Feature: Wednesday, June27, 2002
Unreal Estate Transactions

Robert Allen never sold his house. But Tony ’The Bondman’ Smith’s name is on the deed.\r\n

By Betty Brink

Motorists dodging the potholes on Miller Avenue on Fort Worth’s far east side would probably never notice the nondescript bungalow at 1621. The little box of a house with its light hiding behind foil-covered windows and slightly off-kilter porch sagging into an unkempt yard is just one of many such forlorn places in a neighborhood where poverty hangs in the air like heavy fog.

But to 50-year-old Robert Earl Allen, the house is his castle. It’s the only home he has ever owned. And the knowledge that he can still sleep under its roof is even sweeter for him today given the fact that he came whisker-close to losing it to one of the “We Buy Ugly Houses” operators, many of whom cause headaches for tax collectors and housing inspectors as well as poor homeowners.

Allen had owned his house free and clear since 1993. He spent the five years after that in prison and a halfway house for drug convictions and turned his house over to his then-19-year-old son for safekeeping. But when Allen went home in the summer of 1999 and walked up on his porch, he found eight people he’d never seen before squeezed into the two-bedroom, one-bath house.

His son, who had been in and out of the county jail while Allen was in federal prison, had moved out. The home was now owned, one of the strangers said, by Tony Smith, a.k.a. The Bondman. Smith had been renting the Miller Avenue house to the eight people at 50 bucks per person per week since 1996.

Allen immediately went to the Tarrant County courthouse to pull up his deed. Instead, he found a notarized warranty deed on file, signed by Robert Earl Allen, that showed Allen had sold the house to one of Smith’s companies, Great Lands of Texas, on Sept. 7, 1996.

The signature, however, didn’t match Allen’s handwriting — for good reason. Allen had been locked away in federal prison in Seagoville on the day the sale document was allegedly signed by his hand and witnessed by a notary 50 miles away in Fort Worth.

Allen first called the Fort Worth police, he said, who confirmed he had been in federal prison at the time the sale papers were signed and ordered the unwanted tenants out. Allen moved back in. But when Smith tried to evict him anyway, a justice of the peace took one look at the deed and told Allen to get a lawyer. He got two: Gerald Staton and Candice Taylor, who filed a lawsuit against Smith last month.

“It is an obvious forgery,” Staton said of the transaction, “and the filing of a forged deed constitutes a felony criminal offense. This guy’s troubles may be just beginning.” Smith, in a brief telephone conversation, declined to comment on the signature on Allen’s deed, his bondsman status, or other matters.

Allen may not be Smith’s only headache. Fort Worth Weekly recently found another house with a questionable deed history, also claimed by one of Smith’s companies. It’s been carried on the Tarrant tax rolls as belonging to Smith’s Great Lands of Texas since 1998, even though Millie Owens, 67, now of Tennessee, said she still holds the deed to the little house at 3057 Lulu Street in Diamond Oaks that she and her late husband, Jim, bought in 1972. “I’m still getting tax notices,” Owens said. “And I never sold it to nobody, at least not with my knowledge.” Owens, who grew up in a big family in Tennessee and quit school at an early age to help rear her siblings, cannot read and does not write, she said, except for being able to sign her name.

Smith may be one of the more artful dodgers in this shadowy industry whose growth can be measured by the plethora of “I Buy Old Houses” signs around town. Such real estate dealers buy up properties in long-depressed neighborhoods, often turning them into cheap rental units or selling them under contracts for deed. But none of the operators here seems to have pushed the legal envelope as far as Smith, who does business under a tangle of company names. One thing is certain: Tony Smith is no stranger to running a scam. He has a felony conviction to prove it.

“What’s old Tony done now?”

That question became a common refrain in interviews with people whose paths have crossed the twisting ones of Tony Smith over the years.

Longtime Fort Worth lawyer Joe J. Johnson, the only attorney member of the local professional bail bond association, has rented office space to Smith off and on for several years in his building on Belknap Street, across from the Tarrant County courthouse. He was the first to ask the question.

“He’s got some history,” Johnson said, referring to Smith’s long years of effort to get a bail bond license and to his criminal record.

“He seems to succeed” in the business of buying and selling houses, the lawyer said. And while Smith “tries to avoid any expense he can,” such as not paying property taxes, Johnson said that he pays his rent on time. Johnson is aware that Smith does few repairs on his rent properties and sells houses on contracts for deed, that much-abused instrument by which buyers gain no equity until the last payment is made. “He’s just out to make a buck,” he said.

And even though the bail bond board ordered the unlicensed Smith not to advertise as a bondsman in Tarrant County, Johnson said, his ad for Bondman Bail Bonds still appears in this year’s Southwestern Bell yellow pages. “He’s a wizard at advertising,” the lawyer said.

Too much of a wizard for Sherry Rogers, bondswoman and bail bond board member in Wise County, where Smith was denied a license several years ago. “He came to [bail bond board] meetings driving up in his van with ‘Bondman’ written on it, and that’s illegal since he can’t advertise if he doesn’t have a license.”

The Texas Legislature in its last session increased the penalties for advertising as a bondsman without a license, raising it from a Class C misdemeanor to a Class B misdemeanor, carrying six months in jail and a $2,000 fine, said Assistant D.A. David Hudson, advisor to the Tarrant County Bail Bond Board.

“We are very much aware of Tony Smith,” Hudson said. Unlike a Class B misdemeanor, which is handled through a justice of the peace or municipal court, this kind of violation will now be prosecuted through the DA’s office, he said. “We [the district attorney’s office] are in the process of re-evaluating cases like Smith’s,” he said, but declined to say whether Smith was under active investigation. “He’s never been licensed in Tarrant County,” Hudson said, “even though he’s tried many times.” And because Smith cannot legally post bonds, Hudson said, his advertising gets him clients whom he sends to other bondsmen. “He acts as a broker, a bond middleman, taking a cut of the fees and driving the fees up,” which is also illegal, Hudson said. That is the reason former bondsman Eldon Williams lost his license, bail bond records show: He split fees with Tony Smith.

Smith’s search for a bail bond license started in July 1974 when, at age 26, he first applied with Tarrant County Sheriff Lon Evans. Smith presented a letter of recommendation from a prominent judge, a friend of his now-deceased parents, Fort Worth physician Charles A. Smith and Margaret Wallace.

“I ... have known this young man and his family for over twenty years and have always found them to be of high moral character. I do believe [Tony] would comport himself in such a manner as not to affect adversely the practice of making bail bonds,” District Judge Charles J. Murray wrote that year.

There is no further reference in Tarrant County bail bond records to Smith’s application that year. There wouldn’t have been much time for him to write bonds in any event, at least not as a person “of high moral character.” Later that year, Smith was convicted in a federal district court on three counts of insurance fraud for “misrepresenting insurance policies,” he stated on his bail board application in August 1996. Johnson and his law partner Ernest Rothfelder, who are familiar with the case, said Smith was selling extended auto warranties. Not only were the policies suspect, but Smith hadn’t bothered to get a license to sell insurance, the attorneys said. By 1984, he was out of prison, on probation, and back in Fort Worth, where he was arrested on a probation revocation. Records don’t show how much time he spent in jail for that offense, but in 1986 he applied for an assumed-name certificate for a business to be known as Tarrant County Landlord Association, a company that has long since disappeared but seems to have been Smith’s first foray into the landlord business.

Today he owns at least 30 pieces of property under seven different company or individual names. Their combined appraised value, as shown in Tarrant County tax records, totals $695,000, averaging around $23,000 each. Most are in low-income or severely depressed areas.

In 1997, when he again sought to become a Tarrant County bondsman, Smith listed a net worth of $754,000. He had 22 houses under contracts for deed, worth a total of $417,000; monthly payments to Smith totaled $3,114. Rental income from another eight properties that year, including Robert Allen’s house on Miller, came to $2,850 a month.

Paying taxes, however, hasn’t been as high on Smith’s list as acquiring property. Current tax records show that he owes back taxes totaling $119,496, including penalties and interest, on 25 of his 30 properties, dating back to 1993.

While most of his wheeling and dealing seems to have been done in houses and insurance, he apparently still aspires to be a bondsman. A call to the telephone number listed on Smith’s “I Buy Old Houses” signs is answered with the words, “bond office.”

Smith, who colleagues say likes to be called “The Bondman,” runs his many enterprises from the Belknap Street offices of Bondman Bail Bonds — so-called even though he’s not a licensed bondsman here, hard as he’s tried to become one in the last five years.

In 2000, he was listed by Camille Hodnett of Bail Bonds by Camille as a partner on her application for a license renewal. Hodnett soon broke off the association, she told attorney Staton, but she didn’t return Fort Worth Weekly’s calls.

Earlier, Smith had worked for former bondsman Eldon Williams, who, according to bail bond board records, lost his 18-year license a few years ago. Williams found Smith “honest and above-board,” he said. He said that Smith does hold a bond license in Hood County and works for a bondsman in Johnson County, so answering his phone with the words, “bond office,” and taking calls from those who need a bondsman isn’t really illegal.

Officials with the Hood and Johnson County sheriff’s departments, however, said that Smith is not licensed in either county.

In Tarrant County, the bail bond board rejected Smith’s applications for an agent’s license on three separate occasions in 1997 because of that three-count federal conviction in 1975 and a felony DWI in 1994, both no-nos under bail bond rules. His rap sheet since that conviction may also have given the bond board pause.

County records show that between 1975 and 1993 he was convicted and sentenced three times for DWIs: to 90 days in jail in 1989, 180 days in 1993, and one year in 1994. Two charges of driving without a license were quashed. City code violations on his houses have been numerous, from accumulations of trash on empty lots to maintaining substandard structures.

During a short telephone interview from his office, the 54-year-old Smith refused to answer questions from the Weekly about his real estate businesses, his past criminal record, or his advertising as a bondsman in Tarrant County without a license. “There’s a criminal investigation going on,” he said, “and I can’t talk.” When asked if he was being investigated, he said, “It’s Mr. Allen and his wife [Emma Lee Allen, who is separated from Allen.] It’ll all come out in court.

“Let me tell you something, this is none of your business. Man, I can’t understand why you’re interested in this,” he growled. He abruptly hung up when asked to respond to the charge that Robert Earl Allen’s name had been forged on the deed Smith held on Allen’s house. Subsequent phone calls were not answered.

In 1997, Millie Owens’ life fell apart. Her husband Jim had died the year before, a son was killed that year, and now another son was in jail. About all she had left was the house on Lulu Street where she and Jim had raised three children. It was paid for. But when the electric company turned off her lights for nonpayment of bills that summer, Owens, living on a small retirement check and unable to work anymore because of a crippling disability in one arm, finally gave up and moved in with a daughter.

That still wasn’t the end of her troubles. Her son Jay, on probation for DWI and theft, had been picked up and sent back to jail for carrying a prohibited weapon. His wife was pregnant, and Millie promised she’d try to help him get out on bond by the time the baby was born.

Jay Owen said his bondsman, Eldon Williams, employed Tony Smith during that time. In 1997, Jay was able to get out of jail — on bond — long enough to see his child born. “I went down to the bond office about a week before the baby was born,” Millie Owens said in a recent interview, “and signed some papers. I don’t know what they were, I can’t read, and can barely write my name. I just signed where they told me to. They didn’t tell me what they was.” Owens’ daughter, who lives in Venus, said that the bond was for about $1,500.

When her daughter-in-law went into labor, Millie Owens said, “I got Jay and took him to the hospital. He held his baby in his arms for just a while, and then I took him right back to the jail. We never did nothing we didn’t promise them. Jay served out his time.” (Records show that Jay Owens served time in the county jail here before being sentenced in April 1998 to four years in a state prison on a probation revocation; he served 15 months.)

The next thing she knew, she said, her neighbors on Lulu were calling. “Somebody had moved my stuff out to the curb. I never got an eviction notice or nothing. And there was a ‘for rent’ sign put up on the house.” It listed Great Lands of Texas as the company to call.

Owens lost all her possessions. “By the time I got to them, most of my stuff was stolen.”

She didn’t know what to do. Poor, broken in spirit, her kids unable to help with legal fees, she moved back to Tennessee, where she had grown up and where there was “family,” she said.

But then, she said, “I was getting tax bills.” Owens had been paying $100 a month on her taxes after she became eligible for Social Security. She quit paying after she lost her house. “I thought maybe the tax people took it. I never did know who did it.” She still has the deed, she said. And if she signed over her house as collateral in the bondsman’s office in 1997, she said no one told her that was what she was signing. But even if she did, she said, “Why did they take it? My son didn’t jump bond. He went to jail. The bondsman didn’t lose any money, but I lost my house.”

The “tax people” didn’t take it. “It was a homestead,” said Elizabeth Parmer, attorney for the Perdue law firm that collects Fort Worth’s back taxes, “and we don’t take homesteads. We would have put a lien against it, but we would have let Mrs. Owens stay in her home. But that didn’t even happen.”

Tax records show that the house has been owned by Tony Smith’s Great Lands of Texas since 1998. Smith never paid the taxes that were past due in 1998, and he’s behind on the taxes levied since then. The total due is $5,881.

Williams said that he didn’t remember Jay or Millie Owens or the case and has no idea how the house wound up in Smith’s possession. He said he doesn’t remember taking it as collateral for a bond.

Deed records, however, filed in Tarrant County and dated Sept. 23, 1997 — about a week before Jay Owens’ daughter was born — show that Millie Owens transferred the house on Lulu to Eldon Williams for cash. Her notarized signature is affixed next to an “x” on the sale document.

The house didn’t stay in Williams’ possession long. On Feb. 2, 1998, he sold it to Great Lands of Texas, again for cash. Strangely enough, Williams never filed the first transaction at the courthouse. Both instruments were filed on the same day — Feb. 12, 2002 — by Tony Smith.

When shown a copy of the deed, Owens, who was in Fort Worth recently, acknowledged that the signature on the deed is hers. But, she said, she never signed any paper that she understood would be an agreement to sell her house. “I couldn’t read the papers and no one told me anything but to sign so I could get Jay out of jail.” She now thinks that she, too, should get a lawyer. She needs to hurry. Smith has a “for sale” sign on the house now, giving his Bondman office as the number to call.

Not all operators in the old-house-buying business use unscrupulous methods to obtain property. Most operate within the law. One thing many of them have in common, however, is a tendency to overlook paying property taxes — or pay just enough to keep the tax collector at bay.

It’s hard to tell just how much tax money some of these individuals actually owe, Elizabeth Parmer said, because they operate under multiple aliases and “doing-business-as” names; they file deeds without doing title searches, sell properties back and forth between associates, or file for bankruptcy just as the tax collector is set to sell the property on the courthouse steps. “They are very familiar with the system,” Parmer said. “Bankruptcy stops the foreclosure sale, and with most of them operating under so many different names, it makes it difficult and time-consuming for us to ever find all the trails” that lead back to one individual.

Tarrant County tax collector records show that the three largest property owners of this genre, including Tony Smith, owe the city, county, and school district a grand total of $785,319 in back taxes, penalties, interest, and legal fees that date back to 1993.

Sitting in the Jennings Avenue office of his attorneys, Robert Earl Allen is dressed in clean but unpressed jeans and a black t-shirt; a baseball cap sits atop an unruly mop of black hair. Soft brown eyes stare out from a dark, deeply lined, leathery face, making him seem older than his 50 years.

Allen, who grew up in Yazoo, Miss., and came to Texas 18 years ago to work as a mechanic on mobile homes, is no saint. He spent four years in the federal pen in Seagoville from January 1994 to May 1998 for buying and selling drugs. From there, he spent nearly a year in a halfway house. Today, however, he is anything but a threat to society. His walk is slow and stiff; his right arm is immobile, and his right hand is frozen into a semi-fist; his speech is slurred and halting, all the results of a stroke he suffered while undergoing open-heart surgery within months of his release from federal custody. His only income is a disability check of $543 a month.

He is separated from his wife Emma, but she lives across the street on Miller and “helps take care of me,” he said.

Laboring over his words, he tries to explain to a reporter what the house at 1621 Miller had meant to him while in prison. It was paid for, he said, and it had been his security. “I ... I ... knew ... it ... it was ... it was waiting for me,” he said, his voice cracking.

He had bought it for $10,000 and paid it off in August 1993. But then he went to prison and left it in the charge of his 19-year-old son, Robert Allen, Jr. But Robert Jr., a drug user, was picked up for burglary while Allen was away. He would have needed a bondsman. Robert Sr. doesn’t know whether the bondsman was Tony Smith or someone Smith was working with. He does know that Smith could not have legally bonded his son out. Robert Jr. is in a state drug treatment facility in South Texas and not allowed to have visitors. But he has sworn to his father, Allen said, that he isn’t the one who forged Allen’s name to the deed.

Would his son have been desperate enough to sign over the deed to Smith or one of Smith’s cohorts in order to get out of jail and then lie to Allen?

“No, no,” he said. “I know my son on dope ... but he ... he wouldn’t ... hurt me.”

Gerald Staton said that even if Robert Jr. had been the one to sign the deed, it was up to the buyer, Smith, to make sure he was dealing with the real owner. “Smith would have known it wasn’t the boy’s house. He would have been in his teens when the house was bought sometime before 1993.” The bottom line is, Staton said, “There was no way for Robert Sr. to have signed the deed. It isn’t his signature. That’s all that matters.”

Staton will ask the court to void the deed and order Smith to pay Allen damages, which should include the profits Smith made from the rent revenues. That money alone could be as much as $62,000, since Smith never put any money into upkeep nor paid any property taxes in the three years he collected rent on the house.

In the meantime, Allen is trying to pay off the back taxes of $5,000, which he knows is his responsibility, he said. His son, he said, failed to make sure the taxes were paid while Allen was in prison.

It would be good, Allen said, if he could get some money. But, he said, “I thought ... I thought I was ... in ... another world” when he lost his house. “All I want ... is to ... know it’s mine again. I know my brain’s ... a little ... gone. But man ... I ... I know that’s what I want.”

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