Stolen Property? 

An unscrupulous mortgage-collection firm sold Jim Hultman's Berkeley home out from under him, leaving behind a feud and an eyesore.

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Conspiracy claims aside, Hultman still has numerous beefs with the new owners. He's certain it was Jeff Toews who laughed at him from his backyard that day, that the brothers evicted him and Brett prematurely, that they routinely intimidate his neighbors, and that they are letting the house and yard decay. His biggest complaint, of course, is that they won't sell him back the house at a price he deems reasonable.

The Toews brothers counter that they've done nothing wrong. They drove past the property on the day of the sale, Loren says, but never left the car. And he insists they have obeyed the law throughout. "Everything was done by the book," he says. "We served him with the [eviction] notices. We were contacted by three of his attorneys. And I don't know if they dropped the ball or what. It was a pretty garden-variety deal from our perspective."

As for the negotiations, Loren contended that Hultman's original offer of $650,000 would have left the brothers with a net loss, factoring in money they've put into the property. Loren says he came back with a higher, no-profit counteroffer, but Hultman rejected it. For his part, Hultman says he can afford no more than he offered, largely because he netted just over $450,000 from the forced trustee's sale.

After negotiations failed, Hultman's neighbors and friends rallied to prevent the house from selling. When the house went on the market briefly in the winter of 2005, his supporters stood out front and handed out fliers urging potential buyers to look elsewhere. If a third party bought it, they figured, there would be even less chance that Hultman would regain it.

Then there's the graffiti. Everyone has their hunches. Hultman says he thinks the culprit might be a friend or neighbor, but so far nobody has told him. Loren Toews suspects Hultman is the one doing the spraying. In addition to the sidewalk and landing, the graffiti appeared on the house before the new owners painted it over and erected the fence, installed a motion-sensor light, and put up No Trespassing signs.

The new paint is just thin enough to reveal faint ghosts of graffiti past, but the markings appear fresh in online photos. On Zillow.com, a popular Web site that estimates the value of individual homes, the profile for 2122 Ward Street includes two photos of the graffitied house — STOLEN PROPERTY, PITTSBURG HOUSE STEALER, etc. — posted by "jimshouse," a user who could not be reached for comment.

Hultman, meanwhile, has made several large signs, which next-door neighbor Mary Kay Murlas hosts in her front yard. Resting against a small tree is a wooden one titled 2122 WARD PROPERTY DISCLOSURE. It includes a list of the property's shortcomings: 3 DEATHS ON PROPERTY, NO GAS SERVICE ON PROPERTY, FOUNDATION IS BAD, MAIN SEWER LINE NEEDS REPLACING, etc.

There's also a large plastic sign hanging between two trees, which states in a large, bold font: "DO NOT BUY 2122 WARD," and below that, "IT WAS STOLEN BY FRAUD." A third directs people to MSFraud.org, a site dedicated to combating mortgage servicing fraud. People still knock on Murlas' door to ask about the signs. "I have tried to be straight about it, and not embellish," she says. "My feeling about the whole thing is that there were screwups all along the way."

When a neighbor made a batch of large paper "DON'T BUY 2122 WARD" signs shortly after the trustee's sale, others posted them in street-facing windows. Two years later, four houses still display them in plain view.

One of them is Chris Byrne at 2140 Ward. "We had several at one point, but we went with the simple large one for emphasis," she explains. "People come by all the time asking about the sign." When they do, Byrne adds, she tells them how Hultman's house was stolen by Fairbanks, and why discouraging a secondary sale improves his chances.

She and her husband have known Hultman a long time — they reckon they first met some twenty years ago. Like many on Ward Street, Byrne considers Hultman a cornerstone of the community, a man devoted to his neighbors and his neighborhood. "Jim was like the unofficial mayor of the street," Murlas concurs. "He was on the street talking to people a lot, and he would keep us updated with what was going on in the city."

Byrne remembers the time Hultman organized residents to evict a local crack dealer, and how he started their Neighborhood Watch. "We really had hopes Jim would run for city council," she says. "He was so good at resolving neighborhood issues."

In the Toewses, however, Byrne sees people with little regard for the neighborhood or its residents. Earlier this year, she claims, one of the brothers came to her door and pointed to the window sign. "He barked at my sixteen-year-old daughter who answered the door: 'Are you responsible for this?'" she says. She also claims the brothers have threatened other neighbors with lawsuits over their signs.

This, she says, has only solidified her support for Hultman. She'll keep the large sign in her window until he says it's okay to take it down, she says. The new owners, she acknowledges, may have not broken any laws, "but they've replaced a favorite neighbor with an empty slum."

Things are more nuanced for some neighbors, including a few who declined to comment publicly for this article. Ron Bogely, also a next-door neighbor, approaches the topic with extreme caution. "I want to be in as far a neutral corner as I can be," he says. "It's like the Twilight Zone. We have heard so many different things about what happened. Nobody knows what really happened — it's all too murky."

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