County investigating sale of 'zombie properties'

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The Cook County Recorder of Deeds office says "zombie properties" don't have a proper owner with a valid deed but some try to take them over and sell them. (WLS)

The Cook County Recorder of Deeds office says "zombie properties" don't have a proper owner with a valid deed, and can even be abandoned or up for demolition, but some try to take them over and sell them.

Pastor Lillie Taylor-Young has been making payments on a property to someone she thought was the owner. So far she has sunk $5,000 into the building in Chicago's Pullman neighborhood.

"I'm working hard! I want this to be a proper banquet hall and I want this to be a place children can come," Taylor-Young said.

However, the Cook County Recorder of Deed's office says the man who appears to be selling it to her is not the valid owner.

"It's going to be virtually impossible for her to ever gain true ownership of the property," said Mario Reed, fraud investigator for the Cook County Recorder of Deed's Office.

Reed said such a building is known as a "zombie property."

"If Ralph is not the owner and I'm paying my money to him, something is wrong," Taylor-Young said.

'Ralph' is Ralph Schrader, who the I-Team previously reported on as he was convicted of theft by deception for renting out a home that wasn't his. Now the Cook County State's Attorney is investigating new claims, and the Recorder of Deeds office says Taylor-Young is Schrader's latest victim.

"Based on the evidence, copies of money orders, contracts all support Ralph is engaging in illegal activity," Reed said.

Reed said Schrader is not the lawful owner of the space.

"The deeds which he has are the equivalent to junk/dummy deeds. The documents that he has don't followed the chain of title," Reed explained.

Reed said he is also investigating another similar complaint in which a consumer bought a home from Schrader which Reed said is technically still owned by a dead man.

"Mr. Schrader is claiming it was gifted to him. However, because it never went through the probate process, that isn't a legal transaction," Reed said.

There are more accusations. The Recorder of Deeds obtained Schrader's list of homes for sale that customers say is from Schrader. The I-Team confirmed that 18 of 57 properties on that list are also on the city's demolition list, making them "zombie properties."

The I-Team even found some buildings with the red X demolition sign and, right by it, a "For Sale" sign with Schrader's phone number. The I-Team asked Schrader about the new allegations. He would only say he owned the property before running out.

Jason Knowles: Do you have a list of zombie properties that you try to sell people that are on the demolition list?
Ralph Schrader: No.
Knowles: Can you show me the documentation that shows you really own this?
Schrader: I have the documentation
Knowles: Why can't you show it to me?
Schrader: Because you don't work for me.

On the phone, Schrader said he's doing nothing illegal and owns the properties he's selling. As investigators alert neighborhoods of Schraders, Taylor-Young finds out her deal is not legit.

"You paid all of this money and the property may never be yours. I am disappointed because I really want the place and we can bring this neighborhood back up and get children off the streets," Taylor-Young said.

The city and the Recorder of Deeds office said that the property Taylor-Young is trying to buy has outstanding fines and violations, another sign that it is a so-called "zombie property."

The best way to avoid a mess like this is to work through a real estate agent or ask your county Recorder of Deeds office about a property if you plan to buy directly through an owner.
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