Late in 1962, Willie C. Wood, who was then serving in the Air Force in the Panama Canal Zone, got some disturbing news; a letter saying that his brother had borrowed $900 using Willie Wood's Alexandria home as collateral.
Ulysses Wood, who had a power of attorney to act on his brother's behalf, had not repaid the loan, and the house was sold to cover the debt, the letter said.
Willie Wood said he "was sick at the time and I got sicker. They had to carry me to the doctor." He said he and his family had planned to return to the small brick rowhouse at 414 N. Henry St. in Alexandria when he retired from the Air Force.
Ulysses Wood, who was then living in the house, said that in the summer of 1962 he was told that his brother Willie had not paid off a $900 debt against the home and was shown notices of impending foreclosure that appeared in the Alexandria Gazette.
They were bitterly angry at each other; the two brothers said, because each believed the other had lost the home, and they barely spoke to each other for 20 years. But finally, both men said, they reconciled their differences and learned that each thought the other had defaulted on a loan against the house.
This week an attorney for Willie Wood filed an $11 million damage suit in Alexandria Circuit Court against three men Wood said conspired "with one another to defraud and trick [Wood] out of his . . . real estate" at 414 N. Henry St., according to the complaint. The men named in the suit are James F. Feddon, E. Neil Rogers and A. Claiborne Leigh. Rogers and Feddon are residents of the Washington area and Leigh, a former Fairfax County supervisor, now lives in Richmond.
Rogers and Leigh "represented . . . themselves . . . as settlement attorneys on the transfer of this [Wood's] real estate to defendant, James F. Feddon," without Wood's knowledge, the complaint said. Willie Wood's name appeared on a deed dated Aug. 4, 1962, which transferred ownership from Wood to Feddon, with the signatures witnessed by Rogers, the court suit said.
At the time the allegedly fraudulent deed was signed Willie Wood was in the Canal Zone, and did not authorize anyone else to transfer the property, Wood claimed.
In the suit, Wood askes for $1 million in compensatory and $10 million in punitive damages.
In another suit filed last February, Willie Wood is seeking to recover the house from the current owners, a Prince George's County couple who bought it 14 years ago from a savings and loan association. In addition, Wood is asking in the suit for payment of $12,000 in damages plus $250 per month while the case is pending.
The Prince George's couple, Norman J. and Irma K. Gromen of Suitland, deny that their ownership is "unlawful," as the lawsuit claims.
"In 1969, I bought the property from Franklin Federal Savings and Loan. They had title to the property and passed it to me. I have title insurance. What more can I do?" said Gromen, who rents out the North Henry Street house and says he has other rental property.
The facts relating to Wood's complaint are not altogether clear, and the dispute is complicated by memories coulded by the passage of 20 years.
The Alexandria police are investigating the alleged forgery of the deed, and whether the real estate was obtained by fraud, according to Richard Mendelson, deputy commonwealth's attorney in Alexandria. Based on handwriting analysis made during the investigation, Mendelson said he believes that neither Willie Wood nor his brother, Ulysses Wood, signed the deed. He added that the investigation has not been closed and that he could not comment further.
When asked about the suit filed in February, Rogers said he does not remember the signing of the deed 20 years ago, but added that he would not have notarized the signature without identification from the signer. "I know damn well I asked for a driver's license and probably more identification," he said.
Rogers would not comment on the damage suit filed this week, saying he had not seen the court papers and did not "know anything about it." Feddon talked earlier with a reporter about the suit against the Gromens, and this week described the suit naming him, Rogers and Leigh as "a bunch of garbage." He said he knows of Rogers and Leigh only because an Alexandria police detective investigating the case mentioned them. "I don't remember ever talking to them [Rogers and Leigh] in my life," Feddon said.
Leigh could not be reached for comment about the suit against him. Leigh no longer is an attorney, having been disbarred in 1970 following his 1967 conviction on bribery conspiracy charges. He had been accused of receiving $5,500 payoff for a favorable vote on rezoning for a trailer park. His request for reinstatement of his Virginia law license was denied in December 1982, according to the Virginia Supreme Court clerk's office.
Willie Wood said in a recent telephone interview that in April 1962, before he left for his Canal Zone assignment more than 20 years ago, he paid off the last debt, using half a year's advance pay borrowed from the Air Force, adding that Ulysses Wood moved into the house before his brother left Alexandria, and agreed to take care of the property.
Willie Wood bought the house in 1950, according to Alexandria land records. Three days later, on April 3, he signed a first deed of trust for a $4,000 loan and a second trust for $4,000.
The first deed of trust was held by First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Alexandria. Payment records show that the final installment on the loan was paid off March 29, 1962.
However, a bank account statement appears to indicate an outstanding balance of $900 on the second trust. Ulysses Wood's wife, Gwendolyn, who provided a copy of the statement, said she does not know why the $900 was not marked paid.
Bernard M. Fagelson, a trustee on Willie Wood's second deed of trust, said he does not remember the document. He said he often served as a trustee on such documents in real estate transactions handled by his law firm, Bendheim, Fagelson, Bragg and Giammittorio. No lender is named in the deed of trust, which says that repayment of the loan is due "the bearer" of the note.
"I have no memory of this at all and the names don't mean anything to me," Fagleson said.
James Feddon said he has no memory of the events of Aug. 4, 1962, the date on a sales contract transferring ownership of the house at 414 N. Henry to Feddon and of the allegedly fraudulent deed passing the title to Feddon. The names of Feddon and Willie C. Wood appear on the sales cntract, which specifies that the purchase price of the house is $1,050. Ulysses Wood, who held a power of attorney from Willie Wood, said he signed his brother's name to the contract at Feddon's request.
Feddon said he was acting as a "straw" for Robert Alldridge in the purchase of the house. Alldridge has since died, Feddon said.
A "straw" buys property with money provided by a purchaser who wants to remain anonymous. In such cases the buyer and the straw have an agreement, usually in the form of a written contract, that the buyer who provides the money will have control of the property.
Feddon said he does not remember whether he had a written agreement with Alldridge. He said he terminated his arrangement with Alldridge and passed the title to John W. Truver in October 1963.
Gwendolyn Wood said Feddon presented her husband with a sales contract for the house. She said Feddon told her and her husband that they could "stay in the house for $45 a month and in one year the house would be redeeded." Feddon said that he collected monthly payments of $45, for which he signed receipts, but that they were rent payments for Alldridge. The receipts, in fact, describe the payments as rent.
Gwendolyn and Ulysses Wood remained in the house, paying $45 a month, until $900 was repaid by July 1964, according to Gwendolyn Wood. She aid no one came to collect payments of any kind during the two more years they remained at 414 N. Henry before moving moved to the District of Columbia in August 1966. "We don't know what happened" but they thought the ownership had been returned to Willie Woods, she said.
In his complaint Willie Wood says that when he returned to the United States in 1965 the defendants told him he had lost the house "as a result of a foreclosure sale which had resulted when Ulysses Wood . . . failed to pay $900 he had borrowed against" the property.
Gwendolyn Wood said that at that time her husband and his brother remained angry at one another and did not discuss what had happened to the house.
Alexandria land records show that on Aug. 23, 1962, Feddon borrowed $3,500 from Samuel Bernstein, using the 414 N. Henry St. house to secure the loan. He signed another deed of trust on Nov. 20, 1962, using the house to secure a $6,000 loan from County Federal Savings and Loan Association.
Since 1962, the house has changed hands several times, according to the land records. John W. Truver bought the house from Feddon on Oct. 8, 1963, according to Alexandria land records. A year later, Truver sold it to Mary Phillips, the records show.Phillips defaulted on a $7,500 loan from Franklin Federal Savings and Loan Association in May 1968 and the S&L foreclosed, according to the records. The deed passing the title on to the Gromens was signed June 5, 1969.
Norman Gromen said he has known James Feddon "for a long time," but that "when I bought this property I had no knowledge that Wood or Feddon was involved."
Rogers said that the Mary Phillips who defaulted on the loan had since died. A Mary Phillips who worked for a title insurance company died in 1970, according to personnel records of the firm. Truver, who said he is now employed by Land Title Corp. in the District, said in a telephone interview that he was a "straw" for a client of the title company he worked for at the time he held the property. "It was in and out of my name, and I've forgotten all about it. I didn't receive a dime" when buying property as a "straw," he said.