Friday, July 22, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Editor's Note: This is Part Two of a two-part series.
In the Las Vegas suburbs, near stretches of open desert and the mountain range on the city’s western fringe, Sierra Brook Court is lined with high-end homes, some with clear views of the Strip from their backyards.
Brenda Flank has lived on the cul-de-sac since 2000. And lately, she’s had a close-up view of the recession’s dark, lingering after-effects.
The abandoned house next door has been a squatters’ magnet the past few years, according to Flank. Various groups have come and gone, including a man and woman who, records indicate, were arrested on prostitution charges before they moved in.
The group that moved there in March, however, was more brazen than others. Neighbors said the group filled the house with mattresses and people; held a Cinco de Mayo party; and one day, 20 or 25 people walked around the cul-de-sac, laughing and talking loudly.
“These people wanted to own the block,” Flank said.
Some of the people staying there also went to court to own the house. Before they were arrested on squatting-related charges a few months ago, Miguel and Dinora Barraza filed a rambling lawsuit in federal court against the home’s owner. They claimed they were the real owners, sought more than $20 million in damages and said they took possession of the northwest valley home in 1900 — 105 years before it was built.
They filed the case with a mysterious figure known as Nana I Am, and it wasn’t the first time they had teamed up. They sued for the Barrazas’ old house in North Las Vegas after lenders foreclosed on the property, and the Barrazas even filed papers with the county saying they had given the house to Nana as a gift years earlier, records show.
The bank-owned home looked occupied on a visit a few months ago. Three cars were parked behind the gates, a children’s bicycle with training wheels was in the driveway and a person could be seen through a window.
A “No Trespassing” sign also carried a phone number and message: In case of emergency, contact Nana.
Despite its improved housing market, Las Vegas is grappling with a squatter problem. The valley has thousands of empty houses, many of which were abandoned by people with heavy financial problems when the economy crashed, and people have been breaking in, changing the locks, drawing up bogus leases and “renting” properties out, often through Craigslist.
Metro Police received at least 4,458 squatter-related service calls in Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County last year, more than double the tally in 2012. This year, the department had received 2,672 squatter calls as of this week, up 23 percent from the same period in 2015, said Officer Jesse Roybal, a spokesman.
Squatter homes can become dens of drug use, weapons, fraud labs, child neglect or other criminal activity, police say. The Nevada Legislature last year passed a law to crack down on squatters, and local governments have taken steps to target them, as well.
But, as Nana and the Barrazas show, squatter homes can draw people who file suspect court cases and suspicious property transactions and — in at least one case — have links to someone with suspected “sovereign citizens” ideology, a movement the FBI has said is "a growing domestic threat to law enforcement."
Attorneys and others have accused Nana of posing as a lawyer and of filing court cases, for a fee, to help people delay foreclosures and evictions. He has filed dozens of lawsuits in recent years, often with people who lost their home to foreclosure, and sought hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. He typically files cases without an attorney and can pack them with nonsensical claims, but the suits often seem to fizzle, court records show.
In one of his most recent cases, the Las Vegas Sun learned Thursday that Nana and the Barrazas this month sued Metro, several police officers, a TV station and others for $150 million. They alleged civil rights violations, false arrest, illegal eviction and kidnapping, and claimed that one of the Barrazas arrested on squatting charges witnessed a jail guard fatally body-slam a female inmate.
Nana is tied to possibly dozens of properties in Southern California, where he apparently lives, and at least five in the Las Vegas area, four of which are bank-owned, the Sun found. Among them:
• His name and phone number were on a “WARNING” sign outside the foreclosed, 5,400-square-foot house at 10280 W. La Mancha Ave., a few blocks from Sierra Brook, as of a few months ago. When the Barraza group was in the house on Sierra Brook, some cars seen at that property also were spotted at the home on La Mancha, Flank said.
• A filing with Clark County indicates Nana lent $37,200 to Marcia Chaissions, the owner of 1916 Springview Drive, a house off Sahara Avenue roughly five miles west of the Strip. The filing was made in December 2010 — a month after the house was scheduled for a foreclosure action — but dated January 2009.
• Nana teamed with Glorifina Trinidad, former owner of 6507 Bethalto St., to fight in court for the southwest valley home. They sued in April, more than a year after lenders foreclosed on the house. Among other things, they wanted the defendants barred “from sending any additional notices making demands” of the plaintiffs’ “alleged debt.” The lenders who foreclosed have said in court papers that they had to evict Trinidad.
Efforts to reach Chaissions and Trinidad for comment were unsuccessful.
The home on La Mancha was recently put up for sale at $1.05 million. Listing agent Scott Gershman, of Coldwell Banker Premier Realty, said police notified him about the house this week, but he did not elaborate.
Metro’s Roybal told the Sun there was “an open investigation at that address” but added police were “reluctant to give more information beyond that.”
• • •
Nana did not respond to requests for comment, and his identity remains, for the most part, a mystery. He writes his name numerous different ways in his own court papers, and attorneys involved in cases against him told the Sun they never met him.
The Sun also could not confirm exactly how Nana finds homeowners or how they find him, as several co-plaintiffs could not be reached for comment. Nana’s name and phone number, however, are listed on cancelamortgage.com — “Stop paying mortgage payments on fraudulent loans!” the site declares — and a LinkedIn profile says he owns a business called America’s Outcry. “I can help you save your home!” the profile says.
Still, a court filing in one case shows how difficult it can be to track him down.
Las Vegas process-server Richard Etienne said in a 2012 filing that he tried to serve Nana court papers in Los Angeles and ran a “skip trace” — a person search — but “was not able to narrow down the searches due to limited information” on Nana.
Etienne found no telephone listings for Nana in Las Vegas, could not find anything about him from voter registration data and ran a national search through Accurint, a public-records-search program, but “could not find any alternate residential or employment information.”
He also checked with the U.S. Postal Service, which did not have a forwarding address on file.
• • •
Since 2009, records indicate, Nana has filed at least 38 lawsuits in federal and California state courts, the Sun found. Most seemingly involved properties in Southern California, though locally he appears to be most active with the Barrazas.
The couple owned a house in North Las Vegas for years, but U.S. Bank seized the property at 3532 Orvis St. through foreclosure on May 1, 2014, property records show. Four weeks later, however, a document was filed with Clark County saying the Barrazas had given the house to Nana — in 2009.
“This is a bonifide (sic) gift,” the deed says, adding the Barrazas “did not received (sic) any money.”
According to a court filing by U.S. Bank, Miguel Barraza had been “fighting surrender and eviction” since the bank recorded its first default notice in 2009. He “abused” the court system ever since by filing multiple bankruptcies and transferring interests in the house to other people who filed bankruptcy, the bank alleged.
Meanwhile, Nana teamed with Dinora Barraza last year to sue U.S. Bank and its lawyers for $15.25 million. The suit, which came a month after Dinora filed for bankruptcy, alleged fraud, illegal eviction, racketeering and “dishonesty, trickery, deceit, and a predatory practices (sic) and illegal tactics designed to steal property.”
A judge last year dismissed the bankruptcy and the lawsuit.
Nana also appeared in North Las Vegas Justice Court with the Barrazas in November. During the hearing, he told Justice of the Peace Natalie Tyrrell that U.S. Bank had to “establish a claim” that it owned the house.
“We are not refusing to pay, your honor, because nobody can live anywhere for free. We are willing to pay. But we want them to … establish their claim that, hey, we are the owner of this property,” Nana said, according to a transcript.
“OK,” Tyrrell later said. “I just want to say that I disagree with the arguments that you’re making. … I mean, you’re not the owners anymore, unfortunately.”
U.S. Bank’s lawyer told Tyrrell that a court had ruled in his client’s favor, that people had re-entered the home after a lockout and that Nana's group was making the wrong legal arguments in the wrong forum.
“Your honor,” Nana said, “who is this counsel? Can this counsel prove that he actually works for (indiscernible). … So does he have a card? Can you provide a card?”
Nana had tried to make his case with some legalese — he talked about equitable interest, adjudicating cases, trustee’s deed upon sale, even the “res judicata” doctrine. But at the end of the hearing, he asked Tyrrell a more basic question: How do they get court records, and how soon could they get them?
“You need to go to the front counter to do that,” she told him.
• • •
Nana teamed with the Barrazas again in March when they sued for the abandoned, custom-built house at 5464 Sierra Brook Court. The two-story, 4,600-square-foot home boasts a dual staircase in the foyer, granite countertops and, rare for Las Vegas, a basement.
They unleashed a barrage of allegations, including fraud, racketeering, abusive debt collections, real estate scams, repeated civil rights violations and illegal eviction — all for a house they never owned. They claimed their “1st, 4th, 9th, and Fourth Amendment” rights were violated; that one fraud was committed against them “between July 22, 2014 and January 00, 1900”; and that brokerage firm Keller Williams Realty, which has tried to sell the home, was a “scammer” that helps “in the stealing of property, money laundering activities, and activities which affect interstate commerce.”
They also wrote they took possession of the home on “January 02, 1900,” though on the page before they wrote it was “March 01, 2016,” or three days before they filed the suit.
Attorneys for Keller Williams said in court papers that Nana and the Barrazas could “only be characterized as squatters,” and their “unintelligible” lawsuit was “comprised exclusively of bald assertions, naked allegations, and legal conclusions, not to mention the highly inflammable, offensive, and unfounded personal attacks and characterizations littered throughout” the suit.
It's also difficult to follow.
In addition to misspelled words — they forgot the “L” in Las Vegas and wrote “Neveda” at least three times — and incorrect grammar and punctuation, the suit is laced with run-on and unfinished sentences, quasi-legal jargon and contradictions. They twice wrote they wanted “$21,000,000.00” in total damages but wrote “Twenty Five Million Dollars” just below that.
They claimed U.S. Bank’s foreclosure last year was illegal but didn’t clearly explain why, other than saying, for instance, that the targets “routinely use fraud to steal property from consumers, and used the same malicious, despicable, and fraudulent system” to take ownership of the house.
“The above named Defendants conspired among themselves, had a ‘meeting of the minds,’ an (sic) agreed to conduct, and did conduct an insidious fraud campaign” that consisted of “highly illegal criminal methods, and unlawful transfers which includes, methods of forgery, and fraud, and is not limited to all of the following despicable acts,” the lawsuit says before launching into more accusations.
Miguel Barraza told police that he moved to the house on March 5 this year, according to Metro’s arrest report. But in court papers, Nana and the Barrazas claimed they qualified for adverse possession, a state law that lets people take ownership of a property if they’ve lived there for five years and paid the taxes on it.
The trio didn’t cite those factors, but instead outlined their supposed housework.
They claimed to have “made improvements to the property,” “drained the pool,” “washed the pool with a pressure washer,” “put fresh chlorinated water into the pool, put a new pool pump, new pool filters, removed all the weeds from the front of the house and back of the house, cleaned the interior of the house” (sic).
They also wrote they would “provide more detailed facts” about their claims as the case progressed.
But for the time being, they added, they didn’t “have to prove anything.”
• • •
The original owners of 5464 Sierra Brook Court tried to sell the house for $1.65 million in 2007, listing records show, but steadily dropped the price when the economy crashed: $1.2 million in 2009, $900,000 in 2010, $625,000 in 2011.
Brenda Flank knew the next-door neighbors — they weren’t too close, just a wave here and there. But five or six years ago, she said, they left.
“I saw them packing up, and they were gone,” she said.
Squatters have come and gone the past few years. Metro officers, for instance, cleared out a man and woman who showed them a two-year lease as proof they could stay there, but the supposed contract was with a company that didn’t own the house. It also stated the “tenants” — who apparently were arrested on prostitution charges in 2013 — paid a $60,000 security deposit, a police document shows.
The group that moved there in March, however, crammed the place. A resident of Sierra Brook saw people hauling in about 15 mattresses from a truck, and one neighbor walked in and saw people “all over the place,” Flank said.
Neighbors said the squatters even threw a Cinco de Mayo party, with perhaps eight cars parked out front that day.
“They were having a good old time,” a neighbor said.
These squatters were scarier than the others, Flank said, and Sierra Brook residents called the police numerous times. At least a few residents purchased guns, a neighbor said.
“We were all peeking out the windows, up late at night, pacing the floors,” Flank said.
Metro officers raided the house May 11, arresting Miguel and Dinora Barraza; Judith Barraza, who, according to court records from another case, is Miguel’s daughter; and a man named Robert McMinn Jr. They are scheduled to appear in Las Vegas Justice Court on July 26.
Court records do not show an attorney for them. McMinn could not be reached for comment, and when the Sun called Dinora Barraza’s phone number this week, a woman said, “We don’t want interviews.” She hung up when the Sun tried to get her name.
According to Metro’s arrest report, police recovered evidence at the home that indicated McMinn was “involved in mortgage fraud” and illegally obtaining homes through “sovereign citizen practices.”
Sovereign citizens generally do not recognize any form of government. They have been known to write only in certain colors, such as red crayon, put a copyright symbol after their signature and spell their names in capital letters and with colons, according to the FBI.
Some adherents also have sold fraudulent documents such as drivers’ licenses and passports; harassed and intimidated public officials; filed “a voluminous” amount of documents “that clog the courts and other government agencies”; and killed at least six law-enforcement officers since 2000, the FBI says.
Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told the Sun that the lawsuit filed in March by Nana and the Barrazas did not look like a sovereign document. The trio acknowledged the government’s legitimacy and did not appear to use typical sovereign language, he said.
Pitcavage figured they “definitely” tried to pull a real estate scam, “but not necessarily a sovereign one.”
He said squatting was a “very common tactic” for sovereigns, something they started doing in waves after the housing market crashed. But other scammers have made money from the housing crisis, as well, including with offers to help people get their home back or save it from foreclosure.
“It’s a whole constellation of things that emerged out of that catastrophe,” he said.
• • •
Nana and the Barrazas aren’t giving up the fight for the home on Sierra Brook. They and McMinn filed a 55-page lawsuit July 12 against Sheriff Joe Lombardo, whose name is spelled as “Lombardi” in the suit; police officers who raided the house in May; next-door neighbor Flank; Fox 5 KVVU-TV, which aired segments on the house; and several others.
According to the suit, Miguel and Dinora and their three children moved to the house on March 5, and Nana “gave them a key along with a lawsuit and a lease" to the property. They claimed that officer "J. Martinez" — apparently Jose Martinez, who worked on the case and helps lead Metro’s squatter enforcement in its Northwest Area Command — “orchestrated all the outrageous crimes” against the plaintiffs “and violated their civil rights just to prove his power.”
They also claimed that Flank, who was interviewed by Fox, “made up false allegations” to the police and media “and led to the beautiful, loving and peaceful family being illegally arrested, humiliated with their pictures blasted all over the news and the internet as squatters.”
Moreover, Fox 5 “was the one who illegally spread false allegations ... and blasted their pictures all over the world through their news channel without having firsthand knowledge of the matter.”
Officer Larry Hadfield, a Metro spokesman, said the department does not comment on pending litigation. Flank could not be reached to comment on the lawsuit, and a person who answered the phone at Fox 5, but declined to give his name, said, “We don’t have any comment right now.”
The plaintiffs also complained about banks, saying lenders issue fraudulent mortgages, illegally foreclose on borrowers, “throw them out of their homes” and “take the property back and sell it again.” They even recommended watching “The Big Short,” the 2015 movie about America’s mortgage meltdown. “Hopefully, you will see the LIGHT as to what is being done to our great nation.”
They also claimed that on May 12, the day after Metro’s raid, Judith Barraza was in Clark County Detention Center and witnessed “a jail officer kill a female inmate for absolutely no reason. The officer picked the small framed female inmate and slammed her on the concrete floor. Bursted her head open, blood all over the place with her lying there in a pool of blood wiggling. … Where is Fox News? Did that make the news?”
The Sun could not find any reports of an inmate death at the jail that day, and Hadfield could not immediately confirm whether an inmate died.
After writing about the alleged death, Nana, the Barrazas and McMinn issued an uplifting, religious-sounding message for the country, a “decree and command in the name of God” and “great cosmic fiat for America.”
“So long as the stars remain and the heveans (sic) send down dew upon this Earth, so long shall America remain free. And her people shall have invincible divine justice, protection and perfection by the light of God that never fails.”
“And so have I spoken,” they added. “The powers of light; the light of God that never fails; to compel the fulfilment (sic) of this my decree forever, forever and forever. Amen!”