For more than a decade, Ray Cortez had no idea he was living in a house he no longer owned. The 87-year-old former taxi driver bought the salmon-colored townhouse on St. Marks Place in Brooklyn with his first wife, Edelmira, in 1969, shortly after emigrating to the United States from Peru. The couple paid roughly $20,000 at the time, and Cortez spent the next 30 years paying off the mortgage, even after Edelmira died in 1975.
Today, the house where Cortez lives alone, surrounded by the paintings and drawings he began producing in his retirement, is worth upwards of $2 million.
But he's now facing eviction after learning the home is no longer his, and he’s in a protracted fight over what he and his attorneys say is a case of deed theft, allegedly perpetrated in the early 2000s by a convicted felon named Wilson Calle – a man Cortez met through his church and said he thought was a friend – and a lawyer who was later disbarred for stealing from her clients.
“I never imagined they would have done a thing like that, never,” said Cortez, who’s been diagnosed with early onset dementia. “Even now, I don’t feel good because of all this.”
In court documents, Calle has denied the allegations.
Now, the block association on this tree-lined street in an area where Boerum Hill and Park Slope meet is fighting to help him stay in his home, where he’s lived for the last 53 years.
“He has a lot of love and support right here in the neighborhood,” said Melanie Holcomb, who’s lived a few doors up from Cortez for the past dozen years.
“If you live on this block, there’s really no way you can not know Mr. Cortez. He’s one of the regulars on the stoop and always ready to greet you with a smile and a hello,” she said.
Holcomb believes Cortez is a victim of fraud "that preys on seniors and preys on good-hearted people who think the best of others." Since she and other residents learned of his predicament at a local community meeting in March, they've collected roughly 150 signatures from people around the neighborhood, urging local lawmakers to intervene and investigate.
“I hate the idea of someone who has lived in their home as long as he has being pushed out of their home,” Holcomb said. “It feels horribly unfair and inhuman.”
Cases of deed theft, in which the title to someone’s home is taken without their knowledge or approval, have declined in New York City in recent years, according to city officials. Last year, 154 complaints were filed with the Department of Finance, compared to 665 in 2015. But at the time Cortez said he was duped into giving up ownership of his home – shortly before the financial crisis of 2008 – fraud was a persistent feature of the city’s housing market, and cases of deed theft were relatively common.
A family home, a case of alleged fraud
Cortez left Peru at the age of 19 and followed his younger brother to New York City in the mid-1950s. The house on St. Marks Place became the family home. He and Edelmira, who’d also emigrated from Peru, brought up a son there – Ray Cortez Jr. – in the 1960s and 70s. After Edelmira’s death, Cortez and his second wife, Maritiza, had two daughters. Cortez worked a string of jobs – dock worker, shipping clerk, office painter – before landing behind the wheel of a taxi.
During those years, the house was teeming with children and the hubbub of daily life. The family occupied one floor while the others were let out to tenants with kids of their own.
One of Ray Jr.’s fondest memories of growing up was having dinner with his parents and listening to their conversations in Spanish, discussing their day at work.
“My mother loved to listen to music and so did my father,” he said. “There was always music on in the house.”
Today, the upper apartments of the three-story townhouse are largely empty – a half-finished home improvement project that Cortez, who also worked for years as a carpenter, was never able to finish.
In the late 1990s, the plan had been to renovate the additional units, which were badly in need of repair, to bring in more income after Cortez retired. But with no job, Cortez said he didn’t think any banks would be willing to lend him the cash he needed.
That’s when Cortez said he met Calle, who was associated with a Queens-based religious organization called Maná Ministries International that, according to Cortez, purported to help homeowners obtain loans. Cortez said a friend from his church made the introduction.
What happened next is unclear. Because of his dementia, Cortez has a hard time relating the facts. But Ray Jr., now in his late 50s, has been highly involved in helping his father save the home.
Ray Jr. alleges that Calle took his father to several lenders between 2000 and 2004. According to Ray Jr., Calle had his father sign documents during those visits. Cortez said he was later told his loan requests were denied.
But property records show otherwise.
“You can see the churning that starts to go on with mortgages and Mr. Cortez’s property,” said Bill Lienhard, one of Cortez’s attorneys.
During those years, loans ranging from $58,000 to $350,000 were taken out against the house on St. Marks Place in Cortez’s name and paid back, records show.
“You’ll see that they take out a mortgage and then pay it off, and take out a mortgage and pay it off,” Lienhard said. "Something fishy was going on.”
Cortez claims he was unaware of those transactions at the time. But in 2006, he said he signed over the deed of his house to Calle, believing that Calle would transfer the property back to him after Calle helped him obtain a loan.
“Calle somehow bamboozled Mr. Cortez into signing the deed,” Lienhard alleges.
Property records show that Cortez sold the house to Calle for $835,000, which Cortez said he never received. Lienhard said there’s no record of Cortez depositing that sum into his bank account. On the same day, records show Calle took out a $668,000 mortgage against the property. The only money Cortez said he received was a sum of about $34,000, which he took to be the loan he thought Calle had helped him secure.
Cortez said Calle introduced him to a Queens-based lawyer in 2006 named Arelia Taveras to draw up the paperwork returning the deed to Cortez, who still has a copy of the documents in his possession. But Lienhard said Taveras never filed them with the city’s Office of the City of Register, the agency that maintains all property-related documents, including deeds and mortgages, which means the house was never officially transferred back into Cortez’s possession, even though he’s continued to live in it ever since.
Cortez said he first realized he was no longer the owner of the home in 2015, when a stranger arrived outside to serve a foreclosure notice to Calle, the home's legal owner. Calle had defaulted on the loan.
By that time, Calle had been convicted in two separate cases of tax fraud, one in New Jersey in 2011 and another in Florida in 2013, where Calle was found to be part of a group that defrauded the United States out of $19 million by filing false tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service.
Taveras, the lawyer who Liendard said failed to file the deed transferring the house back to Cortez, pleaded guilty in an unrelated case in 2009 to stealing $130,000 from her clients to finance her gambling habit. She was disbarred and sentenced to prison.
“Fraud is what is really at the root of this,” Lienhard said. “What happened here is so egregious.”
Calle’s attorney and Taveras did not return requests for comment. Calle also declined requests for an interview, but he has denied he defrauded Cortez, according to court papers he submitted from federal prison in 2015 in response to a lawsuit Cortez filed against him.
In 2016, a judge denied Cortez’s request to stop the foreclosure. His lawsuit against Calle alleging fraud was dismissed in 2018 – partly because Cortez’s family could no longer afford to pay for legal representation. That same year, the house was sold for $2 million at a foreclosure sale to a limited liability company on Long Island that calls itself CHAI 91 St. Mark Place. It asked a judge to evict Cortez. The judge has yet to issue a ruling.
A family destroyed, neighbors united
When Cortez first learned of the impending foreclosure and that the house’s deed was no longer in his name, he didn’t immediately share the devastating news with his family.
“When people fall victim to fraud, they blame themselves. They feel ashamed and embarrassed about it,” said Adam Grumbach, another one of Cortez’s attorneys. “They don't come forward and they don't tell anybody.”
Once he did share the news, it tore the family apart. His wife and two daughters moved out, leaving Cortez in a quiet, empty house he may soon lose.
“He’s estranged now from all of them, even his grandkids from that side,” Ray Jr. said. “So, a lot of hurt feelings, and I guess that can happen when you're a victim to this kind of a crime. It can destroy a family and in our case it did.”
For a while, painting occupied Cortez’s time. Since he was a boy, Cortez enjoyed creating images using brushes and pencils. His first-floor apartment is filled with still lifes and landscapes on large and small canvases. Some sit on an easel, others on the sofa and the floor, resting upright against walls.
“All from my imagination,” Cortez said. “When I used to do painting, I forgot to eat, everything. I can only do painting, that’s it. Sometimes I’d paint until three or four in the morning.”
For Ray Jr., the house on St. Marks Place evokes strong memories of his mother. As he describes it, she’d been the financial rock of the family – operating a small clothing factory nearby on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn, where he said she employed about a dozen workers making women’s garments. When he was a boy at P.S. 133, he said he’d walk a block to the factory from school to do his homework, run errands and help his mother with light tasks such as sweeping away the threads and cuttings. They’d go home together after closing time to cook dinner.
“I feel like a part of my mother’s here,” Ray Jr. said. “I want to make sure I honor her hard work and sacrifice.”
Ray Jr. didn’t speak to his father for several months after learning what happened. Then, he hired a lawyer to stop the foreclosure and bring a fraud case against Calle, burning through nearly $30,000 in attorney’s fees, he said, before he was forced to stop.
“I was just drained, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and financially,” Ray Jr. said. “I took a big hit on my savings.”
Now, he's looked to the neighborhood for support. In March, he helped organize a meeting with the local block association in a neighbor’s backyard, where Cortez’s attorneys explained the situation, asking for their help.
“We spoke about what we can do to try to reach out to our elected officials and try to bring attention so that maybe they could help out in making sure my father got some form of justice,” Ray Jr. said.
Cortez’s neighbors decided to use the Warren St. Marks Community Garden, located directly across the street from Cortez’s house, as a way to draw in other members of the community and gather signatures on a petition, calling on officials to investigate the dubious circumstances that led Cortez to lose his home. A dozen residents gathered under umbrellas on a rainy spring weekend, collecting roughly 150 signatures over two days.
“That sequence of bad things that happened to him are just so mind boggling and so sickening,” said Holcomb, Cortez’s neighbor. “We would love to see, first and foremost, that he gets to stay in his home.”
Neighbors have also been encouraged to contact their local Councilmember Shahana Hanif, who represents the area; Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso; the Brooklyn district attorney’s office; and the New York State Attorney General Letitia James. A spokesperson for Hanif said her office referred the matter to the state attorney general, however, James' office said it has yet to receive detailed information related to the case.
A spokesperson for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office said the alleged fraud occurred in 2006 and that the statute of limitations has run out, preventing prosecutors from bringing criminal charges.
A series of legal failures
As Bill Lienhard, Cortez’s attorney, sees it, what happened to Cortez reveals multiple failures that should protect people like his client, but has instead worked in favor of developers, banks and scam artists.
Chief among those, he said, was how Wells Fargo, the lender who ultimately owned the mortgage that Calle had taken against the house, handled foreclosure proceedings against Calle, whose name was on the deed. Lienhard said the bank was required to notify anyone living in the house that it was going to foreclose on the property, but that it did not notify Cortez, who was and is the home’s occupant.
“The bank should have just sent someone to the house to figure out who lives there and didn't do that,” Lienhard said. Had it done so, he believes the alleged fraud would have been discovered earlier, preventing both the foreclosure and the house from being sold to the developer in Long Island. “The lawyers for the bank, in doing their due diligence, should have fixed this problem.”
A spokesperson for Wells Fargo referred questions to PHH Mortgage, the company that serviced the mortgage for Cortez’s home.
Dico Akseraylian, a spokesperson for PHH Mortgage, said the company served notices to a tenant named Nelson Cortez. However, Cortez and his son said they don’t know who Nelson Cortez is and that Cortez never received any foreclosure notices.
Lienhard and Cortez’s other attorneys are trying to stop the eviction and win back the deed to Cortez’s house. They want a chance to show that Cortez’s house was stolen from him.
“My father lost the house with nothing to show for it,” Ray Jr. said. “He worked his whole life and he's about to be evicted from his home.”
Angelica Florio contributed reporting.