Business - California Con man could get life under state's 3-strikes law

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A man accused of bilking South Los Angeles residents out of their homes in a foreclosure scam is facing a potential life sentence in a rare use of California's three-strikes law for a white-collar crime.

Timothy Barnett is charged with 23 felonies, including identity theft, real estate fraud and theft from the elderly. A conviction would be his third felony strike after two 1997 convictions for burglary stemming from fraud schemes in which he met the victims at their homes.

Los Angeles County prosecutors call Barnett an incorrigible con man who deserves to face 25 years to life if he's convicted. But critics are questioning whether it's a proper use of the law that voters passed in 1994.

"I've never heard of such a case," said Stan Goldman, a Loyola Law School professor who is an outspoken "three-strikes law" opponent.

"This law was intended to deal with serious and violent felons and lock them up forever," Goldman said. "If this guy's guilty, he's a pretty despicable and dangerous character. But he hasn't killed anybody."

There have been repeated calls over the years to reform the law, which permits someone convicted of two serious felonies to face a possible life sentence if convicted of a third felony of any type.

Last month, a judge freed a man who spent 13 years in prison after trying to steal food from a Los Angeles church. Gregory Taylor, 47, was convicted of a third strike of burglary and had two previous robbery convictions.

Michael A. Ramos, president of the California District Attorneys Association, said he could not recall a previous three-strikes case involving a white-collar crime.

Barnett, 47, was arrested in April and has pleaded not guilty. He remained jailed Thursday on $2.2 million bail pending a Sept. 10 pretrial hearing.

Prosecutors contend that he tricked five people who thought they were refinancing delinquent mortgages into selling their homes to him for a fraction of their value.

Barnett spent nearly five years in state prison after his conviction on two burglary charges in 1997. Authorities said he talked his way into victims' homes, offered to refinance their mortgages and then conned them out of tens of thousands of dollars in property and loan proceeds.

He's an appropriate target for a three-strikes prosecution, said Max Huntsman, who supervises the real estate fraud section of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

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

The victims in the latest case were mostly older residents of South Los Angeles, prosecutors said.

"He'd look for homes that had a lot of equity and people that were vulnerable," said Patrick Dunlevy of the Public Counsel Law Center, a Los Angeles-based group that is suing Barnett on behalf of several people who said they lost their homes. "He would bill himself as a Christian, say he was doing God's work. That resonated very well with the people he was approaching."

Eddie F. Baker Jr. said Barnett rang his doorbell in 2005 and said he had a plan to help the 72-year-old 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," Baker testified 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.

Instead, Baker said he unwittingly had granted Barnett title to the home he had owned since 1969.

Barnett, who had a $3.1 million home and three Mercedez-Benz cars, did nothing wrong, his attorney argued.

Through his Buena Park company, Barnett offered to buy delinquent homes, pay off the mortgages and allow the homeowners to lease back the property via affordable payments, Winston Kevin 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."

Published: Mon, Sep 6, 2010

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