Man Accused of Fraud May Get Life in Prison Under California’s Three-Strikes Law

The stiff penalty is rarely used against white-collar criminals. Timothy Barnett is charged with 23 felonies for allegedly tricking five people into unknowingly granting him title to their homes.

September 01, 2010 | By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times

Timothy Barnett spent nearly five years in state prison for a 1990s foreclosure rescue scam in which he conned homeowners out of tens of thousands of dollars. Now, prosecutors say, he has been at it again, targeting residents in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood he fleeced before.

But this time, the state is unleashing one of its more powerful weapons against him. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has charged Barnett under California’s much-debated three-strikes law. Usually aimed at offenders with a history of violent crime, it is rarely used for white-collar offenses such as fraud.

Arrested in April, the 47-year-old Barnett is charged with 23 felonies — including theft from the elderly, identity theft and real estate fraud — for allegedly tricking five people into unknowingly granting him title to their homes. He has pleaded not guilty.

Some experts said the case would be one of the first times a person charged with a white-collar crime was prosecuted under the state’s three-strikes law. If convicted, Barnett could face life in prison.

“I’ve never heard of such a case,” said Stan Goldman, a Loyola Law School professor and outspoken three-strikes opponent. “This law was intended to deal with serious and violent felons and lock them up forever. If this guy’s guilty, he’s a pretty despicable and dangerous character. But he hasn’t killed anybody.”

Barnett received his first two strikes — both for residential burglary — in 1997. Burglary is one of the dozens of serious or violent crimes that are considered strikes under state law.

In that case, Barnett was accused of talking his way into people’s homes, offering to refinance their mortgages, and diverting property or loan proceeds to himself.

Prosecutors had charged him with burglary because he met with his victims in their homes. Under California law, a person can be convicted of residential burglary for entering someone’s house with the intent to commit a felony, even if he or she enters with the homeowner’s permission.

The three-strikes law, passed by California voters in 1994, has been controversial because it allows any felony to serve as the third strike. So each of the 23 charges that Barnett faces could trigger a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman, who supervises the office’s real estate fraud section, said the three-strikes penalty was appropriate for Barnett because of his criminal past.

“Mr. Barnett, if he did the things he’s charged with, is a horrible danger to the community,” Huntsman said in an interview. “He has an ability to make people trust him and he uses it to steal their biggest asset, their home, and that’s horrible.”

He acknowledged that Barnett could be the only person in California to face the three-strikes penalty for fraud-related residential burglaries.Mike Reynolds, a retired Fresno photographer who helped write the three-strikes initiative after his daughter, Kimber, was murdered in 1992, continues to monitor the law’s implementation and said he was not aware of any other case in which it was invoked against an offender accused of white-collar crimes.

Mike Reynolds, a retired Fresno photographer who helped write the three-strikes initiative after his daughter, Kimber, was murdered in 1992, continues to monitor the law’s implementation and said he was not aware of any other case in which it was invoked against an offender accused of white-collar crimes.

Michael A. Ramos, president of the California District Attorneys Assn., also could not recall a similar case in which a defendant accused of white-collar crimes faced a life term under the three-strikes law.

Barnett’s attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, said his client did nothing wrong. Instead, his Buena Park real estate investment company, called Trusperity, sought to help people in financial distress, McKesson said.

Barnett told clients — orally and in signed contracts — that he would buy their homes, pay off their delinquent mortgages and allow them to lease back their homes at payments they could afford, McKesson said.

“His whole thing is he told the truth; he’s at peace,” McKesson said. “He gave them a chance to live in their homes three more years. He satisfied his end of the bargain; they didn’t satisfy theirs…. These people knew what they signed and at the last minute they came in and said they didn’t know.”

McKesson said he thought prosecutors crossed the line in seeking a life sentence.

“The three-strikes law was intended to punish violent and serious criminals, robbers and rapists and murderers,” the lawyer said. “It did not intend for this hybrid form of burglary to qualify for a third strike.”

Prosecutors said Barnett started his second series of thefts in 2005, three years after his parole.

He is charged with tricking victims — who said they thought they were refinancing their delinquent mortgages — into selling him their homes for a fraction of their value. By the time prosecutors began looking at Barnett again, he had bought a $3.1-million home in Orange County and three Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

As in his first case, prosecutors said, Barnett targeted older African Americans, mostly in South Los Angeles. They said he used his Christian faith — praying with victims and passing out business cards that described him as a “visionary” — to win their trust. Barnett told victims that he learned about their financial troubles from public records.

Billie Iverson, 67, said she was facing foreclosure in 2005 when Barnett arrived at her doorstep with a plan to save her Compton home.

The man told Iverson that he would pay off her first and second mortgage and let her keep her house on Chester Avenue without having to make another mortgage payment, Iverson said.

Well-groomed and snappily dressed, Barnett prayed with her as they discussed her financial rescue, Iverson recalled. Then she signed stacks of papers that a Barnett employee delivered.

“He told me that he was a devout Christian and that is what he do in the community: help people, not use them or take advantage of them,” Iverson said, while testifying at Barnett’s preliminary hearing. “And I took him at his word.”

A few months later, Iverson received a disturbing letter in the mail. It said someone else owned her home. And her frustration only grew, she said, the more she learned. A concerned family member did some research on the Internet and learned that Barnett had gone to prison in the 1990s for running a massive foreclosure rescue scam.

Eddie F. Baker Jr. said he was home alone in 2005 when Barnett rang the doorbell at his house on West 80th Street. Barnett said he had a plan to help Baker avoid foreclosure.

“He was telling me that he was a member of the church and that he was a man of God and I was a man of God. So we kind of had a relationship. I trusted him,” the 72-year-old Baker said during testimony at Barnett’s preliminary hearing.

“He told me he could help me get my life in order. I could pay all my bills and get my house back and get an A-1 credit rating,” Baker said.

He said he thought he was refinancing his mortgage at a lower rate, getting a fresh start. Instead, he was granting title of the house he’d owned since 1969 to Barnett. He didn’t realize anything was wrong until a man showed up at his doorstep one day and told Baker that he owned the house.

“I told him, ‘This is my house. Man, you better get away from this house. I’ve had this house since 1969,’” Baker said.

In addition to the five cases that are the subject of the criminal case, several others are described in civil lawsuits filed against Barnett. Each describes scenarios similar to those described by Baker and Iverson. Baker and Iverson have each filed lawsuits — against Barnett, banks and others — in attempts to get their homes back and recover their losses.

“He’d look for homes that had a lot of equity and people that were vulnerable,” said Patrick Dunlevy of the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel Law Center, which has filed lawsuits on behalf of several people who said they had lost their homes to Barnett. “He would bill himself as a Christian, say he was doing God’s work. That resonated very well with the people he was approaching…. It was all a con, just a way to get them to trust him.”

Barnett, jailed since April in lieu of $2.2-million bail, has pleaded not guilty to all charges. He is next scheduled to appear in court Sept. 10 for a pretrial hearing. No trial date has been set.