DeKalb County Assistant District Attorney John Melvin said that according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, criminals who move into homes and illegally claim ownership of them has become a significant problem.
“Currently we have two cells of sovereign citizens under indictment and we have another one pending trial,” Melvin said.
Recently, three men accused of leading a cell of sovereign citizens in DeKalb and other metro Atlanta areas were acquitted. Out of the 11 people listed on the indictment, the only members who went to trial were Eliyshuwa Yisrael, Jermaine Gibson and Richard Jenkins; the others either pleaded out or were used as witnesses at the trial.
“It’s really a victory whenever you stop crime and the people who were perpetrating it,” Melvin said.
Although the three men were acquitted, Melvin said they would think twice about doing the same thing again. The three were accused of breaking into vacant homes and signing or notarizing deeds for themselves and each other that purported to convey property to them and then filed them with the Clerk of Court.
The ring allegedly took over 18 properties and the men were charged with one count of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and one count of conspiracy to commit RICO.
“In this situation they even tried to collect rent on a shopping center,” Melvin said.
Yisrael acted as his own defense attorney in the case and each man faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted. During the trial, Yisrael told jurors that the banks that owned the properties he was accused of stealing shouldn’t have been allowed to own them in the first place.
The defendants didn’t deny their actions but argued that no crime was committed because they didn’t take anything or hurt anyone.
Melvin said a similar case is awaiting trial involving Susan Weidman and several co-conspirators. Melvin said Weidman also has charges pending in Cobb County. Prosecutors opened an investigation into Weidman after she tried renting a home to someone without actually owning it.
In most cases, Melvin said a large group or “cell” of sovereign citizens will operate in areas where foreclosed properties were prevalent.
“However, we are aware of people, individuals, who are doing it without anybody else,” Melvin said.
Erik Burton, a spokesman for DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James, said it is important to know the difference between a sovereign citizen and someone who is just squatting inside a vacant property.
“They, in my opinion, seem to operate under a different code and rationalize their legal right to be in a vacant property—a squatter might just be staying inside the property but a sovereign citizen will go file a fake deed for the property,” Burton said.