One of a dozen so-called sovereign citizens indicted on racketeering charges for essentially stealing 18 high-end homes in eight counties pleaded guilty Monday in court.
“I plead guilty because I’m tired,” David B. Graham told DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Courtney L. Johnson. “I’m guilty because I’m guilty.”
Graham was accused of moving back into the Gwinnett County home he lost to foreclosure by illegally using the quit claim process to transfer the deed back into his own name. Graham pleaded guilty to violating Georgia's RICO or influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, and to conspiracy to violate the RICO Act.
He was one of many in a group that, between January and July 2010, exploited loopholes in the legal property deeding system to gum up an already tedious process.
Graham said he was directed to a loosely organized sovereign citizen group to help him save his home.
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“I asked my brother if he knew how to obtain my property back through legal means,” Graham said.
His attorney, Melvin Johnson, told the court that his client was influenced by the sovereign citizen group – individuals who believe that they each make up their own sovereign state or nationality, and are thus immune to federal, state and local laws – led by Eliyshuwa Shaphat Yisrael.
“Mr. Graham … was ignorant [of legal property transfer laws] and bought into their scheme,” Johnson said.
That scheme, prosecutors say, involved members of the group breaking into more than a dozen properties in DeKalb, Gwinnett, Henry, Spaulding, Fulton, Fayette, Richmond and Newton counties, including a Buckhead strip mall, forging notarized deeds for themselves and one another to file with the respective county clerks, then threatening litigation against the rightful owners if those owners tried to evict the sovereigns or sell the properties.
Prosecutors called it putting “a cloud on the title.”
At the Buckhead strip mall, at 2140 Peachtree Road, prosecutors say some of the suspects tried to collect rent. In another case, prosecutors say Yisrael and others tried to evict the tenant of a home they stole.
At yet another home, prosecutors say they tried to have a locksmith change the locks, while ordering a real estate agent to deactivate the security system in the home and remove the “for sale” signs.
Deputy Chief Assistant DA John Melvin told the court that Graham tried to extort the owner of his former home on Yisrael’s behalf via email.
“He offered to remove the deed on the property if they would pay Mr. Yisrael $45,000,” Melvin said.
Graham also is accused of helping Yisrael fraudulently take possession of a Fulton home at 1315 Beechwood Hills Court, just west of Buckhead, allegedly breaking in and filing illegal claims on the home with the Fulton County Clerk of Superior Court.
The ring leaders of the group – Yisrael, Lawler, Jenkins and Gibson – took over and lived at a home at 7301 South Goddard Street, near Lithonia, valued at somewhere between $300,000 and $600,000, Melvin said.
“From that location, this group has spider-webbed out,” he said.
When members filed quit claims on other homes, many used the Lithonia address on their paperwork.
In March 2011, Graham, along with Yisrael, Richard Terence Jenkins, Jospeh Dion Lawler, Jermaine Eric Gibson, Linda Ross, Wylissa Yvette Lawrence, Kenith Benaiah Rey, Jonas Francois, Arthur Sykes, Jr., Gregory Osbourne Ross, and Corey Bernard Freeman were indicted for violating Georgia’s RICO or racketeer influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
Two others – Rey and Lawrence – have pleaded guilty, prosecutors said.
“He is among those at the bottom of the pyramid,” Melvin said when recommending a five-year sentence of probation for Graham.
In exchange for being allowed to participate in the first offenders program and likely avoiding the maximum sentence of 40 years in prison, Graham is required to testify against the ring leaders at trial that begins Oct. 22.