How a Man Stole a Church in Essex County

By Michael Hill

Thirty-four-year-old Ramon Q. Hamlett’s crimes give a whole new meaning to “will a man rob God?”

“I’ve never seen any thing like this,” said Annette Tellis, bishop at Positive Proof Family Worship Center Church.

That is to steal a church.

“It’s pretty scary,” said Essex County Register of Deeds and Mortgages Dana Rone.

Rone says such property theft usually happens to seniors who’ve paid off their houses. In this case, it happened to Bishop Frank Garris and others of the 1824 Presbyterian church on Clinton Avenue.

“I don’t even know of any person who would ever do anything like that,” Garris said.

Here’s how such theft takes place: in late June last year, Hamlett forged a quitclaim deed, listing himself as the church’s owner and selling it to his True Vine Holiness Pentecostal for the sum of $1. He signed his name and listed himself as pastor and president and had a notary public to vouch for him. He filed the fraudulent document with the county register’s office and walked away as the owner of the church.

The register’s office didn’t know Hamlett from the man on the moon, and — as in many such cases — is handcuffed by law and cannot ask for ID.

“I was surprised that you can go get a certified letter from the to the post office and get a certified letter without ID and that you can transfer a deed without one,” Rone said.

Two weeks after this, Bishops Garris and Tellis were in a title company’s office closing the deal on buying the church from the Presbyterians. They got the key, came to marvel at what they had just acquired, unlocked the door and the alarm sounded. Minutes later Hamlett showed up.

“And he says, ‘Pastor! Pastor! What are you doing in my church? This is my church,’” Tellis said.

The police came and found Bishop Garris had a deed and so did Hamlett — waving an envelope — and they ordered everyone out of the church.

“I don’t fault the police they were trying to be fair but at the same time trying to be fair put us out on the sidewalk of a building that we owned,” Garris said.

The bishops say Hamlett had lied to the officers that he was a commissioner of the homeless in Newark.

“When he said that one of your commissioner are being attacked up here at the building, we saw three or four cop cars come here because they were protecting the commissioner,” Garris said.

A quick check of Hamlett would have revealed he calls himself a lawyer in good standing on the Internet, found him singing across a city bridge and that he was a wanted man for theft by deception in Middlesex County. Instead, this would drag out for two weeks as Hamlett would hold services in the church, take out some of its copper pipes and other possessions and change the locks on a building he had broken into and taken over.

While the bishops had been told it would cost $5,000 in legal fees to fight this and change the deed, Hamlett — the man with the bogus deed — took them to court.

“And he spreads word that we stole his church,” Garris said.

The city and discovered Hamlett’s phony deed and other information and in late July last year, Hamlett’s scam no longer had a prayer.

“The day that the detectives came to arrest him he was still inside this church with the cable company. He was putting in cameras. He had his whole setup, his copier, everything,” Tellis said.

Detectives arrested Hamlett and took him to jail. He pleaded guilty to theft by deception in this case. He’s serving a three-year sentence, eligible for parole in July.

“I can easily say we have several individuals that come in often too often that we turn away,” Rone said.

County Register Rone says scammers know the records here are public and that leaves gaps for fraud.

Are they casing the property records?

“You could say that, yes,” Rone said.

Title searcher Jacque Grillon has worked in the register’s office since Lyndon Baines Johnson was president.

“The register’s office is finding ways either to refuse to accept the documents for recording or challenging them,” she said.

The office now requires quitclaim deeds to be typewritten and prepared by an attorney or paralegal. Rone urges property owners to get a certified copy of their deed and to check on their property from time to time.

One state lawmaker’s working on a bill that would require registers to alert property owners when there’s any transaction attempted on their deed.

“I think the best was to police it is to notify the gurantur and that the owner of the property,” Rone said.

New Jersey REALTORS warned NJTV News today of another scam: hackers intervening in real estate transactions with bogus-but-legitimate-looking emails asking buyers to wire them large sums of money.

“If you ever get something from someone saying I need you to wire me some money for this, that or the other reason, confirm, confirm, confirm. Pick up the phone. Call your realtor. Call your attorney. Find out did you actually send this email to me?” said New Jersey REALTORS President Tg Glazer.

From bogus solicitations to bogus documents, it’s buyer and owner beware.