Equity Erased Pt. 4 - ‘Missing’ Heirs: Local Attorneys Tell Court Property Owners Can’t Be Found
At stake inside a Buncombe County courtroom were a grandfather’s legacy and a family’s inheritance.
Asheville real estate investor Robert Perry Tucker II had just purchased 10 acres along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but nine siblings in the Lyda family still had a claim to approximately 25 percent of the property, left to them by their grandfather.
So Tucker’s company went to court. Just three months later and without any input from the Lydas, Tucker's company won a judgment that stripped the family of its land. The Lydas never had a chance to defend their ownership because, two of the brothers said, they never knew about the case.
Tucker’s lawyer, Peter R. Henry of Arden, reported to the court that none of the nine Lyda siblings could be located. Ile Adaramola, another attorney who had ties to Henry and Tucker outside the case, and who at Henry’s request acted as a neutral guardian ad litem to represent the interests of the Lyda siblings, reported to the court that despite “due diligence and great efforts,” she too, could not find them.
“I've been in Asheville 20 years,” Charles Lyda told Asheville Watchdog. “I got my driver's license, everything’s registered here. I own a house here in North Carolina. I mean, I’m not that hard to find.”
At the same time Adaramola was the guardian ad litem in Henry’s case, Henry was the guardian ad litem in a case Adaramola initiated against David Shroat, 50 percent owner in an Arden property. Henry reported to the court that “after diligently searching for” Shroat, he had been “unable to locate” him.
Shroat had been a local cop since the 1970s and had recently worked at the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office — at the same courthouse where the case was filed.
He should “have been easily found here because the people at the courthouse knew that he was staying with me,” said his fiancé, Kelly Southerland of Asheville.
Both Shroat and the Lydas came away with nothing for their properties, records show.
Asheville Watchdog located both families, in just a few minutes, reaching Charles Lyda by phone on a number he said he’s had for nearly two decades.
His brother, Robert, a computer engineer, has lived in Charlotte for eight years, owned vehicles and is registered to vote, records show. Asheville Watchdog reached him through a Facebook message.
“The tax man can find me, every year,” Robert Lyda said. “I’d like to know how [Adaramola] defines diligent search.”
Henry and Tucker did not respond to questions from Asheville Watchdog. Adaramola was given opportunities to comment but is on leave, her office said.
‘Damning statement’ of the system
The Lyda family had owned their acreage on Upper Grassy Branch Road for more than 50 years. A house on the property had fallen into disrepair, Charles Lyda said, but the land was in “a prime location … The back of it was right up against the [Blue Ridge] Parkway.”
At issue was a 25 percent stake left by the Lydas’s grandfather to them and their mother through a will filed in Burke County. Two years before her death in 2019, the mother, Carolyn Hughey Lyda, signed a deed to Parkway Vistas Inc. that said she was the sole heir to the 25 percent. The relatives who owned the other 75 percent, the Lydas’s great aunts, also sold to Parkway Vistas, which then sold the property to Tucker’s company in February 2017.
The Lydas appeared to still “have an interest” in the property, Henry wrote in an August 2017 court complaint to clarify ownership. But he alleged Parkway Vistas, now dissolved, had relied on the mother’s statement of herself as sole heir and purchased her share “in good faith” — for $5,000.
Michael Ellis, president of Parkway Vistas, which incorporated the day after Carolyn Lyda’s deed was signed and sold three other properties to Tucker’s companies in 2018, told Asheville Watchdog he could not recall the sales. “That was a really long time ago. I have no clue,” he said.
Had the Lydas known about the court case, Charles Lyda said, they would have disputed their mother’s deed and questioned how she came to sign over her interest. The family didn’t even know she had sold her share of the property until just before she died, Charles Lyda said.
Henry wrote in his court complaint that the Lydas were believed to be living in Burke, a county east of Buncombe near Hickory.
“None of us ever lived in Burke County with the exception of” Jonathan, the youngest, who had left years earlier, Charles Lyda said.
At a court hearing in November 2017, Henry said, “We could not find any viable addresses to be able to serve anybody.”
“You couldn’t find any of them?” asked Buncombe Superior Court Judge Alan Z. Thornburg.
“Your Honor, no,” Henry replied. “We were not able to locate any of the individual defendants in this matter.”
Henry said he had located an estate file in Burke County, and that “the addresses that were in that estate file were all Burke County. But none of them were viable addresses. The estate was, I believe it was, nearly 20 years old.”
Asheville Watchdog reviewed the same estate file Henry was referencing. The addresses in the file show only one of the siblings, Jonathan, in Burke County. Two of the Lydas, listed in the estate file as residents of Georgia, were still living at those same addresses in 2017, Charles Lyda said.
Henry reported to the court that he’d fulfilled his obligation to notify the Lydas by taking out a legal ad in the Morganton News Herald, a local newspaper in Burke. “No defendant has answered in any way, shape or form,” Henry said at the hearing.
That was because “nobody knew about it,” Charles Lyda told Asheville Watchdog. “None of us live in Morganton.”
Judge Thornburg asked Henry what else he had done to locate the Lydas.
“We sent notices and letters to all the addresses that were in the estate file,” Henry said. “We further did Internet searches trying to locate other addresses.”
Asheville Watchdog found a 2007 obituary for the Lydas’s father, available online through a simple Google search, that showed the city and state for each of the Lyda siblings. Six lived in Georgia, where they’d been since childhood, Charles Lyda said.
Henry said at the hearing that he even used an investigator to locate the Lydas. “We were simply unable to come up with any viable address,” he said.
Adaramola described her search in the Lyda case in an August 2018 court filing: “Due diligence and great efforts were made to locate the whereabouts of the Respondent’s, [sic] consisting of, internet search, White Pages search for recent phone numbers, called family and friends, DMV [Department of Motor Vehicle] search, Ancestry.com search, Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Buncombe County Tax Office, Burke County Estate File, Burke County Register of Deeds, and Burke County Tax Office.”
Charles Lyda said he’s owned “vehicles in North Carolina for over 25, almost 30 years.” He purchased property in Waynesville in 2017, a matter of public record, and his address and phone number were available on North Carolina’s public corporation database under an automotive business he incorporated in February 2018. Lyda said he’d also been paying child support through the state for years.
“If the state of North Carolina can find me and send me correspondence and keep up with me,” Charles Lyda said, “why couldn’t anybody else?”
On an invoice Adaramola submitted, billing $500 for her work on the Lyda case, she said she had “called numbers for heirs, no heir had a working number.”
Robert Lyda said he’s had the same phone number for 30 years. He said his family held an annual reunion. “There is a family directory that is published every year,” he said. “If they reached one single person … they would have been able to find the rest.”
In November 2017, after the Lydas had “not filed any answer, or made any appearance” in court, Judge Thornburg found the sale by the Lydas’s mother to Parkway Vistas was made in good faith. The judge declared Tucker’s company the rightful property owner because the will identifying the Lydas as heirs had not been filed in Buncombe County, where the property was located.
Tucker’s company listed the property for sale but was having trouble despite the judge’s order declaring it the sole owner. In 2018, Shannon Miller Wood and her husband made an offer but could not get title insurance, she told Asheville Watchdog. “Our lawyer … told them that we were going to walk away from the deal unless they went through some legal hurdles to correctly fix the title,” she said.
In April 2018, Tucker’s company filed a second court action against the Lydas to force a sale of the property through what’s known as the partition law and named Ile Adaramola as guardian ad litem.
A guardian can be appointed only by court order, which Henry didn’t receive, according to the court file. Adaramola reported that she could not locate any heirs to the property and filed a response on their behalf. Nothing further occurred in the partition action, but Henry used Adaramola’s report to return to Judge Thornburg in August 2018 and obtain an amended order. “After a diligent search” by the guardian ad litem, the judge wrote, “no heirs … were found.”
Less than a month later, the deal with the Woods closed. Tucker’s company sold the property for $255,500, nearly three times the $90,000 it paid Parkway Vistas a year and a half earlier, deeds indicate.
The Lydas received nothing.
Robert Lyda said he feels like his family’s property was stolen.
“It’s bad enough that you lose your loved ones,” he said. “There's ethics independent of what is legal. And the fact that the law does not serve ethics is the most damning statement one could make about our system.”
An alliance forms
Asheville Watchdog previously reported how Tucker, who is also an attorney, has taken advantage of the Reconstruction-era partition law and convinced Buncombe homeowners, many of them elderly and/or Black, to sign over properties and forfeit years if not generations of equity.
Lisa K. Roberts of Asheville, who calls herself a housing advocate, negotiated some of the deals for Tucker's companies. Henry, Tucker’s lawyer since at least 2015, represented him in court. Roberts has not responded to repeated messages seeking comment.
Henry’s and Tucker’s association with Adaramola appears to have started the year after she opened her law practice in 2014. Henry began requesting Adaramola to be auction commissioner on partition sales, resulting in Tucker's companies buying properties for as little as $2,000. And in 2017, when Henry needed a lawyer to monitor his client communications as a condition to avoid a suspension of his law license, he chose Adaramola.
Adaramola said in a December 2020 interview with Asheville Watchdog that she didn’t recall specifically how the association began.
“I'm a real estate attorney. We generally have section meetings for our organizations,” Adaramola said. “We may have met at a networking event. Like any other client, that’s how generally I’m found.”
Adaramola also represented Lisa Roberts as her attorney, court and property records show.
‘Easily found,’ fiancé says
A guardian ad litem is supposed to be a “disinterested person,” who is appointed by the courts in certain property cases to protect the interests of unknown or unlocatable owners, said Johanna Finkelstein, an assistant court clerk in Buncombe who handles such cases.
“The main thing they try to do is find them,” she said. “Then they should follow up and ensure that the process is going correctly.”
Disinterested means “somebody who doesn't have a conflict of some sort with any of the parties — in terms of an attorney, they didn't represent any of the parties in the past,” Finkelstein said. “They can't have an ownership interest.”
A lawyer is typically appointed “under the theory that attorneys know how to use the various methods to find people,” Finkelstein said. “Sometimes they try real hard and can’t … They have to act as a reasonable, prudent person would.”
Guardians are often selected on the recommendation of the attorneys in the case, she said.
Henry was appointed as guardian ad litem to represent the interests of David Shroat, the local cop, in a case brought by Adaramola on behalf of VLM Investments in June 2018. Shroat owned a half-interest in a house in Arden with a tax value of $249,900, and VLM, the owner of the other half, was seeking a partition sale of the property.
Adaramola reported in August 2018 that “due diligence and great efforts were made to locate the whereabouts of the Respondent, consisting of, internet search, White Pages search for recent phone numbers, called family and friends, DMV search, Ancestry.com search, Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Buncombe County Tax Office, and cross referenced addresses with Wells Fargo.”
Shroat’s address was on file at the Buncombe courthouse in a mortgage foreclosure case, Asheville Watchdog found. He was served with a court order in June 2018. Also served with the same document in the same case was Adaramola, the attorney for another party.
And in a 2017 divorce file, also available at the courthouse, Shroat listed his employer as the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office.
Shroat, who had spent 28 years at the Asheville Police Department and 15 at the sheriff’s office, had worked the front desk at the courthouse before retiring in December 2017, personnel records show.
“It is pretty likely that someone who has retired in the past few years would still be in contact with people here and we could provide a phone number or address if needed for a legal matter or urgent concern,” said the sheriff’s spokesman, Aaron Sarver.
Kelly Southerland, Shroat’s fiancé, told Asheville Watchdog Shroat had moved in with her by 2018. Southerland said she left a forwarding address with the sheriff’s office, and Shroat received Social Security and pension-related mail at her house.
“Nobody ever came by here, gave me their card, or told me to get in touch with them,” she said.
Shroat’s sister, Sandra Ashe of South Carolina, said no one contacted her, either.
Adaramola served Shroat through a legal ad in the Asheville Citizen Times, which Shroat’s fiancé said he never saw.
Shroat did not respond in court, and Finkelstein, the clerk, granted Adaramola’s request to put the property up for sale. It sold for $145,000 — to Lisa Roberts’s company — and resold within two months for $210,000, according to the deeds.
Shroat received nothing.
The property had been in foreclosure, and the proceeds from the court-ordered partition sale, after fees, went to Wells Fargo, the bank that held two mortgages. A third mortgage — from Tucker’s company — was recorded less than two weeks before the partition action.
Shroat, who is now 74 and has dementia, lives in an assisted living facility in Asheville.
Attorneys’ word taken at ‘face value’
When told about Shroat and the Lydas, Robert N. Hunter Jr., a former judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals who briefly served on the state Supreme Court, said: “Those people need a lawyer to examine the records and examine the evidence and bring a motion in the courts to reconsider the judgments that were entered.
“It's the job of the reviewing judge or clerk to examine the proofs before him or her to ensure that every effort has been made to locate the person,” Hunter said. “And if subsequently, the person who has not been found discovers that his interest has been sold, he has a right to request redress in the courts.”
In response to questions about the Lyda case, Judge Thornburg told Asheville Watchdog, “Given that court cases and disciplinary proceedings are pending or may arise . . . it is not appropriate for me to comment.”
The North Carolina State Bar is investigating Tucker’s transactions.
Finkelstein, the clerk for the Lyda and Shroat partition cases, said the information Asheville Watchdog uncovered was concerning, but that courts rely on attorneys and guardians to do a thorough job.
“In general we do take at face value what is in the report, what the people did to try and find the individuals,” Finkelstein said. “Sometimes I’ll ask them questions about it if there’s something that makes me wonder.”
“Perfunctory and superficial”
Rick Su, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, said he was “taken aback by the perfunctory and superficial nature of the proceedings and efforts, especially given what is at stake.”
After reviewing Adaramola’s invoice that showed she spent an hour and a half searching for heirs in the Lyda case, Su said that if Asheville Watchdog was “successful in locating the owners, then it could be argued that the [guardian ad litem’s] efforts were deficient.”
“At best, [Adaramola] is just putting in the bare minimum of effort,” Su said. “At worst, she may not be all that interested in actually locating the real owners.”
Finkelstein said she is no longer appointing Adaramola or Henry as guardians ad litem in cases.
Su said more should be done, such as strengthening North Carolina laws. “There appears to be little in the way of assessing the actual effort of an appointed [guardian ad litem], even if a court cared to appoint someone they believed was capable and motivated.”
Property owners, he said, should be “properly represented, and more than what the current system provides.”
Robert Lyda said it may be too late for his family. “We've lost that property, that vista, the connection to our family history.”
The experience, he said, has shaken his faith in the judicial system.
“The judge is dependent upon his fellow officers of the court to bring truthful information. Without that,” Robert Lyda said, “there's no hope for justice.”
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 email@example.com.
Asheville Watchdog gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Duke University School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic, with special thanks to Zane Martin.
Asheville Watchdog publisher Bob Gremillion is a member of the search committee that will choose Blue Ridge Public Radio's next General Manager and CEO.