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Mystery House in Ownership Fight

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday April 07, 2006

Ward Street: it’s 6 in the evening, and the roads are sepia tinted, the pavement is wearing a jaded look. It looks like your everyday neighborhood—until you come across house number 2122.  

As the lights go up in number 2118 next door, anyone passing by can now see a property disclosure sign warning them to steer clear of the house at number 2122. A dozen reasons for staying away from the property have been listed on the sign, including “3 deaths on property,” “no gas service,” and “bad foundation.”  

What is even more arresting is the graffiti adorning the walls of 2122 itself. The word “thief” screams out in bold black letters from above the garage door and “don’t buy this house” and “stolen by fraud” are scrawled all over the front porch with the help of home-made stencils. 

The vandalism is a result of a feud over the ownership of 2122 Ward St. Jim Hultman, the former owner, claims that his house was stolen through fraud by his mortgage company—Fairbanks Capital Corporation. Loren and Jeff Toews, who bought the property through foreclosure sale, say that they are now the legal owners of the property. 

For the past couple of weeks, the graffiti has appeared mysteriously at night and after getting promptly cleaned up, reappears the following day. Apart from the graffiti, the house has also been covered in paintballs and has had its windows broken and doorbell ripped off on numerous occasions. 

Lorian Elbert, a photojournalist and a resident of Berkeley, said she first noticed the graffiti a few weeks ago. 

“My dog led me to it,” she said. “I’ve never seen this kind of graffiti on a residential house before.” 

Elbert photographed the house every time fresh writing appeared on it. 

“It goes through a phase. I saw ‘scum’ written on it last Tuesday and it disappeared on Wednesday. And nobody seems to know whose doing it,”  

However, the story does not end there.  

Five houses on the block have displayed signs on their windows and front porches reading, “Don’t Buy 2122 Ward St.,” and “It’s Just Wrong.”  

When the Daily Planet asked a homeowner who had a sign up on her window why the neighbors were doing this, she said that the signs were there to show support for “Jim and Brett”—the former owners of the property.  

“Jim Hultman was like the mayor of our street,” the neighbor said. “He was so active in the community. We really want him to get his house back.” 

She said that many of the neighbors were concerned that people from outside the neighborhood were buying old houses such as 2122 Ward St. through foreclosure sales. 

“It could be my house next,” she said. 

Meg Veitch, a freshman at Berkeley High said that she supported the sign which her parents had put up on their window because she “loved Jim and Brett and wanted them back.”  

In an interview with the Planet, Hultman said that the house on 2122 Ward St. had been in his family for 90 years. 

“I had been making mortgage payments on a small loan to Aames Home Loans when the company sold the servicing rights for the loans to Fairbanks Capital Corporation (now Select Portfolio Servicing) in 2003,” he said. “I never missed a payment and was never behind on my mortgage.” 

Hultman said he had no warning that his house was being sold at a foreclosure auction in July 2003. 

“I found out at 9:30 the morning of the sale,” he said, “when I returned home to let my dog out and found one of the buyers, Jeff Toews, in my back yard. I asked him who he was and what he was doing in my back yard and he told me that he was buying my house at an auction that day.” 

Hultman said that he has still never received anything from the mortgage company informing him that his house has been sold. 

“They continued to take my payments and cash my checks for five months after my house was sold,” he said. “To not inform someone you sold their house and continue to accept and cash their mortgage payments is indisputably fraud.”  

Select Portfolio Servicing (formerly Fairbanks Capital Corp.) was contacted by the Planet but was unable to offer comment regarding 2122 Ward St. because of privacy issues. 

Fairbanks Capital Corp. was involved in a class action lawsuit in May 2004 as a result of charges of misconduct against Fairbanks in servicing its customers’ mortgage loans which resulted in the court approving a $55 million settlement. 

“Substantial changes in Fairbanks’ business practices and a default resolution program to limit the imposition of fees and foreclosure proceedings against Fairbanks’ customers” was also established as a result of the settlement, according to information on the website of Lieff Cabraser , the law firm which served as nationwide co-lead counsel for the homeowners.  

Steve Barton, director of the Berkeley Housing Department, told the Planet that incidents of fraudulent transactions and predatory lending practices are not uncommon and are more frequent in the case of the elderly or the disabled. 

Toewes, the current co-owner of 2122 Ward St. and former Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker, told the Planet that he and his brother Jeff (former Miami Dolphins football player) had bought the 2122 Ward St. property at a public auction. The brothers are real estate agents, although Jeff said that the Ward Street property was not currently on the market.  

“We responded to a public announcement and had nothing to do with the lender (Fairbanks Capital Corp.) or the borrowers,” said Loren. 

Towes added that he had reported the graffiti problem to the Berkeley police but had no idea who was behind it. 

“We understand that the neighbors are angry with us but their anger is misdirected,” he said. 

Graffiti referring to Toews has also appeared on the house, such as: “Pittsburgh house stealer” and “Loren and Jeff Toews, how can you sleep at night?” 

Hultman said, “the Toews don’t care how this happened to us or if what my mortgage company did was legal.” 

Towes told the Planet that he had had no problems with Hultman so far and that all their conversations had been cordial. 

Fresh graffiti continues to appear on 2122 Ward St. every other day. The Berkeley police say they are as clueless as the owners about who could be behind it. 

Officer Spencer Fomby, Area 3 coordinator of the Berkeley Police Department, told the Planet that Jeff Toews filed a vandalism report on March 16. 

Fomby added that it was the property owner’s responsibility to inform the police if vandalism was taking place regularly on private property. Only after that can the police take further action against the perpetuators. 


Photo by Lorian Elbert 

Vandalism at 2122 Ward St.