This story originally published Dec. 2, 2012.
No one could hold down Robert May.
He fled Jim Crow Georgia, arriving in Philadelphia in 1935 determined to run his own business. During the next four decades, he opened several neighborhood bars and worked at his family's store, May's Market at Ridge Avenue and 25th Street.
And after dying of cancer in 1978 at age 64, May mysteriously rose again, 27 years later.
On Aug. 6, 2005, May supposedly signed over the deed of his two-story Strawberry Mansion rowhouse to Philadelphia Police Officer Elaine P. Thomas.
"That's theft," said grandnephew Zachary Abrams, pulling out a copy of May's funeral announcement after he learned from a reporter about the transfer.
And May's from-the-grave signature is not unique. Other people whose property was transferred into Thomas' name include:
Thomas renounced any claim to Washington's home in 2008, about the time the Philadelphia district attorney launched a criminal investigation into the theft of houses involving a crooked notary.
Chavon N. Reese notarized May's posthumous signature and the false signatures for Kibler and Hamilton. Reese pleaded guilty in April to conspiracy and 23 counts of forgery for falsifying titles.
Reese is cooperating with prosecutors, who also filed charges against one of her alleged coconspirators in thefts of homes across the city.
Thomas, 41, a 15-year police veteran and recording secretary for the Guardian Civic League, an association of African American police officers, has not been charged with any crimes.
The district attorney instead passed the case to the police department, where it ended up in Internal Affairs as a disciplinary matter.
City property records also reveal these curiosities:
When Thomas got title to Margaret Carruth's three-bedroom house on 29th Street in 2005, she paid no city taxes on the transfer.
That's because a deed document says Carruth was Thomas' mother. Family sales are exempt from the 3 percent city real estate transfer tax and 1 percent state tax.
Five weeks later, an Elaine P. Thomas took title to Bulah Culver's four-bedroom house on Newkirk Street and signed a sworn statement that she was eligible for a tax exemption. In this case Culver was listed as her mother.
The Inquirer could not verify that Officer Thomas signed the document, but the address listed on both is a Philadelphia post office box Thomas used in other property transactions. That P.O. box was also used to transfer deeds to Thomas from May, Kibler, and Hamilton.
In a brief phone conversation with a reporter before the line went dead, Thomas did not respond when asked about deeds transferred to her name.
Guardian Civic League president Rochelle Bilal said Thomas told her that the District Attorney's Office had cleared her of deed theft about two years ago and that the police Internal Affairs Bureau then took up the case.
"She basically said she did nothing illegal," Bilal said.
Bilal said Thomas, a mother of three, is a good police officer, "does a very good job" at the league, and performs volunteer community work outside the organization.
When asked about deed records showing that titles were signed over to Thomas by people after they died, Bilal said: "If that had happened, she would have been charged. "
The district attorney's spokeswoman declined comment on Thomas.
Bilal said that after the district attorney's review, the police Internal Affairs Bureau investigated the case and charged Thomas with conduct unbecoming an officer and having a known felon work on her property.
Those disciplinary charges, which Bilal said did not involve deed theft, will be presented against Thomas at a trial-like hearing that has yet to be scheduled.
A police spokesman confirmed that Thomas was the subject of an internal investigation. He gave no details but said the case would be concluded "very soon."
Philadelphia has been notorious for stolen deeds. Joan Decker, the city's commissioner of records, says she gets about 100 complaints a year. Some are simply misunderstandings; most are thefts.
Decker said her office is hobbled by state laws that do not give her authority to investigate deed theft.
Prosecutors say common deed theft works like this: A notary takes a payoff to certify a forged deed; once the deeds were notarized, an accomplice takes them to the city recorder's office, and the property titles are transferred to that person.
While the Records Department has introduced some safeguards, including photographing all walk-ins wanting to register mortgages or deeds, City Councilman William K. Greenlee thinks the city can do more.
"The best solution to this is to be stricter before you accept the deed," Greenlee said. "It's worth taking a stronger stance on this."
In 1964, Robert May bought a two-story rowhouse at 2010 N. Marston St. and lived there about a decade with his family. Then he divorced his wife, remarried, and moved to Lawnside, Camden County.
His ex-wife, their children, and eventually grandchildren stayed in the Marston Street house. More than a decade ago, the family moved out. Relatives said they then boarded up the house and none of them paid close attention to it thereafter.
The small brick house was easy to forget. In that gritty block of Marston, the average market value of houses is $4,400.
In interviews, May's grandnephew and granddaughter said they did not know the property deed had been transferred in 2005.
They said neither police nor the District Attorney's Office had ever contacted them.
In 2006, the property changed hands, with Elaine P. Thomas selling it to Christopher Sanders for $1, records show.
Sanders, who had at least three other house deeds notarized by Reese, could not be reached for comment.
District Attorney Seth Williams says police typically investigate individual cases of deed theft.
"The problem of 'stolen houses' is a serious and complex one," Williams said in an e-mailed statement. "This office will prosecute any single house case presented to us by the Philadelphia Police Department where the evidence is sufficient.
"In the larger, more complex cases our office may also conduct the investigation. "
Lt. John Stanford, a police spokesman, said the department had no dedicated unit handling deed thefts.
When police are called, he said, officers interview owners who lost homes and may refer cases to detectives – who then decide if there is enough evidence to send to prosecutors.
He said the department does not have records of how many deed-theft cases are referred to prosecutors.
The District Attorney's Office's economic-crimes unit has won some high-profile victories against house thieves. The unit typically investigates cases in which more than $50,000 is stolen. The total market value of the three houses that Reese signed into Thomas' name is $24,200, according to city assessment records.
In 2009, the economic-crimes unit prosecuted 15 people in a case involving 82 stolen homes around the city.
Reese's alleged coconspirator in the thefts, Richard Harley, 49, faces a January arraignment on some 90 criminal charges. Harley's lawyer declined comment.
John E. Washington's after-death experience was similar to Robert May's posthumous signing.
Washington came to Philadelphia from Alabama in 1951, landed a job as a dockworker, and for 42 years was a member of the International Longshoremen's Association.
After he died in 2005, he was buried on his family's homestead in Alabama.
But in March 2007, someone forged his signature, giving title to his West Philadelphia house to Elaine P. Thomas. Thomas' address listed on the deed papers was the same post office box used for the other deed transfers.
Houses in Washington's old neighborhood have steadily increased in value as the University of Pennsylvania has expanded, and his family soon noticed the deed change.
Daughter Renee Washington said her family reported the problem to police around 2008. She said police told her family that Officer Thomas' signature did not match the signature on the deed and that the officer was not believed to have been involved in the fraud.
"We're still trying to understand what happened," said Renee Washington, who said she was unaware that police were continuing to investigate the officer.
Officer Thomas' former attorney, Matthew A. Lipman, said he suggested that she file the 2008 disclaimer of any ownership in Washington's home.
Lipman said that Thomas had no involvement with the property, "and the filing of the disclaimer made that public record. "