HAMILTON HEIGHTS — First came a city Finance Department letter in August notifying the Hembricks that the deed to their $1.5 million brownstone had been transferred to a man named Henry Rothenberg.
Next came the police responding to mysterious 911 calls claiming home invasions were happening at the Hembrick’s four-story, 15-room brownstone.
Each time Kevin Hembrick, 62, and his 84-year-old mother, Jacqueline Hembrick, would explain to NYPD officers that their family had owned and lived in the Convent Avenue home in Hamilton Heights for three generations and no one was breaking in.
Then came three goons who banged on the door and tried to kick Kevin out.
It was around that time that the Hembricks hired a lawyer to find out what was going on.
It turned out they had had their home stolen out from under them.
The Hembricks were the victims of deed theft — a scam that has exploded since the 2008 housing crisis and left many cash-strapped city residents in expensive legal fights over ownership of their own homes.
The swindle works several ways.
In one, scammers dupe elderly homeowners and individuals drowning in debt, telling them that they’ll refinance their mortgage or pay it off for the home. But after signing murky paperwork, the desperate homeowners end up getting nothing or only a fraction of what they’re promised and lose the deed to their property.
Another variation involves fraudsters trolling online city records and surrogate courts looking for properties where the owner is an absentee landlord or is dead and appears to have no heirs.
Once they find a target, the scammers file a phony deed, often using an alias, with the Finance Department. The deed is then transferred to a third party, often a holding company or another fictitious person.
Since spring 2014, the city sheriff’s office, which is part of the Finance Department, has made combating deed theft a top investigative priority.
Sheriff Joseph Fucito and the Finance Department stepped up their vigilance after a series of high-profile stories exposed the ease with which scammers could register deeds in city records.
Now the Finance Department flags any deed transfers that are filed with defective information and sends them to the sheriff’s investigators.
Between July 1, 2014, and April 30, 2015, the sheriff’s office received a total of 755 complaints of suspected deed thefts — with the Finance Department sending 597 of them. More than 150 came from individual people filing complaints.
The sheriff has so far opened criminal investigations into more than 100 of those complaints and more than a half dozen people have been arrested.
“For the Department of Finance, it’s very important that people feel safe and secure in their homes," Fucito said. "We’re taking proactive steps to protect property owners and pursue individuals who study ways to cheat the property recording process."
The Hembricks, who declined to be interviewed for this story, detailed their deed theft ordeal in a legal filing in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court.
Last May, they received a Finance Department notification in the mail that a deed transfer was made on their Convent Avenue home, but the agency said the transfer was rejected because it was defective.
The wrong Social Security numbers were used for two of the parties named in the transfer, Joseph Gomillion and Alexis Stanton, according to the notification.
The transfer attempt didn’t make sense to the Hembricks.
The family has been living in the home for decades, since Jacqueline’s parents, Helena and Joseph Gomillion, bought the brownstone in 1945.
Joseph died in 1965 and Helena in 1994, and their home was left to Jacqueline and her only brother, Robert Johnson, who lives in The Bronx.
The family didn’t know an Alexis Stanton, who was claiming in the deed transfers to be the sole surviving heir of Joseph and Helena Gomillion.
Still, the transfer attempts continued, and the Hembricks kept getting notifications from the city of defective filings.
“There were several unsuccessful attempts to record the deed,” the Hembricks’ filing says.
“Each time, the Department of Finance would inform the ‘wrongdoers’ of the particular defects in the paperwork and the ‘wrongdoers’ would revise the documents until they got it right and it was accepted for recording.”
The “wrongdoers” apparently got the transfer right on July 31, 2014, according to city property records and the Hembricks’ court filing. The following month the Finance Department sent a letter notifying the Hembricks of the transfer.
In the transfer, Stanton had conveyed the property to Henry Rothenberg.
After getting word of the transfer, the Hembricks hired lawyer Mark Gray, who quickly learned that Alexis Stanton was likely a fake identity — as was Rothenberg.
Gray’s title search of the property showed Stanton had filed a deed in October 2013 with the Finance Department.
While Stanton claimed to be the Gomillion’s only heir, he never filed any claim for administration of their estates in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court, Gray said in a legal filing. Also, the home address Stanton used in the deed was a fake, according to Gray.
Gray never located anyone named Alexis Stanton, and when he went to track down Henry Rothenberg, his search got weirder.
Gray said in his filing that Rothenberg's address in the deed transfer was an Upper West Side UPS store.
When Gray called Rothenberg’s phone, the man who answered acknowledged being Rothenberg, according to the legal filing. But when Gray told Rothenberg he represented the Hembricks, the man responded, “I have big lawyers, big law firms, and we’re going to sue you and you’ll be sorry you ever messed with me! I’m going to have you disbarred!”
About an hour later, Gray received a dubious phone call from an attorney named Mark Schwartz, who claimed to represent Rothenberg.
Gray said in his legal filing that Schwartz was “obviously Henry Rothenberg using a barely disguised voice.” Schwartz told Gray, “We’re coming after you” and “We’re going to take you down and have you disbarred.”
Meanwhile, the Hembricks’ headaches were getting worse.
On at least eight occasions between Aug. 21 and Sept. 23, someone called 911 from payphones, telling the dispatcher that a home invasion was in progress at their home, the Hembricks’ legal filing says. Each time the Hembricks had to explain to officers who they were.
On Sept. 26 someone called Con Edison, canceling electrical repair work that the Hembricks had scheduled.
And on Sept. 29, while Jacqueline prepared for a doctor’s appointment, three men came to the Hembrick’s door and demanded that Kevin leave the home. One of the men appeared to have locksmith equipment, according to the family’s legal filing.
The harassment grew so bad in September that Kevin had to take a three-week leave of absence from his job at the state Department of Labor out of fear that the goons would break in and forcibly remove his elderly mother, Gray’s filing says.
“Given the recent escalation of aggressiveness by Henry Rothenberg and his thugs, my clients now live in fear,” Gray wrote in his filing.
“Jacqueline Hembricks, who had been sheltered somewhat by her son Kevin from what is happening, now lives in terror that at any moment, including in the middle of the night, the police will bang on her door about a supposed break-in — or worse, that thugs will actually break down her door and drag her out of her house.”
Anthony Green, 54, a lifelong friend of Kevin Hembrick and a Convent Avenue resident, said that Henry Rothenberg has knocked on the Hembricks’ door at least four times and once claimed to police that Kevin came from Philadelphia and illegally moved into the building.
Green has helped the family shoo away Rothenberg and the alleged real estate brokers he has sent to the home.
“I’m just trying to help Kevin out because I don’t want to see anybody take his house when I know it’s his house,” Green told DNAinfo New York. “That’s where he grew up. Not only do I know his mother, I knew his grandmother.”
The Hembricks filed legal papers in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court to get a judge to overturn the deed transfer and return it to the family. A judge has not yet issued a decision.
The family also filed a harassment complaint in September with 30th Precinct police, records show.
Investigators are looking into whether the Hembricks’ case is connected to other complaints of elder fraud occurring on Convent Avenue, sources said.
The Sheriff’s Office and Manhattan District Attorney’s Office are also investigating the case, according to sources.
The sheriff’s office declined to comment on the Hembricks’ case.
DNAinfo tried to visit a West 145th Street address for Rothenberg, but was turned away by a doorman. Rothenberg also did not respond to repeated phone calls for comment.