"CHURCH" SEIZES HUD HOMES Feds have trouble evicting con artist inmate's followers By Pat Flannery
A baby-faced con artist peddling religion and anti-government fervor from behind prison bars has prodded his flock to take over at least six federally owned houses in the Valley.
The Regency House Church, led by prison inmate Jason Corey Bullard, began claiming the houses this year, sending members into the homes under cover of a flurry of apparently bogus legal claims that have tied the federal government into knots.
"I believe that they belong to god, period," Bullard said of the houses. "When god moves a church to action, the church is not going to restrain itself."
In several cases, legitimate buyers were lined up by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development only to be left out in the cold as church members beat them through the door.
The church claims in court documents that the homes will be used "for the purpose of sharing the Word of god in these neighborhoods and the community as a whole."
Bullard, in a Friday telephone interview from prison, said church members will "watch the neighborhoods...be good citizens in the community."
But HUD officials are concerned not only because they can't sell the homes -- worth up to $110,000 -- but because the effort is being led by a felon whose followers are spouting anti-government dogma and ignoring a judge's orders.
Bullard and papers filed by church members in Superior Court espouse a philosophy similar to that of well-publicized Freemen groups in the western United States. Claiming not to recognize the authority of the curts or the federal government, they tout a loose mix of 200-year-old common law, early constitutional doctrine and fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
Rebecca Flanagan, HUD's deputy state coordinator, is convinced forceable evictions will be necessary to end the unusual face-off.
"We've tried to be reasonable with them," Flanagan said. "But we cannot sell these properties to anyone esle, because we do not have clear title."
HUD is now working with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office to determine how to get them out. It could be tough.
"I told them we're not going anywhere," church member Kelly Hollingshead told a reporter last month after a sheriff's deputy visited her at the house she and her three children share with her husband, Leslie, in the 600 block of West Sixth Avenue in Mesa.
At week's end, the homes were still ocupied by chruch members more than four months after they began filing legal documents claiming the properties.
"It's unbelievable," said "Dave" of Tempe, who asked that his real name not be used.
Dave was days from owning a HUD home -- a ranch-style house with pool and whirlpool in the 600 block of North Orlando in Mesa -- when Regency House took it over in February.
"I'm a first-time home buyer. I really thought I got lucky," he said. "It was my dream home."
Church members apparently thought so, too. They moved in a day or two before Dave sealed the deal.
"I bid on that house, and I won the bid. I was ready to close," Dave said. During a long weekend, while waiting to get a last bit of information to his title company, he offered to show the house to friend.
"A neighbor said someone had moved in," he said. "They had changed the locks."
Incredulous, Dave called a company managing the property for HUD. The company sent someone to change the locks back. A day later, Regency House swapped locks once more and moved in.
WHO'S MAKING THE MONEY?
It wasn't the first time HUD has had to deal with the problem.
In 1990, an Apache Junction man who ran his own church moved friends into vacant HUD homes for a fee, claiming god had given him the properties. He was later convicted of writing nearly $15,000 in bogus checks in an unrelated scam.
Authorities aren't sure who, if any one, is making money off the latest house grabbing. But Flanagan said that in one or two cases, those who have moved into a church-occupied house have been charged several thousand dollars.
This year, a man who tried to occupy a vacant Veterans Administation home in Mesa told authorities he had paid Regency House $6,000 for the right to move in. He surrendered the house and it was later sold by the governmeent, said Jerry Gessner, VA public affairs officer.
The question, Flanagan said, is: "Are these people victims, or are they a part of the scheme?"
Bullard calls hmself "reverend" and "president bishop" of a church about which little is known. He signs many of the documents members have filed as well as many of the church's court filings.
Bullard says Regency House is a Philadelphia-based church that has paid for the houses and many others in the country, and that they were selected by a national council of members. None of his claims could be verified, however, and Bullard would not identify other members who could back up his assertions.
At age 26, Bullard has already run afoul of the law in three states. He is now serving a 23-year Arizona prison sentence on a variety of theft and fraud charges. The Department of Corrections says he isn't eligible for release until June 2016.
When first arrested in Arizona for fraud and theft in 1992, Bullard was on probation in Montana for counterfeiting. While out on bail awaiting his first Arizona trial, he was arrested on a second series of fraud aad theft charges. Authorities later learned he had a Colorado fraud conviction as well.
"The defendant has demonstrated that he is not capable of remaining in society without attempting con and defrauding others," Maricopa County probation officer Angela Chavarriaga wrote in Bullard's presentence report.
Prison hasn't stopped Bullard form papering ther courts with pleadings in which he and supporters claim that the houses are divine gifts and that the courts are powerless to remove them.
Among those helping Bullard, whose names often appear in church documents filed in Maricopa County Superior Court and recorder's Office, are James W. Smithart, Larry Ray Ford and Rockney Willard Martineau. All have been spotted in or at church-occupied houses, although Ford and Martineau list an identical Kirkland address in some sourt documents.
Attempts to reach Smithart, Ford and Martineau were unsuccessful.
FILING BOGUS DEEDS
The process church members followed in taking over HUD houses was similar in each case. First, they found houses they liked by posing as interested HUD home buyers and asking unsuspecting real estate agents to show them around.
For houses they liked, church members recorded ownership deeds at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office. In them, Bullard claimed to be "motivated by and moved by the Spirit of god" to use the houses for his church. He deeded the houses to church "trustees" to oversee their care.
HUD says the deeds are bogus, Church members paid nothing for the homes -- at least not to HUD, which came to own the houses when previous occupants defaulted on government-insured mortgages.
Before HUD could resell them, church members moved in.
In one case, HUD caught church members as they tried to move into a home in the 4000 block of West Solano Drive South in Phoenix. Church members left without occupying the home.
"The trustees of the church have been assigned by me," Bullard wrote in one court pleading, "to protect and maintain the claimed properties of the church and to use them for the benefit of the church and its members to spread the word of Jesus Christ, our only savior who gave his life for us and every property and mineral this earth contains.
"The church, by and through me, has filed protective measures to ensure that these sacred properties cannot be disturbed by creditors or governments."
So far, the Superior Courts have rejected his arguments. In the three cases that have been heard in their entirety, the church's deeds have been tossed out. Judge Robert Budoff has ordered church members out. But nobody is moving.
In one case, church members indicated they would appeal, but they have failed to post a $9,000 bond required by the judge. In two other cases, the occupants have simply refused to leave, despite regular visits from the law.
Meanwhile, church members Ford and Martineau have filed separate self-authored federal lawsuits against Budoff, HUD attorney Gary Butler, HUD official Tom Frizzell and several members of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. They claim church members' due process rights are being violated.
The jockeying in court has let the houses in legal limbo, making them impossible to sell. For HUD, the legal fees and carrying costs of the homes continue to mount. It is also irritating some neighbors who are fearful of the church members and can't understand why they haven't been arrested and removed.
"The police say they (church members) own it, and the homeowners association says HUD owns it," a Superstition Springs resident who declined to be named said as she pointed to a HUD home occupied by the church.
One of the southeast Mesa's newer subdivisions, Superstition Springs has two church-claimed homes in the 7300 block of at East Navarro Avenue and 7500 block of East Monte Avene Only one appears to be fully occupied -- a two-story stucco model facing a public park, with a swimming pool and a view of the Superstition Mountains.
Subdivision residents are routinely answerable to a homeowners association that polices everything from front-yard obstructions to weeds in the lawn. Yet one resident says the homeowners association has been unwilling to take on Regency House directly. Superstition Springs' property management company suggested neighbors call police when they saw church members at the occupied homes.
The advice has been less than helpful. Mesa police have told residents there is little they can do until HUD legally clears up ownership.
Neighbors of nearly all the occupied properties say church members keep largely to themselves.
Often, the only notice of their activites has been when police or sheriff's vehicles have arrived to discuss eviction.
A neighbor of one of the homes witnessed a confrontation two weeks ago. The neighbor, who asked that her name not be used out of fear of reprisal, said a female church member told a low-enforcement officer parked outside her home, "I'm going into my house and locking my door and calling my attorney!"
Most of the occupied homes have a document in the window identifying them as church properties. Several have a "No Trespassing" sign, or a more direct admonition taped in large letters to front windows: "Please Leave Now."
Not all church members have been distant, however. Cindy Harris, who lives across the street from a home occupied by the Hollingsheads, said the church members have been good neighbors. Harris said HUD had a hard time evicting the previous tenants, and the Hollingsheads have taken better care of the place since moving in.
"They've been working on the yard -- trying to make it look nice," Harris said. "They've been really nice. Our kids play together."
In a brief interview at her home two weeks ago, Kelly Hollingshead said she learned of the church by "word of mouth."
She supports what it is trying to do.
Hollingshead said she has met Bullard and that church members correspond with him in prison.
"He's very spiritual -- very god-minded," she said. "He has the welfare of people on his mind. He's consciously aware of what governments are trying to do to the people."
Since his conviction, his prison dossier shows, Bullard has been written up for everything from illicit drug possession to lying to guards. He was suspected of taking part in the beating of another prisoner, and had contact visits temporarily suspended last year after alleged involvement in bringing contraband into the prison.
His 1995 request for a commuted sentence was rejected.
Nonetheless, prison officials say his disciplinary record is not significant and his security rating has continuously inproved.
A 1993 presentence report says that Bullard showed "what appears to be an insatiable need for money, power and control coupled with a compulsive type of behavior." As a result, the probation officer said Bullard had immersed himself in fraudulent activities."
Bullard said he's moved by a higher authority. "We do as we're directed by god," he said.