Sunday, November 29, 2015

More questions surround plastic-covered mansion in Cherry Hill

Owner claimed to be Grammy-winning singer

The under-construction mansion at 1138 Winding Drive in Cherry Hill is covered in plastic because work on the site has stalled. The home is described as an eyesore in the neighborhood. (Emily Babay /
The under-construction mansion at 1138 Winding Drive in Cherry Hill is covered in plastic because work on the site has stalled. The home is described as an eyesore in the neighborhood. (Emily Babay /

The mystery deepens over the shrink-wrapped, $2.4 million Cherry Hill mansion as its owner remains elusive, despite her claims to local officials that she once was a Grammy Award-winning singer.

The home on an exclusive street on the township's east side first drew media buzz in October, when it came to light that construction had been halted for years. The home had been covered in plastic, confounding neighbors and township officials alike.

Perhaps more puzzling: Where is its real owner, Denise Williams, and why did she present herself to local officials as Deniece Williams, the singer from the 1980s most known for the hit "Let's Hear It for the Boy"? 

Attempts to reach owner Denise Williams have been unsuccessful since late last month. She has given only a post office box to township officials, who also have not been able to locate her. Still, she has been paying her taxes, which are $28,448 per year.

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  • The most recent phone number listed for her is disconnected. And no current addresses other than that of her mansion and post office box were available.

    It turns out the homeowner had been fooling the township, her neighbors and construction workers for years.

    The masquerade came to light when Deniece Williams, the singer, issued a statement after news stories were published. Williams, who had not responded to an earlier request for comment, said: "I was shocked to hear that I am accused of being a slum homeowner in Cherry Hill, N.J. This is a case of mistaken identity. The owner of the house and I share the same name and that is all."

    Attempts to reach Deniece Williams were also unsuccessful. A publicist recently said she was traveling and unavailable for comment.

    Cherry Hill spokeswoman Bridget Palmer is steadfast that the homeowner had represented herself to township staff and her neighbors as the famous singer on multiple occasions.

    Since the sudden publicity, homeowner Williams has been difficult to track down, although she's been a listed resident of the township for more than a decade.

    Records show that Williams, who is listed in some records as Denise Benson, has owned the property at 1138 Winding Drive since September 2002. She bought it with her husband, Donald Benson, for $425,000. The property, which had a 2,500 square foot ranch home, was transferred to Williams alone in December 2005.

    Donald Benson could not be located. A woman at the home of his most recent listed address said he did not live there. 

    Township staff had interacted with Williams a number of times since she demolished the rancher in late 2008 and embarked on building the mansion.

    "She had conversations with personnel here specifically about her Grammys and songs," Palmer said in an email. Palmer said in a phone conversation this week that no one from the township had previously been skeptical about the woman’s claims and called the situation "totally baffling."

    Palmer said the township was continuing to sort out the situation, but no one had been able to reach the homeowner since singer Deniece Williams said she didn't own the property.  

    Although she’s current on taxes, documents suggest Williams, the homeowner, has had trouble keeping up with other payments associated with the home, whose cost she estimated in construction permit documents at $2.4 million. 

    Records show Williams took out a $2.75 million mortgage on the home in August 2008. With her interest rate of nearly 6.9 percent, that could amount to payments of more than $17,000 per month, according to a standard mortgage calculator. Together, with taxes, that could exceed $20,000 per month in payments for the mansion.

    Construction suspended in 2010. Workers for JHS General Contractor showed up one morning, surprised to find a locked fence around the lawn, said company secretary Sandra Quintero, whose husband owns the business. Some of the contractor’s tools were locked inside. 

    JHS General Contractor filed a notice of an unpaid balance of $63,000 in Camden County court in January 2011 after the business couldn’t track down Williams to recoup its costs. Those funds still haven’t been paid, and the contractor hasn’t been able to reach the woman for years.

    "She owes us a lot of money," Quintero said in late October. "She never answered the phone. She just disappeared."

    The contractor, too, was under the impression the woman was a performer.

    "She always told us she was a singer and she said that she got a lot of work with very important guys," Quintero said. 

    According to court documents, JHS General Contractor completed roofing and other work at the home in late 2010. The business filed documents providing notice of the unpaid funds, but never filed a lien against Williams.

    Palmer, the township spokeswoman, said there were no outstanding liens or citations against Williams or the property. 

    No one knows for sure why Williams stopped construction at the mansion, though neighbors have speculated that she had problems paying for the work. That talk is partially why JHS General Contractor never took her to court, believing the woman was too financially strained to ever pay the business back.

    Williams has encountered financial troubles in the past. Records show that a number of judgments have been entered against her, some under the name Denise Benson, since the early 1990s.

    Most of those judgments involved credit card debts, and ranged in amount from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. 

    Williams indicated to officials as recently as last year that she planned to finish work on the home.

    As for now, neighbors on the quiet street of ritzy homes and spacious, wooded yards have described the home - wrapped in gray plastic from roof to ground - as an eyesore. They are hoping Williams keeps her word.

    Contact Emily Babay at 215-854-2153 or Follow @emilybabay on Twitter.

    Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443 or Follow @phillynews on Twitter.

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