Million-Dollar Foreclosure Theft

Recession victim: vacant California mansion stripped of $1 million in fixtures.

April 9, 2009— -- With foreclosure rates rising across the nation, more and more homes have stood empty for months, attracting thieves, vagrants and vandals, police report.

One high-profile California home, vacant for a few days, was hit particularly hard -- stripped of nearly $1 million worth of fixtures, from antique doors to toilets.

It was once one of the most magnificent mansions in San Diego, with 15 bedrooms and 17 bathrooms. It was so spectacular it didn't have only an address, it had a name: Vivienda.

The mansion is now in foreclosure, and it's a shell of its former self -- literally. Thieves have stripped the mansion bare. Fixtures, appliances, everything is gone.

"We have a very large high-end theft, almost a million dollars," said Steven Ashkar, a detective with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

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Neighbors can't figure out how thieves managed to strip the mansion undetected.

"How would someone do that, that's the question," said neighbor John Schumate. "Our dogs would bark like crazy."

Neighbors noticed a suspicious vehicle in the driveway, and it was after that that a real estate agent discovered that everything from toilet seats to the magnificent front door had been stolen.

Chevy Chase Bank, which now owns the house, reported the theft March 26. Initially, the criminals were estimated to have stolen only $250,000 worth of fixtures, appliances, doors, toilets and equipment from the mansion -- well more than the cost of most homes. But after further investigation, that figure climbed to $1 million, according to police.

Now they are are hot on the case of missing toilets.

"It appears that's my job right now, so I'm going to do it to the best of my abilities," Ashkar said.

Foreclosed Homes: Target for Theft and Vandals

Foreclosure is a nationwide nightmare, with nearly 2 million homes abandoned. Teens throw wild parties in them and some angry homeowners vandalize their houses as banks force them to vacate.

"We like to think this doesn't happen all that often. Unfortunately, it does. I have seen houses that are worse than this, believe it or not," said Tom Appligian, a real estate agent in Dallas.

The 16,000-square-foot San Diego home was built by Suzy Brown, an electrical engineer, who planned to use it as a drug-rehabilitation center. She had partnered with alternative medicine physician Deepak Chopra and 60 unnamed investors.

The center never opened.

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Neighbors dubbed it the "monster house" because of its size, and they sued Brown, trying to block the home's construction. Brown fought back and won a building permit in 2004. But by the time the home was ready, her physician partner had dropped out of the project. The bank eventually foreclosed, and Brown moved out March 22, four days before the theft was reported to police.

Some neighbors suspect Brown stripped the mansion herself, a charge that devastates her.

"My No. 1 and only care was to not see this property destroyed. That was all I cared about," Brown said.

What once was grand is now bone bare but is still the talk of this community. Foreclosed but certainly not forgotten.