CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Story highlights:
- Many 'sovereigns' squatting in homes across North Carolina
- Problem started to arise in 2009
- More laws hope to be passed to fight the problem
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ninti El-Bey walked up the steps to a lavish Piper Glen home trailed by a bevy of TV news cameras.
"I'm lawfully here," she said responding to questions.
She walked through the front door of the home and closed the doors. In court records, El-Bey states the property is owned by the "International Indigenous Trust."
Mecklenburg County property records prove otherwise -- that the home is in foreclosure and is owned by a bank.
An investigation by Eyewitness News found El-Bey’s situation is far from unique.
Sovereign citizens a "plague," some say
Sgt. Kory Flowers of the Greensboro Police Department said the problem began to arise in North Carolina in 2009. With the economy faltering, people were adopting the idea of sovereign citizenship. It includes the belief they are exempt from government, law and taxes.
- RAW CLIP How sovereign squatters operate:
"That was also the time that several of our street officers had problems with sovereigns and then ended up getting sued," Flowers said.
Sovereign citizens would often file bogus liens and lawsuits against officers, prosecutors and judges who encountered them. Flowers described it as "paper terrorism."
Flowers and his partner began training themselves and studying the variety of methods used by sovereign citizens.
"That was really our introduction, and we started digging into the movement, the subversive movement, and determined that it, honestly, it's a worldwide phenomenon."
Moorish Science Temple of America
Flowers said a large number of the cases involving sovereign citizens are tied to the Moorish Science Temple of America.
The religion, founded in 1913 by a Durham native, has roots in Islam. It has strong populations in North Carolina and New Jersey.
In court records obtained by Channel 9, El-Bey uses various Moorish references. One document is signed, "A widow, of a Moorish Empire. Autographed by: Ninti El-Bey, Living Soul, Authorized Representative." Another one reads, "Secured Party Affiant, Ninti: El Bey: Moorish Consuls, Diplomats and Ministers".
Her name itself, El-Bey, is one commonly adopted by followers of the church. Experts say the individuals involved in these schemes have twisted the religion's teachings.
"The vast majority have taken that original philosophy and I would say pornographed it to their use," said Flowers. "[They] have adhered it to sovereignty. It's not the original understanding of that ideology."
Officials with the Moorish Science Temple of America distanced themselves from those who believe in sovereign citizenship.
Brother D.A. Siggers-Bey, an Assistant Grand Mufti with the Moorish Science Temple of America, told Eyewitness News the church does not recognize individuals who choose to break the law. He said many who claim to be Moorish "have never seen the inside of one of our temples."
He went further to say it's in direct violation of the Moorish teachings. Siggers-Bey said they specifically teach to follow government law.
Squatting in homes
In some of the most high profile cases involving church followers, people are squatting in lavish homes.
- RAW CLIP How the squatting starts:
Neighbors in Piper Glen noticed the problem in early October in a home on Kelly Woods Lane.
Jerry Miller, an attorney representing the homeowners association, told Eyewitness News El-Bey likely broke in, but getting her out wasn't easy. Police were frequently at the home dealing with her, according to neighbors.
Flowers said it's not always as simple as going in and removing someone from a residence. If that person claims to have documentation proving they live there, it's not officers' jobs to determine the authenticity.
The squatters are often assertive and aggressive, experts say.
"How do you deal with somebody who says, ‘I'm not coming out, I'll talk to you through the door, I'm not coming out, and further, we're thinking about retaliating on your aggressive act of war," Flowers asked.
On Nov. 7, El-Bey was arrested for trespassing and breaking and entering at the home on Kelly Woods Lane, but neighbors reported seeing her back inside the next day.
"It's an intimidation factor that they use, and they use it very well," said a neighbor who asked not to be identified.
Eyewitness News went by the home three times the week of Nov. 9 hoping to speak to El-Bey but no one ever answered the door. Reporter Blake Hanson also called her and left a voicemail on Nov. 12. Later that day a cease and desist letter was faxed to Channel 9.
The fax also contained an affidavit in support of a civil suit outlining why she believed various officers and judges violated her rights.
At one point she writes, "...there is no higher entitlement to property and land in the United States of America than that of Ninti El Bey."
El-Bey was arrested again on Nov. 17. Prosecutors charged her with trespassing and breaking and entering for a second time. At a court hearing the following day, the judge set as a condition of her bond that she not return to the home.
Tax fraud schemes
Flowers said sovereign citizens often believe in a theory called "redemption." The idea is based on the claim that when the government went off the gold standard in the 1930s, it made its citizens a form a "human capital" so it could borrow money.
The theory goes on to claim the government created a fictitious person called a "straw man" that corresponds with each citizen. Under the theory, anytime the government writes a citizen's name in capital letters it is referring to the straw man (like on a Social Security card).
Believers say that upon birth, each person's straw man account holds hundreds of thousands of dollars and accrues interest over time. The focus of redemption theory is that sovereign citizens can obtain money by filing a series of legal documents and false tax forms to try to access the records. In return, the government usually slaps on fraud charges.
A high-profile tax fraud case involving a Moorish follower recently passed through Charlotte's federal courthouse.
Tebnu El-Bey, also known as Daniel Heggins, pleaded guilty earlier this month in his tax fraud case. Prosecutors charged him and Joan Clark with one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and 16 counts of filing false, fictitious or fraudulent claims.
The duo operated Guarantor Manufacturer Inc. and advertised to people who owed debts, investigators said. Once people paid up front, Heggins and Clark used the information to file false returns seeking more than $4 million combined, prosecutors said.
His family, and court documents, both acknowledge he was a member of the Moorish Science Temple of America.
In an interview, Heggins' sister disputed the claim that he doesn't believe in U.S. law.
"He doesn't have a problem following the rules," Crystal Perkins said. "He didn't do anything. It's a whole big mess."
Several laws have been passed over the past four years targeting bogus filings.
State Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Denton, authored bills to target bogus marriage certificates and birth certificate bills. He said he will look into introducing even more in the future.
- RAW CLIP Why squatting is more of an issue these days:
"I envision North Carolina down the road -- we'll be smart about how we deal with these sovereign citizens, but I see it as a growing epidemic," Bingham said.
Flowers worked on the governor's crime commission to help write a law that made filing bogus liens a felony instead of a misdemeanor. He believes that publicity is important.
"I just think the best solution is education about this particular problem, or challenge, because it's just unique, it's unlike any other challenge," Flowers said.
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