When Pastor Robert C. Hester wanted a new church, he simply stole Pennsauken's Temple of Deliverance for his own, authorities say.
The Camden County Prosecutor's Office says Hester - also known as Bishop Hester and Prophet Hester - used forged documents in 2010 to secure title to the church at 7603 River Rd. He then changed the locks.
The real church officials called police when they found themselves unable to enter, prosecutors said.
It wasn't just one building. Hester also stole Faith Chapel in Camden and a two-unit rental property in Pennsauken that same year, prosecutors say.
Hester, 27, now charged in New Jersey with forgery and related crimes, was on the run for a year before being arrested in November on charges of passing bad checks in northern Pennsylvania.
He is just one of many people across the country charged with deed theft each year.
Carol Foglesong, the past president of the National Association of County Recorders, said many U.S. cities were struggling with house stealing.
A deputy comptroller in Orange County, Fla., Foglesong said thieves usually get away with submitting phony deeds because homeowners don't check property records.
She said at the root of the problem are outdated state laws requiring counties to record deeds first and ask questions later.
"Recorders are often considered 'ministerial,' " Foglesong said. "We don't get to decide if the document should be recorded."
She said people registering deeds usually need to meet only minimal requirements, paying fees and having the notarized title transfer papers.
"We have been frantically trying to keep up with the latest fraud variation," she said.
Foglesong said officials often are reluctant to take cases, despite the high value of stolen homes, because prosecutions require time-consuming investigations.
Criminals also skip from county to county to stay ahead of authorities. Many of the same problems exist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Camden County wants to take strong action in Hester's case. Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the county prosecutor, said his office wants Hester to face charges in New Jersey.
He said his office started investigating Hester after Pennsauken police were called about the changed locks at the Temple of Deliverance.
After investigators found phony deeds for the temple and other properties, Hester was arrested.
Victims say they have been left in bureaucratic hell.
Suzanne Renee Powell's Pennsauken property, an investment for her retirement and her children, allegedly was stolen by Hester in 2010. She says she has given up trying get back the deed.
While Hester was on the lam for years, she said, it was impossible to serve him with a copy of the court action to reclaim her deed. And until he was served, she said, courts refused to allow the case to move forward.
"We had such a nightmare with that property, we had to let it go to foreclosure," Powell said.
Contact Mark Fazlollah at 215-854-5831