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Equity Erased Pt. 1: Real estate deals strip elderly, poor of homes and land

Pat Barcas, AVL Watchdog
Mary Thompson lost 17 years of home equity.

Many were elderly or Black homeowners in distress. Some were vulnerable to a Reconstruction-era property law abused so often that it has been rewritten in other states, but not North Carolina.

And most were left embittered or poorer by their encounters with Buncombe County real estate investor Robert Perry Tucker II, who acquired their houses and lands at far below market rates, a year-long Asheville Watchdog investigation found.

In a review of more than four dozen of Tucker’s real estate transactions since 2014, Asheville Watchdog found his companies have acquired interests in Buncombe properties for as little as $250 — or nothing at all. Many of the sales appear to have generated profits for Tucker while erasing years if not generations of home equity for property owners, nearly half of them Black.

Tucker, an attorney, has done nothing illegal, his lawyer said. The North Carolina State Bar has opened an investigation into Tucker's transactions, and largely as a result of Asheville Watchdog's reporting, a judge in September returned a house to a family after finding Tucker's company,Asheville Holdings, obtained it by fraud.

In that case, James David Dimsdale, a Swannanoa Baptist minister, said he didn’t even know he was signinga deed selling his family’s South Asheville home, worth more than $200,000, to Asheville Holdings for just $500. Dimsdale said a woman he later identified as Lisa K. Roberts asked him to sign what he thought wasa receipt for money to move his belongings before a bank foreclosed on his son’s mortgage. In September, a judge granted a default judgment against Asheville Holdings, finding the allegations true and returning ownership to the family. 

In another court case Asheville Holdings recently lost, Tucker convinced Robert Buckner Jr. to sign over his deceased father’s property for $10,000, a week before the estate administrator sold it for $148,000. Tucker then tried to claim the proceeds from that sale, $136,000, belonged to his company. At a hearing in September, Buckner’s lawyer said his client had been “snookered,” and a judge ruled Asheville Holdings had no legal interest in the property.

And in two other instances uncovered by Asheville Watchdog, families disputed the authenticity of documents that were used to sell their properties.

The family of George G. Wilson Jr., now deceased, wonders how he could have made the full, cursive signature on a notarized deed selling his share of the family house to a Tucker company when he didn’t have fingers. All but his thumbs had been amputated more than a year earlier, records show.

And all four siblings in the Brewer family allege that deeds were notarized by Roberts and recorded in their names without their knowledge, giving control of their share of the family’s North Asheville home to a Tucker company. The family said they received a total of $1,200. Tucker’s company resold the property the same day for $45,000.

Roberts declined to comment to Asheville Watchdog, despite numerous requests including phone calls and visits to her home. Tucker in December referred questions to his lawyer, Peter R. Henry of Arden, and in a follow-up visit by reporters in June, refused further comment.

Neither Henry nor Tucker responded to questions about the allegations made by the Brewers. Henry, who notarized the deed of the fingerless George Wilson, said he didn’t recall it.

Asked about homeowners who told Asheville Watchdog they felt exploited, Henry said: “Nothing that has been done has been illegal. Nobody has been coerced in any way, shape or form. These were all voluntary transactions.” 

“They’re taking advantage of people”

Tucker, 59, an Asheville real estate attorney who is white, has bought and sold property in Buncombe for some 30 years, a career that generated at least $200,000 a year in income, as estimated by his then-wife in 2017 divorce pleadings. 

Tucker’s family has been in real estate since 1922. His grandfather worked at Tucker Realty, a businesshis father, Robert, joined after college.

Lisa Roberts, a Black woman also of Asheville, has notarized deeds or “memorandums of conveyance” in at least 20 transactions with Tucker’s companies since 2013, public records show.

(left) Robert P. Tucker in 1988, the year he became a lawyer.  Source: Buncombe County Bar directory. (right) Lisa K. Roberts, from her LinkedIn profile

Asked if Roberts worked for Tucker, Henry said, “I don't know for sure. I don't believe she does. I know that they have worked together on various things.” 

Roberts, 60, who also goes by Roberts-Allen, runs a nonprofit called Home Advocates and Limitless Outreach (HALO), which she describes as providing renovation and foreclosure assistance. “I am blessed to have the opportunity to be able to extend a helping hand to those in need,” herLinkedIn page says.

HALO obtained atax-exempt status in 2013.

More than half of the deeds Roberts notarized to Tucker’s companies were from Black homeowners. Yet just 3.9 percent of Buncombe County homeowners are Black, according to figures from the Urban Decision Group, American Community Survey and the Environmental Systems Research Institute.

Studies have documented land loss among Asheville’s Black community through government practices such asurban renewal, the displacement of families and neighborhoods to make way for development beginning in the 1950s. And Buncombe political leaders have vowed to make amends for policies that deprived Blacks of the opportunity to acquire wealth, but little has been made of homes lost to individual investors. 

Roberts and Tucker, among a small group of regulars at the Buncombe County Courthouse, scoured court filings on foreclosure and estate cases for leads, court clerks said. 

“It is clear that Mr. Tucker and others spend a good amount of time searching public records for opportunities to make money,” said Steven Cogburn, Buncombe’s Clerk of Superior Court. “They do a lot of investigation on people and they run people down.”

Molly Maynard, director of the consumer law program at Pisgah Legal Services, a legal assistance program for low-income residents, said the agency has received two to three complaints a year, beginning around 2013, about sales or prospective sales to Tucker’s companies, most involving Roberts.

Tucker and Roberts are “taking advantage of people who don’t have the life experience and background to protect themselves,” Maynard said.

‘I felt helpless’

Nine homeowners reached by Asheville Watchdog said Roberts or Tucker contacted them, usually showing up at their houses, soon after a mortgage or tax foreclosure was filed in court or an estate case was opened. Six of the sellers said Roberts made the initial contact or negotiated deals that resulted in sales to Tucker’s companies.

Mary Thompson owned two homes in Asheville’s Shiloh neighborhood, one where she and her husband lived and another next door that they’d built for their daughter and her family. With the daughter in school and not working, the Thompsons, both retired, fell behind on their bills.

In 2014, a mortgage foreclosure was filed on the house where the Thompsons lived. Mary Thompson said Roberts came to her door and, according to Thompson, told her she could do her “a favor”: The Thompsons could prevent harm to their credit rating and keep their primary home if they wouldsign over the daughter’s house toa Tucker company for what was owed on it, about $60,000, Thompson said. The property had a tax value of $129,300.

According to Thompson, Roberts said “they would pay [the daughter’s home] off and relieve us of that mortgage and it would help our credit score. It wouldn’t go down as a repo.” 

Two months after the Thompsons signed over the daughter’s house, Tucker’s company sold it for$90,000 to another investor, who after doing some work on it sold it in about three months for$133,000, records show. 

The Thompsons were able to stop the foreclosure on their house but lost some $70,000 in equity on the daughter’s house. “I felt helpless and just agreed to everything,” said Thompson, a former nurse, who was 73 at the time.

Henry said he was unfamiliar with the deal that was negotiated with Thompson. 

“Possible financial exploitation”

Maynard described Roberts and Tucker as being involved in “foreclosure rescues,” convincing homeowners facing a mortgage or tax foreclosure to sign away property ownership for much less than it is worth. Other Buncombe investors also target properties in foreclosure, but none have generated as many complaints to Pisgah’s attorneys as Roberts and Tucker, Maynard said. 

“We've seen them get houses for well below market value,” Maynard said. “What they do is they convince someone, ‘You could never possibly save your home. The only good outcome is for us to rescue you.’ ” 

Pisgah’s attorneys have stopped some sales to Tucker’s companies, helping homeowners with loan modifications or payment plans. In other instances, the homeowners had already signed deeds, or Tucker’s companies no longer owned the property, Maynard said. “They flip it pretty quickly,” making it difficult to reverse or recoup losses, she said.

Foreclosure rescues were prevalent throughout North Carolina following the 2008 housing market crash and have been on the rise again in gentrifying areas of the state. Legal aid attorneys said they expect a new crush now that pandemic protections against foreclosures have ended.

Ed Byron, senior attorney at the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy who handles consumer protection cases including foreclosures, said property owners don’t understand they have options, like a loan modification, refinancing, or reverse mortgage. “People are losing the most valuable asset that they have ever owned,” Byron said.

Law doesn’t prohibit ‘bad deals’

Patricia Farmer's East Asheville property went into foreclosure over $675 in unpaid taxes. Farmer, who was living in a nursing home and missing an arm and a leg, signed over ownership toa Tucker company for$7,000, less than a quarter of the tax value. She died 10 weeks later, on Christmas Day 2019.

Credit Farmer obituary
Patricia Farmer signed over her property from a nursing home

The property then sold twice in just over three weeks — to anotherTucker company for$20,000 and to an investor for$40,000.  

Henry said Farmer’s property was in tax foreclosure and “was going to be lost to [her] anyway.”

A relative reported Farmer’s sale to Asheville Police for possible fraud, said police spokeswoman Christina Hallingse, but no criminal charges were filed. Police have received two other reports of potential fraud since 2016, one involving Roberts and the other involving Tucker and Roberts, said Hallingse, who recently left the police department. Again, no criminal charges were filed. The reports list several people, including Farmer, who had recently sold property to Tucker companies. All of them were over the age of 60, records show.

Hallingse declined to provide specifics of the allegations but said two of the reports came from Buncombe County’s Adult Protective Services for “possible financial elderly exploitation.” Detectives consulted multiple agencies, Hallingse said, including the office of Buncombe District Attorney Todd Williams.

“Criminal law does prevent deceptive acts and punishes frauds, but it doesn't necessarily punish bad deals,” Williams said in an interview. “That's why all these matters were basically determined to be civil because representations were made, and intent to deceive, to defraud, was lacking.”

A house for $500

Dimsdale, the Baptist minister, said his family home originally belonged to his parents, and his mother left it to him and his two sons, but her will was never filed and verified in court. 

One son had been living in the house for years, obtained a mortgage, and later fell behind on his loan payments. Shortly after a substitute trustee was filed in March 2020, the first public filing in a mortgage foreclosure, a woman contacted Dimsdale and asked to meet at an Ingles store, Dimsdale said.

Dimsdale saidthe woman told him she worked for an attorney foreclosing on the house, gave him $500 in cash to “remove my personal items from the home,” and asked him to sign a document he thought was a receipt for the money, which he didn’t read.

The document wasn’t a receipt, a judge later found, but rather was a deed turning over ownership of the home to Asheville Holdings, Tucker’s company.

“I've always been trusting of people,” Dimsdale, 71, told Asheville Watchdog. “I pastor a small church and I generally believe the best about people until I find out different.”

Credit Swannanoa Valley Missionary Baptist Church
James David Dimsdale said he didn’t even know he was signing a deed selling his family’s property.

Dimsdale said he didn’t get the woman’s name.The deed in the transaction is notarized by Roberts. Later, when shown photos of Roberts by Asheville Watchdog, Dimsdale identified her as the woman he met.  

Roberts presented him with only a single page to sign, Dimsdale told Asheville Watchdog. When shown the three-page deed recorded in his name, he said he didn’t recall seeing the third page, a legal description of the property, and that the first page, titled “North Carolina General Warranty Deed” in bold, would have stood out.

“I would have noticed that,” Dimsdale said. 

A week after obtaining the deed, Henry, on behalf of Asheville Holdings, fileda court action against the son and his mortgage lender seeking to declare Tucker’s company the legal owner of the property and not subject to the mortgage. The complaint alleged that because no will was filed, ownership of the house passed to Dimsdale after his parents’ death, not to the son, and the son therefore had no authority to use the property as collateral for the mortgage.

The attorney for the lender’s insurer, Esther Manheimer, countered withan action that accused Tucker’s company of fraud and included an affidavit from Dimsdale. “I did not know I was signing a deed to the property and I never intended to sign a deed,” Dimsdale said in the sworn statement. 

Manheimer, who is also Asheville’s mayor, told Asheville Watchdog, “It looks like they just got in there and hoodwinked him.”

The only debt on Dimsdale’s property, valued by Zillow at the time at $188,800, was the balance of the son’s $65,400 mortgage taken out in 2006. 

Asked why Dimsdale would agree to sell the property for just $500, Henry told Asheville Watchdog, “I have no idea how Mr. Dimsdale or why Mr. Dimsdale sold his interest for that.” 

In December, Henry told Asheville Watchdog that if he could verify Dimsdale’s account, he would set aside the deed and dismiss the suit. He did neither. 

Nine months later, well beyond the deadline, Henry on behalf of Asheville Holdings filed a response to Manheimer’s action, denying the allegations. 

Buncombe Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Grant on Sept. 17 issued a default judgment, a legal ruling finding the allegations against Asheville Holdings, including that Dimsdale unknowingly signed a deed based on “fraudulent misrepresentations,” are true. Ownership of the property returned to Dimsdale’s son subject to the mortgage.

“I'm very relieved to know that the home is back in my family,” said Dimsdale’s daughter, Kristi Lytle. “My grandparents worked really hard to have that house and to know that it was taken the way it was ... is really sad.”

Lisa Roberts did not respond to a hand-delivered letter and phone messages with detailed questions about her role in the transaction involving Dimsdale or other homeowners. 

‘I did not sign a deed’

Cynthia Brewer and her three siblings told Asheville Watchdog they never agreed to sell their grandmother’s North Asheville house to a Tucker company in 2014, but their signatures wound up on deeds transferring the property.

Brewer had been handling the family’s affairs after her grandmother’s death in 2005 but was struggling to keep up with the property taxes. A tax foreclosure was filed in court, and Brewer said Roberts appeared at her house, saying she was in real estate and offering to help sell her grandmother’s property.

Credit Cynthia Brewer
Cynthia Brewer said she and her siblings never agreed to the sale of their grandmother’s house.

Brewer said Roberts told her she would need her siblings’ consent and gave her a document for them to sign. She gathered their signatures and returned them to Roberts. “She said we were signing that paper to give approval to put the house on the market,” Brewer said. “It did not have any language in there that we were selling the house to anybody.”

When an Asheville Watchdog reporter showed the Brewers thedeeds recorded in their names, all four said they’d never seen them.

Cynthia Brewer, a correctional case manager, said, “I promise you, I did not sign a deed.” Her brother, Benjamin, said, “I’ve never seen a deed to my grandmother’s house.”

Below the family’s signatures on the deeds is a notary stamp completed and signed by Roberts, certifying that she witnessed the signings and that the Brewers “acknowledged the execution” of the deeds. 

All four Brewers said no one notarized their signatures. Benjamin and Johnny Brewer said they’ve never met Roberts.

“I don’t know a Lisa Roberts, and I’ve never been in front of a notary to do anything with the property,” Johnny Brewer said.

Darlene Brewer said she met Roberts briefly; Roberts had initially come to her home, and she sent Roberts to her sister. “I’ve never signed anything in front of this woman — nothing ever,” Darlene Brewer said.

The Brewers also said they didn’t recognize another document filed in court containing their signatures and notarized by Roberts: an “affidavit” of a family tree. It misidentified the name and gender of one relative, and the date of Roberts’s signature is five months before the Brewers’s. “I’ve never seen it before in my life,” Cynthia Brewer said.

The deeds recorded in three of the Brewers’ names indicate a sale price of $0 and for Cynthia Brewer, $3,000. Darlene, Johnny, and Benjamin Brewer all said they received no money. Cynthia Brewer said Roberts sent her a check for $1,200 some time later, and she didn’t know what it was for.

The Brewers said they never would have agreed to sell to Tucker’s company for so little. Their grandmother, Britey Johnson, known throughout the neighborhood for her cooking, had owned the property since 1970, having been displaced from her Southside Asheville home under urban renewal.

“I grew up in that house,” Benjamin Brewer said. “No way in the world I would have signed something saying that we didn’t want anything for that house.”

Credit Cynthia Brewer
Britey Johnson and her brother, Bryson Anderson

Others had been interested in the property, including the neighbor next door, Coalter Lathrop. The Brewers had received offers of up to $250,000 in the years following the grandmother’s death, according to letters the family received.

Tucker’s company also obtained a deed for a partial interest in the property from an out-of-state cousin of the Brewers, who has since died. That deed, along with the four from the Brewers, were recorded on one day in September 2014, and on that same day, Tucker’s companysold the family’s interestto Lathrop for $45,000. 

Lathrop told Asheville Watchdog Tucker had called him “out of the blue” a few days before the sale. “I’d been working on trying to purchase this property from the Brewers for years,” Lathrop said.

He said he asked Tucker why the family had sold to him but never received an explanation.

Cynthia Brewer said at the time she assumed the house had been sold in a tax foreclosure. 

“It makes me angry because my grandmother, she worked hard for her house, and that’s why I spent the money that I spent trying to keep it as long as I could,” Cynthia Brewer said. 

A tree had fallen through the roof of the house, which by 2014 had deteriorated beyond saving, Lathrop said, and he demolished it.

“A 100-year old Craftsman in the landfill, and a set of heirs who received next to nothing for their grandmother's home, that's a bad result,” Lathrop said. “This was a Black family who lost substantial wealth, and I feel terrible about how it turned out.”

Roberts, Tucker and Henry did not respond to questions about the Brewers’ allegations.

Signed deed from fingerless man

Relatives of George G. Wilson Jr. question how he could have signed a deed to Tucker’s company for his share of the family property in 2018 since the fingers on both of his hands had been amputated more than a year earlier, in February 2017. Wilson had only his thumbs remaining, said his sister, Shirley Brown. 

Wilson was 67, in debt and living without heat or electricity in a Shiloh home that he’d inherited with his two siblings. In October 2018 the city of Asheville sent a letter warning of fines if Wilson continued living in the house that had already been deemed unsafe for occupancy.

Wilson called his friend, Maugherite Poole, and said, “ ‘I need some help,’ ” Poole told Asheville Watchdog. She said she introduced him to someone she knew through her fiance's church, Lisa Roberts, who had been interested in properties in the area. 

Poole said she went with Roberts to Wilson’s home and later accompanied him to an attorney’s office, where he sold his one-third interest in the property to a Tucker company. Poole said she wasn’t present for the discussions and did not know how much Wilson received.

Wilson died in June. His siblings said Wilson was addicted to crack cocaine, and they didn’t know about the sale until later. “He needed the cash because he was doing drugs,” said his brother, Kenneth Wilson. 

The deed indicates a sale price of $8,000. Brown said George Wilson told her he received $1,000, and some additional money may have been paid on a debt he owed from a car accident. Court records show Geico won a $10,861 judgment against Wilson that was settled two weeks after the deed was recorded.

At the time, the property had a total tax value of $71,900. The land alone was valued at $35,800, making George Wilson’s one-third interest worth about $12,000 to $24,000.

A comparison of George Wilson Jr.’s signatures: Top, on a deed notarized by Peter Henry.  Bottom, on health forms

The signature on the deed, with Wilson’s first, middle and last names in cursive handwriting, appears similar to his pre-amputation signature on other documents. But after the surgery, his sister said, he signed with just his initials, like this health record from May.

Melvin Foster, a cousin who said he visited George Wilson weekly, told Asheville Watchdog he saw Wilson try to sign his name after he lost his fingers. “I’d seen him try to write before. He couldn’t do it,” Foster said.

Henry notarized the deed, affirming that George Wilson Jr. signed it in his presence. “I don't specifically recall” it, he told Asheville Watchdog. “But I don't notarize things without people being in front of me.” He declined further comment, and Tucker did not respond to an email with questions about the transaction.

Credit Wilson obituary
George Wilson Jr.

Kenneth Wilson said a man who identified himself as a lawyer had come to his house, said he had bought George Wilson’s interest and offered him $12,000. Wilson said he refused. Now he and his sister co-own the property with Tucker’s company. They had hoped to renovate the house and keep it in the family, Kenneth Wilson said.

“My sister's son was going to take over, try to make a rental property of it,” Kenneth Wilson said. “Seems like we can’t do nothing now.”

A deed from prison 

Tucker retained a private investigator to locate Robert Buckner, Jr., the son and sole heir of an Asheville man who died in 2020, and found him in a Florida prison, Tucker said ina sworn statement. Tucker’s company obtained a deed from Buckner for his father’s housefor $10,000

A week later, the estate administrator sold the housefor $148,000. Tucker then claimed that the net proceeds, $136,000,should go to his company, not the son.

In a virtual court hearing in April, Buckner testified that Tucker had promised him a second, undetermined payment dependent on the sale price of the house, and that he hadn’t understood the documents he signed. “There’s no way I would sell my father’s home and property for $10,000,” he said.

Henry asked, “Where did you get the understanding that you would receive the secondary payment?”

“In conversations, sir, with Mr. Tucker,” Buckner replied.

Credit Florida Department of Corrections
Robert Buckner Jr., in prison in Florida, was “snookered” in a deal with Robert Tucker, his attorney said in court.

Henry asked Tucker if he or his company had agreed to any other payment  besides $10,000. “Absolutely not,” Tucker testified. 

Buckner said he wasn’t “very good with financial or legal matters” and didn’t understand “how much money was involved.” 

The property had a tax value of $110,000, no mortgage, and, according toa document publicly available in the court file, was under contract for $148,000 as of October 2020, more than a month before Buckner signed the deed.

Tucker did not respond to questions from Asheville Watchdog about when he knew the sale price.

James Kilbourne, an Asheville attorney, was appointed to represent Buckner. At a second hearing in September, Kilbourne called the sale an “extreme situation.”

“It's not as if they offered him $90,000 for a $150,000 house,” he said. “They offered him $10,000.”

Tucker had knowledge of the legal system and access to information about the property that Buckner, in prison in Florida, did not, Kilbourne said. He told Buncombe Superior Court Judge Steve Warren, “You don't need our client to testify that he got snookered to know he got snookered.”

Judge Warren ruled that the property had been turned over to the estate at the time Buckner signed the deed; therefore it wasn’t Buckner’s to sell, and Asheville Holdings had no legal interest in it. Buckner stood to receive the $136,000 from the sale of his father’s house, but in October Tucker’s company filed a notice to appeal the judge’s ruling.

‘No deal,’ a daughter intervenes

Barbara Warren already knew Lisa Roberts from church and assumed she had her best interests at heart when shesigned over her house across from McCormick Field in downtown Asheville to a Tucker company, said her daughter, Pamela, of Charlotte. The purchase price was 59 percent of the property’s tax value. Warren at the time was 76 and, according toa letter from her attorney, William Biggers, “confused about the consequences of her actions.” 

Under the arrangement, Warren would lend Tucker’s company the $88,510 she was due, and his company would repay her $5,000 a month, interest-free, according to documents provided by Warren’s family. Warren wouldn’t receive all her money for up to 18 months but would have to leave her house within six months.

Warren also signed a “disclosure” acknowledging that Tucker was an attorney and that she could have sought legal advice but had “chosen to represent myself.” 

In an interview with Asheville Watchdog, Warren’s daughter said she learned of the sale in a phone call from Lisa Roberts. 

“I said, ‘No deal, no deal,’ ” Pamela Warren said. “ ‘First of all, Lisa, you know, Mom is legally blind.’ ” Pamela Warren drove to Asheville and with Biggers’s help got Tucker’s company to deed her mom’s house back.

“I think [Barbara Warren] was being taken advantage of,” Biggers told Asheville Watchdog. “She's had a tough life and just probably was very vulnerable to something like that.”

Henry said he was unfamiliar with the case. “I can't tell you whether any of these deals are good deals, bad deals or anything,” he said. “That's in the eye of the beholder.” 

Coming Wednesday, Part Two: Investors use — and abuse — a Civil War-era property law to wrest control of houses and land inherited from family members.

Coming Friday Part Three: An Asheville family loses its land and inheritance, and efforts to reform the law that allowed it are stalled in the North Carolina Senate.

Becky Tin contributed to this report.

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. Becky Tin is a retired district court judge and lawyer.  Email skestin@avlwatchdog.org.

Asheville Watchdog gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Lawyers for Reporters, a joint project of the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice and the Press Freedom Defense Fund, and the Duke University School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic, with special assistance from Jonathan Ellison, Danielle Siegel, and Zane Martin.

AVL Watchdog publisher Bob Gremillion is a member of the search committee that will choose Blue Ridge Public Radio's next General Manager and CEO.