[ predicaments ]
Gerald Sterrett is a man guided by a deep faith — a faith which, he says, he sorely misplaced in Dwayne Stewart.
Sterrett, known around the neighborhood as "Mr. Gerry," describes himself as an evangelical Christian, and is the founder and director of The Second Mile Center, a nonprofit and thrift store in West Philadelphia (unrelated to the nonprofit founded by accused child molester Jerry Sandusky) whose purpose is to give meaningful employment and spiritual development to the barely employable: ex-cons, people with histories of drug use, alcohol abuse and "every crime that's ever been committed," as he puts it. The idea is to give desperate people a second chance at life.
And that's what he says he thought he was doing when he began a friendship with Stewart, a well-dressed African-American man, who responded to an ad Sterrett's daughter had placed on Craigslist to rent her house, located just few blocks away on the 4900 block of Chestnut Street.
When Sterrett first met Stewart at the house, Sterrett recalls, "He portrayed himself as one of us. He started talking church talk, Bible talk ... a picture of himself that I really bought into."
Stewart confided in Sterrett about his troubled past (although he would learn only later that Stewart was a convicted sex offender), and Sterrett saw Stewart as a man trying to change his life for the better — like the people who work at his thrift store. Sterrett agreed to help Stewart try to negotiate a lease-to-own arrangement with his daughter and her husband, Heidi and Dave Conner, who had moved to Chicago and had been trying hard to sell their old house before resorting to renting.
One day, while Stewart and the Conners were still negotiating a possible lease arrangement, Stewart asked Sterrett to borrow the keys — just, as Sterrett tells it, to show his future home to his mother. But — according to Sterrett and his family — Dwayne Stewart instead simply moved himself in at lightning speed, changed the locks and installed security cameras around the perimeter.
Now, almost a year later, they still can't get him out.
Stewart did respond by phone to a letter left by City Paper on the front door of the Chestnut Street house, but asked that I not quote him until we had a chance to meet. He said, in essence, that Sterrett's and the Conners' story was untrue, and that he would prove that with documentation when we met. After several more phone calls, however, Stewart declined to meet with or speak to CP, or to provide any of the documentation he had alluded to. Instead, in our last conversation, he threatened to sue City Paper for defamation of character, and did not return subsequent requests to talk.
The Conners and Sterrett did provide documentation, including various emails, that support their claim that Stewart has effectively taken over their house.
And they don't know how to get rid of him: The family tried to shut off the gas, but Stewart called the utility company and got it put back on. They've sent him notice to leave. They've talked to lawyers, and the options range from bad to awful: Because they assert he's not an actual tenant, they can't take him to landlord/tenant court. Because he hasn't changed the deed to his name — as is common in some house theft cases — they can't file to "quiet title," the motion used by victims of deed theft. And because they live in another city, because they're underwater on the mortgage, and because they simply don't have the means to pay the thousands in attorney fees they've been told it would take, they've been advised "basically just [to] walk away; let him have it. It's not worth it," says Heidi Conner.
At one point, Sterrett's son Mike went to the house to get Stewart to leave. According to Sterrett and other family members, Stewart pulled up in his car, punched Mike, threatened to get his gun, and pursued Mike by car in a high-speed chase that ended in front of a police cruiser. Mike Sterrett filed an assault complaint with the police, but, says Gerald, "They said there are no witnesses."
When I asked Sterrett if he'd told his employees at The Second Mile — many of whom are, after all, former criminals — Sterrett laughed. "I've had gobs of offers" to have Stewart removed by extra-legal means, he said. "They said, 'Leave it to us, we'll have him out.' Of course, we would've all been in prison."
Eventually, Sterrett went to the last refuge of those seeking justice: the Philadelphia District Attorney, whose Economic Crimes Unit is charged with prosecuting white-collar crime, consumer fraud and other scams — including various kinds of house theft, which, as we reported last year [Cover Story, "Grand Theft Rowhome," Oct. 7, 2010], runs rampant in Philadelphia.
But after several visits to the District Attorney and after doing what they asked — sending a certified notice to leave, obtaining legal authority to represent his daughter and son-in-law in matters relating to the house — Sterrett was informed in a letter from Assistant District Attorney Michelle Comia-Wolfe that his case "lacks prosecutorial merit," and was being rejected for reasons of "judicial economy," "prosecutorial discretion" and because a "civil remedy" existed. In other words, Sterrett and the Conners would have to pursue the case on their own, in civil court.
Regarding Sterrett's case, District Attorney's office spokesperson Tasha Jamerson wrote in an email that this was not a situation of a squatter but rather "a real estate deal that didn't work out." She noted that Sterrett should send Stewart a 10-day notice to vacate, at which point the DA "will consider approving a private criminal complaint for trespass." Sterrett has already done that, of course, to no avail.
To be fair, the case of Sterrett and the Conners isn't as cut-and-dry as the DA might like, especially in a time of shrinking budgets. They did, after all, hand Stewart a key.
Still, Stewart — as Sterrett himself explained to the District Attorney's office in a long letter — has a history that bears looking into. Stewart has been sued over a dozen times in Philadelphia alone. In 2010, he was sued for alleged deed theft of a property on the 900 block of West Huntingdon Street and sued again by one Delia Boykin, a woman claiming Stewart had tried to rent the same place to her and bilked her out of her $800 security deposit. A remarkably similar claim was made the same year by one Nicholas Jacquez, who also sued Stewart in landlord/tenant court, claiming the latter had stolen a $2,250 security deposit for the lease of another property. Another lawsuit, filed by Bucks County couple John and Robyn Catagnus, alleged Stewart had bilked them out of more than $40,000 when, they say, he failed to deliver on a construction project. In March, Stewart was charged criminally in Northumberland County for forging a $14,000 check to his own construction company. According to court records, that case is still open.
Even stranger, Stewart came to the attention of West Philadelphia residents when he spoke at a public meeting this past April about his intention to purchase and renovate the long-vacant Croydon building, then up for sheriff's sale. According to various accounts, among Stewart's claims was that he ran a nonprofit, "Regeneration 360 Foundation," the brochure language for which, one visitor discovered, had been copied from an AIDS organization in New York. Records do not indicate that any such nonprofit exists.
As many dots as there appear to be, no one in city law enforcement seems interested so far in trying to connect them.