It was the dream house designed and built by a prominent commercial real estate broker and his wife in 2005, two years after the pair married. When he died early last year, his widow hired a real estate agent, put her abode on the market and moved.
The phone calls from worried neighbors began in June: There was a chain locked across her driveway entrance. Warnings against trespassers appeared along the property perimeter. A group was spotted unloading furniture and other items from a moving truck.
The homeowner soon discovered that her locks had been changed — and that she’s being accused of fraud and sued for property ownership. The Baltimore Sun is not identifying the homeowner, who asked that her name be withheld for safety reasons.
A group of at least five self-proclaimed sovereign citizens overran the mansion last month, attempting what one squatter described as a “sovereign acquisition,” according to Baltimore County police reports.
Self-proclaimed sovereign citizens reject courts, the law and law enforcement as illegitimate, often renouncing themselves as U.S. citizens and relying on their interpretation of the law to claim that courts are powerless over them.
The FBI classifies some sovereign citizen “extremists” as domestic terrorists. Earlier this month in Massachusetts, a group of 11 sovereign citizens armed with illegal firearms and dressed in fatigues engaged in a nine-hour standoff with police during a traffic stop, partially closing Interstate 95.
They often bog down courts with fraudulent filings — which some dub “paper terrorism” — resist paying taxes and traffic fines, and attempt to move into unoccupied houses they do not own, claiming rights to the property.
“Not only is prosecuting difficult, there are just not enough laws in place that will prevent sovereign citizen activities,” said Rachel Goldwasser, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a national group that monitors extremists.
Under Maryland law, trespassers can obtain legal title to a property by occupying it for 20 years, even without permission, through a process called “adverse possession.”
One of the squatters, Tessa Mona Modiri (who calls herself a “noncitizen national”), filed a complaint in early June alleging the homeowner and her mortgage company are fraudulently using a third-party real estate agency to short-sell the property. A short sale, which is legal under a process specified in state law, is when a bank allows an owner to sell a residence for less than the person owes on the home’s mortgage.
The homeowner denies the allegations.
Modiri filed a similar civil complaint June 14 attempting to take ownership of a foreclosed commercial property in Harford County, according to court records.
In her complaint in Baltimore County, Modiri asserts the property belongs to her because she gained access to the home through a broken back door, concluding it “was clearly abandoned.”
Court records list a Bel Air address for Modiri that is shared with Renu Medspa and offers Botox, chemical peels and other cosmetic services. Its website describes Modiri as a Bel Air dentist.
A Tessa M. Modiri of Bel Air has an active dentist’s license with the Maryland State Board of Dental Examiners.
Modiri did not return a message sent to a number associated with her business, and efforts to reach her at a workplace address were unsuccessful. The other occupants of the home also could not be reached.
Police reports detail how the group, which included an infant, attempted to acquire the property: One allegedly posed as a buyer’s agent, for instance, to hire a home inspector, police wrote. They also hired a contractor to install new security cameras.
“They’re pros at this,” the homeowner said.
Last month, police tried to remove the squatters by demanding they come outside, but they refused. The county deployed a helicopter at least once and several police units, including armored vehicles, in unsuccessful attempts to reach them June 16, according to police reports.
Officers were able to secure a search warrant for the home only after identifying one of the squatters, Michael Lawrence Warren, as a felon with “an extensive criminal record” during a June 23 traffic stop as he left the property, according to a police report.
Other squatters who were stopped by police for violating traffic laws when they left the home were uncooperative, threatening civil action against the officer who pulled them over and refusing to identify themselves, according to police reports.
Warren — who has been convicted in various states for impersonating a lawyer and committing multiple sex offenses, according to court records — was arrested after police recovered a loaded handgun and ammunition believed to belong to him from a safe in the home, according to police reports.
He is being held without bail in the Baltimore County Detention Center and is charged with multiple counts of burglary and illegally possessing a firearm and ammunition.
Online court records show police arrested Modiri on Wednesday and that she has been indicted on burglary charges. She was detained pending a bail review hearing.
Police have charged three other squatters — Ayyannaabe Cox, Cesar Tellez Zuniga and Kia Dyer — with third-degree burglary but have been unable to make arrests, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said.
It is unclear where they are now, but they no longer appear to reside in the mansion, according to the homeowner.
Similar incidents have occurred across the United States.
In 2013, a Prince George’s County man illegally occupied a mansion in Bethesda, basing his ownership claims on a 1787 treaty between the United States and Morocco that some sovereign nationals say exempts them from American laws.
He was convicted of burglary, attempted theft and identity fraud.
In June, four self-proclaimed sovereign nationals were arrested at a New Jersey home. A man in that case faces charges that include burglary and trespassing, as well as “terroristic threats.”
And a Tennessee family tangled with a self-identified sovereign citizen after it bought property once belonging to the man’s mother.
He filed a judgment against the property claiming the sale was improper.
“I wouldn’t say cases are often successful, but they do exist,” said the SPLC’s Goldwasser. “Trying to fight that is so difficult,” she said, in part because the sovereign citizens often purposely protract litigation to stall efforts to remove them.
Such legal claims are attached to property titles and could affect property owners negatively when they attempt to sell, Goldwasser wrote in a 2017 article for the Intelligence Report, the SPLC magazine.
Even if the Baltimore County squatters are convicted of the burglary and other charges — which include malicious destruction of property for changing the locks — that will not necessarily void Modiri’s civil suit, Shellenberger said.
“One does not preclude the other in either direction,” he said of decisions in criminal and civil cases.
The homeowner filed a wrongful-detainer action in June against Modiri and other home occupants to have them evicted from the home, and court records show her attorney also filed a motion to dismiss the case against the homeowner.
“It’s difficult to get them to come to court, and then when they are there, they don’t recognize the power of the court to do anything,” Shellenberger said.
“I think it’s going to take a while to unwind all of this,” he added.
— Baltimore Sun