Buying a split-level house in Seabrook was the "biggest accomplishment in my life," said Jonathan A. Smith. But holding on to his home turned out to be even harder.
Through a series of health-related misfortunes that left him sporadically unemployed and unable to make mortgage payments, Smith lost his house to a group of men who, Smith alleged in court papers, promised to help him avoid foreclosure. They lent him $6,170 to make up back payments to his mortgage company, but he had to sign over the house to them until he could pay them back. Then they charged him $4,620, or 75 percent interest.
When Smith was unable to meet their six-month loan deadline, he lost the house on Beachwood Avenue but continued to rent from them until he was evicted in January 1986 after health problems again caused him to fall behind in his payments.
Now, Smith, 39, is looking forward to a homecoming, courtesy of Circuit Court Judge Perry G. Bowen Jr. On Oct. 20, Bowen ruled on a suit brought by Smith and ordered Lester Foote, Radford L. Ginn and Steven N. Calvert to pay Smith $150,000 in punitive damages and $2,000 for attorney's fees. And he ordered the present occupants of the house evicted so Smith and his wife can return.
What happened to Smith, said his attorney Paul B. Eason, is typical of what can befall unsophisticated homeowners. Ginn and Calvert are also defendants in a pending 1985 lawsuit filed in Prince George's County involving a Riverdale couple who similarly lost their house.
None of the defendants could be reached for comment. Nor have they responded in court in either suit, resulting in a judgment by default in Smith's case.
Smith, who grew up on a farm near the present site of the Capital Centre, bought the house on a dead-end street in 1978 with a $55,000 mortgage from A.E. Landvoigt Inc. of Fairfax. "It meant an awful lot," Smith said. "I got it on my own, before I got married. It was the biggest thing in my whole life."
Later he developed diabetes, which caused him to miss work and income from his job as a Metro bus driver. When he fell behind in his house payments, Landvoigt took steps to foreclose on the property.
Five days before the scheduled foreclosure, Ginn came to the house "brandishing a newspaper publicizing the foreclosure," according to Smith's suit, and left his name and card with Smith's wife Patrice.
Ginn allegedly told her he could "help save her home through a company called American Property Investors," consisting of Ginn, Calvert and Foote, according to court papers.
Jonathan Smith, desperate to save his home, contacted Ginn. "He seemed like a nice person, seemed like he would do anything in the world to help me," Smith said. "I trusted him." The day before the foreclosure, Smith "was summoned" to a lawyer's office at Landover Mall and given a raft of papers to sign.
Smith was told that to prevent foreclosure, "he would have to sign over his house," he alleged in his suit. The suit said he was assured he was "not selling his home but that the transfer was protection to the lenders."
Relying on what the suit said were "fraudulent and deliberate misrepresentations," Smith signed all documents, including an option agreement by which he could buy back his house.
Patrice Smith quit her federal job to withdraw her retirement funds for the lump-sum payment of $6,170 due on Dec. 15, 1983, but she and her husband were still $1,500 short. They also did not have the $4,620 needed to regain ownership of their home. So the Smiths became renters in their own house.
In the spring, Jonathan Smith's diabetes flared up again, causing him to miss more work and pay. He withdrew his own retirement funds to catch up with their expenses but was suspended from his job with Metro because of his dependence on insulin, went on unemployment, obtained another job, then lost it when a routine physical revealed his illness.
In October 1985, with the Smiths behind in their rent, American Properties started eviction proceedings. Smith managed to come up with $1,000 of the $1,500 still owed and was told by Ginn, according to Smith's suit, "not to worry about the papers that were served." But the eviction went ahead on Jan. 24, 1986. On Feb. 14, the suit said, Foote and his family moved into the house.
A woman answering the phone and the door at the house said, "I don't know what's going on. I'm trying to find out. Foote never lived here." She then referred a reporter to a lawyer, Pamela Sheffield, who did not respond to questions.
The phone at the address is in the name of L. Foote. But Prince George's tax records still list Smith as the property owner. Records show taxes have been paid by the mortgage holder, A.E. Landvoigt Inc.
After he lost the house, Smith said, "I felt like I was going under. I wound up feeling like a complete failure, and went through the embarrassment of being evicted. It seemed like I'd just lost everything in life."
The Smiths moved in with Patrice's mother for a while before renting the town house they now occupy in Lanham, not far from their old house. He drives a truck for a food distribution company in Lanham. "There have been a lot of twists and turns," said Patrice Smith, now a kindergarten teacher.
Eason said his next step is to see that the county sheriff evicts the current tenants. He said he hopes the Smiths can be back home by Thanksgiving.
"I'm very happy about what's happened," Jonathan Smith said. "It's the best I've felt since I got my home. I hope things are all going uphill from now."