West Phila. man sentenced to prison in home thefts

A West Philadelphia man who admitted stealing four houses and two lots out from under people by forging and recording new deeds was sentenced Thursday to 21/2 to 5 years in prison by a judge who called him a "professional con man."

"This was not aberrant behavior for him," Common Pleas Court Judge Carolyn H. Nichols told Dwayne Stewart's defense attorneys. "This is the norm for him. . . . He's had 20 years of this type of behavior."

Nichols said she did not believe Stewart's apologies to his victims, his protestations of personal reform in prison in the 12 months since his arrest, or that his faith in Jesus Christ turned his life around.

"Why did you have to drag Jesus into this?" Nichols castigated Stewart. "I'm surprised this courtroom didn't burst into flames."

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Perks said that, in Stewart's 44 years, he has accumulated 30 arrests and 18 convictions, and served two four-year prison terms in New Jersey - beginning in 1993 and in 2003 - before arriving in Philadelphia shortly before 2009.

Virtually all his criminal record involved forgeries or fraud. And, beginning in 2009 until his arrest in April, Stewart specialized in property fraud, mostly in West Philadelphia.

Gerald Sterrett said he befriended Stewart, in part because of his work with inmates reentering society, only to have Stewart steal his property at 4918 Chestnut St. Stewart transferred ownership of the home to himself, moved in, and changed the locks. When Sterrett tried to evict him, Stewart would not leave - he remained until the bank foreclosed on the mortgage.

"This man is sly," Sterrett said. "He's a professed Christian, and he was willing to use religion and Jesus Christ. He played the holy card with me."

Perks said the value of many of the properties was so low that it was difficult to prosecute Stewart for any one fraud. Most of the time, Perks continued, the victim's only recourse was to file a tortuous civil-ejection procedure.

It was only the work of Detective Angela Torian, of Southwest Detectives, who put together a pattern of fraud by Stewart, that enabled him to be prosecuted, Perk said.

Defense attorneys Louis A. Mincarelli and Kathryn Coviello Cacciamani argued that Stewart had truly rehabilitated himself.

They presented Reuben Jones, an inmate counselor and member of Mayor Nutter's inmate reentry program, who said Stewart has "recognized his mistakes and become a real role model for younger inmates."

His lawyers argued that Stewart be released immediately on parole so he could begin paying restitution to his victims.

Stewart told three of his victims that he had changed: "I don't want to walk around hurting people. . . . I'm sorry you became my victims rather than my friends."


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