roberts.
Expired license, wrong race
Drake Jones said his father never mentioned the mortgage. He learned of it after his death through correspondence from the lender, American Advisors Group.
The California-based AAG, endorsed in television commercials by actor Tom Selleck, describes itself as the nation’s leading provider of reverse mortgages, a loan for homeowners 62 or older that allows them to access the equity in their homes and defer repayment until they sell, move or die.
Reverse mortgages can help seniors stay in their homes but come with fees and interest, and many, particularly in poorer Black neighborhoods, end in foreclosure, a USA Today investigation found. Consumer advocates have long complained about unscrupulous lenders encouraging low-income homeowners to borrow money while glossing over the risks, the investigation found.
In 2016, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau cited AAG for making deceptive statements in marketing materials and last October fined the company $1.1 million for using inflated and deceptive home estimates to lure consumers into taking out reverse mortgages.
Drake Jones said it took him eight months of phone calls, emails, and faxes before he received his father’s mortgage records, and that was after he informed AAG he’d filed complaints with law enforcement.
In one email to the company, Drake Jones wrote of his frustration and that on top of metastatic prostate cancer, he had legally disabling conditions including coronary artery disease and anxiety disorder. The “runaround” he experienced with AAG “caused me MUCH physical pain, anxiety and stress,” he wrote.
“Having lost my father on Christmas Day was terrible enough,” he wrote.
In September 2020, AAG sent Drake Jones 133 pages of records on his father’s loan. As he studied them, he noticed apparent irregularities, including: the race of Jones, who is Black, is listed as white twice on a page in the application, one signed by him and the other signed by the loan originator.
The photo on that driver’s license purporting to be George Jones did not look like his father, and the license had expired more than a year earlier.
Drake Jones has contacted the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the F.B.I. Spokesmen for both agencies said they could not comment on complaints.
AAG is committed to “providing excellent service to its borrowers, and we always appreciate any opportunity to learn of anything that might impact any of our borrowers,” spokeswoman Cindy Hearn told Asheville Watchdog.
She said the company could not comment on specific loans because of privacy laws. “We further want to ensure that we do not in any way interfere with the ongoing work of any regulatory or governmental agency conducting any investigation into the facts of this matter,” she said.
Hearn noted that borrowers must receive counseling from a federally approved, third-party counselor to ensure they understand the reverse mortgage, its drawbacks and benefits.
Drake Jones contacted the New Jersey counseling agency referenced in his dad’s mortgage file and said he was told the counseling session occurred by phone and that documents were sent to George Jones by email. The email address the agency provided is one used by Lisa Roberts.
Before Drake Jones discovered Roberts’s involvement, he complained to AAG that his father had dementia, and he could find no proceeds from the mortgage in his dad’s bank account. He also sent a photo of his father.
In a letter to Drake Jones, AAG said its fraud review department had completed a full review of the loan and “found no red flags.”
“It is therefore AAG’s position that notwithstanding the unsubstantiated allegations concerning the borrower’s capacity, the loan agreement remains fully enforceable,” the letter said.
Missing person, tragic death
In May 2019, just 10 months after the second mortgage payment from AAG, Asheville Police asked the public’s help in locating a missing person. George Jones, 85, was last seen the day before in his Nissan Frontier pickup. He suffered from several medical conditions and “could be in need of assistance,” the police said.
He was found two days later in Tennessee, sitting on the side of the road in his truck. He was taken to a local hospital for evaluation and thought he was still in Asheville.
In December 2019, George Jones went to the emergency room at Mission Hospital for a hernia and could not recall that he’d been there twice that year for the same problem. The medical notes questioned whether he was able to consent to hernia surgery.
Less than three weeks after that hospital visit, at 1:30 on Christmas morning, George Jones pulled his truck partially off I-26 between exits 23 and 24 in Woodfin. His lights were off, and another vehicle traveling at least 65 mph struck his truck from the rear, breaking the axle and shearing the driver’s door off. George Jones’s body landed 15 feet away.
An autopsy concluded he died of “multiple blunt force injuries” and noted a concern of “advancing dementia.”
“To have him die in an auto accident when he spent the majority of his working life driving 18-wheelers safely across the country, then to lose him on Christmas Day, there are no words to express the depths of my sorrow,” Drake Jones said.
He buried his father and then began the task of sifting through boxes of his belongings and paperwork. Drake Jones, who was born in Asheville and moved to Brooklyn as a child with his mother, said he knew nothing about his father’s finances but quickly learned AAG wanted its money back, and his dad didn’t have it.
Throughout the proceedings, Drake Jones was undergoing cancer treatment and taking medication that he said “made walking across the room a struggle.” He said he traveled to Buncombe for hearings, representing himself in court after being unable to find a North Carolina lawyer to take the case.
A paralegal in Raleigh agreed to review his records, and in April asked a question about his dad’s mortgage application: Who was Lisa Allen, the woman listed as an alternative contact?
Drake Jones did not know, but Internet searches led him to news coverage of her arrest in February and to Asheville Watchdog’s December story about VLM Investments.
Drake Jones said he would like to see the foreclosure case dismissed, a full investigation of how the mortgage was obtained, and prosecution of those responsible for the missing loan proceeds.
“This madness I’ve endured for so long, the untold sleepless nights and the constant worry of losing my Dad’s home,” Drake Jones said, “it’s truly a miracle I survived to see this day where the truth is revealed.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter.
Asheville Watchdog gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Duke University School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic, with special thanks to Danielle Siegel.