Investigative Story Joins Football Coverage in Top Ten

Why is a piece of high-minded investigative journalism hanging out with the usual empty-headed rabble on the most-popular list at the Denver Post?

(The Most Post is an occasional look at the most popular, most blogged, and most emailed stories on the Web.)

It’s not every day that the Most Post spots a piece of high-minded investigative journalism hanging out with the usual empty-headed rabble on the most-viewed lists. But yesterday, while perusing the list of the most popular articles on the Web site of the Denver Post, we found just that — a story about an alleged real estate scam significantly contributing to Colorado’s already mile-high home foreclosure rates.

It being an autumn Monday morning in Denver, the article about the real estate swindle was flanked on all sides by articles about football. Of the ten most popular stories on the list, nine were related to the Denver Broncos. (Sample headline: “In this horse race, Colts the top bronco.”)

So why was this bold real estate article capable of taking the field alongside the big boys of the NFL?

As it turns out, the story, called “Steal of a Deal,” by staff writer David Olinger, was the latest dispatch in an ongoing series at the Post looking at why Colorado currently has the highest foreclosure rate in the nation.

The Most Post can get awfully drowsy just looking at the words home foreclosure rates. And yet, it didn’t take long to figure out this article was no snoozer:

On an autumn day two years ago, Colorado issued a warrant to arrest Taiwan Lee, a state prisoner who had vanished on parole.

He hadn’t gone far. While police looked for him, he bought three houses at inflated prices in Arapahoe County with the help of lenders who put up the entire $1.9 million.

After he was caught and jailed, he managed to buy two more. Until the foreclosures commenced, Lee owned five villas in an affluent gated community while living behind prison bars 150 miles away.

The cast of characters in this foreclosure tale includes drug dealers who went straight from prison to the home-acquisition business, a developer with ties to an international Christian group, a state-licensed real estate broker who saw nothing peculiar and an appraiser who has disappeared.

And with that, the Most Post had forgotten all about football.

From there, Olinger delved into a suburban subdivision outside of Denver where more than twenty houses had recently sold at suspiciously high prices, remained vacant for months on end, and then one by one lapsed into foreclosure. Neighbors eventually grew suspicious. Police investigated. Criminal and civil lawsuits ensued. And gradually the alleged scam unfurled.

“Typically, in inflated home price schemes, a buyer asks the seller to raise the price and give back cash or other concessions at closing,” writes Olinger. “The seller gets rid of the house. And a distant lender often supplies 100 percent financing, or more money than the house is worth.”

“This kind of activity can damage a neighborhood in several ways,” he adds. “Inflated sales encourage neighbors to overestimate the values of their own homes and borrow too much against their equity. Assessors can be fooled and levy higher property-tax bills. And in many cases, the buyer never moves in, blighting a block with a vacant house.”

All in all, it’s a captivating story about a serious problem. And one that appears to be widespread in Colorado. Reached by phone yesterday, Olinger said that since publication, calls have been rolling into the Post from other homeowners in the area who have witnessed similarly suspicious shenanigans in their neighborhoods.

“We’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback,” says Olinger. “People want to know, ‘Who do we call? What do we do?’”

Olinger says that until speaking with the Most Post he was unaware that the story had successfully lodged itself on the Post’s most popular list. “I’m a little bit surprised,” says Olinger. “As a rule, when we look at where the hits are coming from on our Web site, nine out of ten will be the Denver Broncos. And 10 will be the Denver Nuggets.”

So what accounts for the story’s aberrant appearance on the list?

Says Olinger, “You really can’t lose with a home buyer who is a fugitive and yet manages to pick up three homes before they catch him and two more once he’s already in jail.”

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.