-- UPDATE: Since this story last aired on Oct. 24, 2014, Shannon Lee finished serving her six month sentence for burglary. She pleaded guilty to felony forgery in May 20, 2015, and received an additional sentence of 18 months. Quiana Johnson was convicted of burglary and theft and will be sentenced in June 2015.
Laverne Green was shocked to discover that someone had stolen her house and moved strangers in. She was even more dismayed to find out that she had to start court proceedings to get her own house back.
It all started when Green and her husband, undergoing a divorce, had moved out of their Prince Georges County, Maryland, townhouse. Green still stopped by weekly to make sure everything was OK with the house. But in May 2013, she arrived to find an unwelcome surprise when she discovered that her key didn't work in the door.
“So I knock on the door, and this lady comes to the door,” Green told ABC News’ “20/20.” “She said that she was renting the property. I’m like, ‘How can you rent this property--this is my house?’”
The renters said they procured the house through broker Shannon Lee. They called Lee, who arrived minutes later.
“This lady pulls up in this black BMW. She jumps out of the car, and she said, ‘Well, I bought this property through a tax sale,’” Green recalled. “I asked her, ‘[Do you] have the deeds and everything to the house?’ She said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got everything.’”
Police say Lee had actually taken control of her house with forged documents and then rented it out.
“Nobody suspected that someone would actually advertise a property they didn’t own and collect rent on it,” prosecutor Angela Alsobrooks told “20/20.”
Alsobrooks said this type of scam only works if the real homeowner isn’t around to notice. Luckily, Green not only visited her house often, but she also was a secretary for the Prince Georges County Police. Instead of calling 911, Green asked co-worker Lt. Charles Duelley for help.
Duelley got a search warrant for Lee’s home and discovered a stack of deeds he said were forged for other homes and other evidence of a scheme in progress much larger than he’d ever imagined.
“I identified probably 15 to 20 other properties … that had been targeted,” Duelley told “20/20.”
Police say Lee, along with her alleged partner in crime, Qiana Johnson, apparently gained control of at least six houses and planned to steal 15 to 20 more.
Duelley believes Lee scouted the area for houses that appeared vacant and were pending foreclosure. He said she compiled meticulous house by house reports of potential targets, even breaking in to take photos.
Lee then used blank deeds, according to Duelley, adding her name as the new owner, a fake notary seal and a bogus lawyer signature. She then simply walked into the county records department to officially enter that counterfeit into the public record.
Charrise and Michael Stewart answered an advertisement Lee posted when she was looking to rent one house she had taken over.
“We fell in love with it,” Charrise Stewart told “20/20.” “It was everything we wanted in a house, and the price was right."
The Stewarts said Lee represented herself as a respected broker, gave them a tour and got them to sign a lease. It seemed legitimate to them, despite some suspicious red flags, they said.
“From the outside you can see the damage done to the locks of the door, as if someone busted in the door, changed the locks on the door,” Michael Stewart said. Lee claimed that the scratches were from when she had trouble changing the locks.
The couple also wondered why they were not receiving electric bills from the local utility, Pepco. The Stewarts called the utility, but were told they couldn’t find them in the system as the owners.
In the meanwhile, authorities said, Lee and Johnson were collecting rent from the house and other properties they’d stolen. They allegedly even sold one for a pile of cash.
“She had had herself convinced that the paperwork was of good enough quality on the forgeries that she … thought she was in the clear,” Duelley said.
Police said that Lee and Johnson kept the bigger properties to live in themselves, including a sprawling five-bedroom colonial house that Donnie and David Small lived in Cheltenham, Maryland.
“It’s bananas, like it’s honestly crazy,” Donnie Small told “20/20.”
The Smalls had been forced to leave their beloved home when Donnie Small’s job was transferred to California. Struggling to carry two homes, they fell behind on the payments. Police said that was when Johnson used a faked deed to move her whole family in.
Even though “20/20” flew Donnie Small back from California to visit, she legally could not go inside the home.
“It’s really sickening, because you put your blood, sweat, and tears into buying your dream home, and we had to leave it because of financial situation,” said Donnie Small.
Donnie Small’s former neighbors said Johnson claimed to be family members of the Smalls. But some neighbors became suspicious and called Donnie Small’s husband.
“[They said], ‘Did you sell the house?’” Donnie Small said. “And he’s like, ‘No.’”
The Smalls called police, who evicted Johnson’s family. But Johnson moved back in hours later, and in an outrageous twist, Johnson sued the Smalls for false eviction.
Lee and Johnson were eventually arrested. Lee pleaded guilty to burglary and forgery. She is facing multiple counts of theft, forgery and burglary. Johnson was charged with multiple counts of theft, burglary, forgery, among other charges. But they left a mess for everyone else.
Donnie Small and Laverne Green had to file expensive eviction proceedings to get their houses back, and the Stewarts spent thousands of dollars when they had to quickly move out and find a new home.
When confronted by “20/20,” Lee said, “The truth will come out … I didn’t steal any houses.” Johnson has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Lee later missed another court hearing, claiming she’d been in the hospital. She gave the judge hospital admissions records to prove it, but even the records were proved to be forged. She was sentenced to six months and may face additional charges as well.
Alsobrooks, who prosecuted Lee, said: “She’s obviously a very bright woman who chose to use her talent in ways that would have her go to jail.”
Johnson is currently awaiting trial.
“If somebody was telling me this story, I don’t’ know how much I would believe it,” said Donnie Small.