William E. Johnson III insisted that he had turned his life around. He said he had left his criminal past behind to earn an honest living buying and selling real estate.

On Wednesday, city prosecutors rejected that self-portrait. They charged Johnson with 63 counts of forgery, deception, theft, and tampering with public records, and painted him as one of the most brazen of a criminal-type homegrown in Philadelphia: the housing thief.

Johnson is accused of stealing seven houses with forged deeds, faking the signatures of dead owners or aged “sellers.” As detailed in an investigation published last month in the Inquirer, his alleged hunting ground was concentrated in Brewerytown, a section of North Philadelphia north of Girard Avenue that is in the early stages of gentrification.

Johnson, 43, who allegedly stole his first house shortly after leaving a prison halfway house, turned himself in to the District Attorney’s Office early Wednesday. His bail was set several hours later at $51,000; under court rules, he would have to post 10 percent to go free to await a hearing Tuesday.

William Ernest Johnson III.
Handout
William Ernest Johnson III.

The charges he faces all relate to seven questionable house sales identified by the Inquirer.

The investigation into Johnson’s transactions was launched last year and led by veteran Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Esack of the Economic Crime Unit. The probe is continuing and reflects an effort by District Attorney Larry Krasner to crack down on the entrenched Philadelphia problem of house theft, according to Benjamin Waxman, Krasner’s spokesperson. Investigators from the office were interviewing victims and participants of the sales as recently as last week. Krasner was to provide more details on the case at a news conference at 1 p.m. Thursday.

In Philadelphia, thieves have forged deeds, wills, and notary stamps to steal houses in neighborhoods undergoing real estate booms. The issue has flared in other American cities; in New York City, District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. recently released a grand jury report that called the problem “an epidemic.”

Philadelphia officials have sought to tighten rules on house sales, but developers say the fraud remains prevalent.

The string of acquisitions by Johnson led the state in November to file a civil complaint against notary public Victor Miller for notarizing fake signatures of two dead women in the sale of a home to Johnson’s wife. Miller, like Johnson, claimed he was fooled by impostors.

Beverly Strickland, whose late father’s house was stolen in 2017 with a forgery of his signature, said Johnson’s arrest brought her some peace of mind. She said her father, a World War II veteran and forklift operator, had viewed the family home as an asset that would ultimately benefit his three granddaughters. Instead, Johnson took ownership of it and resold it to a developer for $50,000 — one of three such houses he resold.

“I’m feeling a sense of relief. I was feeling before that my hands were tied,” Strickland said. “I really wanted more than anything else for justice to be done. I didn’t want him to get away with it.”

In another deal, Nora Johnson lost her Philadelphia house when her name was forged on a sale deed in 2017. She was 91 and living with family in North Carolina at the time.

Gregory Jackson, one of her sons, noted Wednesday that his family has had to pay a lawyer to file suit to reclaim the house.

“I don’t know if we’ll be able to recoup our financial loses, but I am thrilled that someone is to get their just deserts,” he said.

In a Dec. 6 interview, Johnson questioned why his transactions were of any interest.

“What’s the deal here? If these people are dead, what are we talking about?” he asked.

“I’m in the business of providing people with shelter. I think it’s a right that people should have.”

Johnson accumulated a serious criminal record as a young man. At age 20, in 1995, a city jury found him guilty of leading police on a 20-block chase in a stolen car. The chase ended when Johnson ran a red light and his vehicle collided with another car. Two men in that car had their legs crushed.

That same year, Johnson pleaded guilty in federal court to joining two other men in “smash-and-grab” robberies at jewelry stores. A guard and shopper were hurt.

Johnson was sentenced to 11 to 22 years in prison. He eventually served more than 16 years — far more than his minimum — because of prison misconduct and parole violations.

Asked about his records, Johnson pointed out that the crimes had taken place years ago. He said news reports about him should note that “indications would be that this man has turned his life around, etc., etc.”