Wednesday, October 25, 2006
How America's Homegrown Terrorists Operate
How Sam Dickson Got Rich
The former Klan lawyer from Atlanta has always been interested in money. What's remarkable is how he's been able to earn it.
by Alexander Zaitchik
One afternoon in July of 2005, Atlanta real estate investor Steven Ogletree received an unusual phone call. On the other end of the line was a local retired lawyer and real estate prospector named Sam Dickson. Ogletree had never heard of Dickson, knew nothing of his outspoken white supremacism, and was surprised when the pushy stranger urged him to undersell a plot of land in Atlanta's resurgent Vine City district. Dickson claimed to have already bought out Ogletree's three junior partners; he now needed the remaining portion to gain full title. Dickson named a price and demanded that the deed be signed over to him at once.
Ogletree recoiled, refusing the offer. It took several more phone calls, offers and rejections before a flustered Dickson told Ogletree that he no longer believed he was speaking to the right person. The reason, Dickson said, was that Ogletree sounded African-American, which indeed he was. Dickson declared that "no black man was capable" of masterminding such a profitable investment, Ogletree said.
The statement was a revealing burst of honesty in Sam Dickson's short but lucrative career in real estate. The year before, Dickson had declared at a conference sponsored by former Klan leader David Duke that "Negroes ... are hopeless."
But not without their uses, especially when they own property. It was at that same conference that Dickson declared, apropos of not much at all, "I like money. There's no virtue in poverty. I want money."
So he does. Since 2001, Dickson, a 59-year-old former Klan attorney and active veteran of numerous extreme-right causes and groups, has built a multi-million dollar business in the niche field of tax lien and title acquisition. His success has depended in no small part on keeping his otherwise well-known racism concealed from his targets, many of whom are poor and black. According to those who have observed and worked with Dickson, his profits have been earned through a combination of bullying, stealth, and legal pretzel-making in the arcane world of tax lien purchases, redemptions and foreclosures. When contacted, Dickson declined to comment on the charges.
Though unusual for the surfacing of racist bile, Ogletree's anecdote is consistent with other reports of Dickson's methods.
"Before he insulted me, he tried to swindle me," says Ogletree. "Everything he told me was an exaggeration. He called me at midnight and threatened me, using jargon, as if he had some special powers because he passed the bar. I wasn't intimidated by him, but [what if] he does this to defenseless old ladies, and makes it sound as if a siren is coming to their door -- it's just evil."
It's profitable, too.
Famous for their complex legal and procedural nuances, tax lien and deed auctions are essentially how cities and counties collect delinquent property taxes. In the case of south Atlanta's newly revitalized black neighborhoods, where Dickson is most active, the lots in question are sometimes little more than narrow strips of overgrown weeds.
But in today's high-growth Atlanta, where land values are soaring in neighborhoods considered worthless a decade ago, these craggy patches are worth chasing.
The chase begins when someone like Dickson purchases an unpaid tax debt. The purchaser (or "transferee," because the tax debt has been transferred to him) then has a legal obligation to notify the owners of record of the property that the execution of the unpaid tax debt has been transferred to him. If the notice to an owner of record is returned undelivered, the transferee has an obligation to try to identify his whereabouts and notify him. At this stage the property owners can clear the tax debt by paying the amount owed, plus certain fees and interest at the statutory rate, to the transferee.
But the clock is ticking. If the transferee's bill goes unpaid too long, he can force a sale of the property. At such an official tax sale, there is rarely much money left over for the property owners after the taxes, interest, fees, and other expenses are paid. Faced with this prospect, the property owners may end up selling their property to someone like Dickson to get what they can.
"Sam Dickson creates a sense of false urgency about the back taxes," says Dan West, a disgruntled former business partner of Dickson's who runs a real estate firm specializing in tax lien and deed acquisition. "He won't inform people of their full rights. He'll twist the information to gain their interest in the lot."
There is an industry phrase for Dickson's style: "Bullying title." It's not illegal, but it's
not a pretty sight.
Nightmare on Ormond Street
Deborah Hobson has seen Dickson the Bull charge. In 1993, Hobson's mother and father died within a month of each other. They left no will, but Hobson didn't think she needed a piece of paper to tell her that she and her two sisters had rights to her mother's "shotgun shack" at 76 Ormond Street in southwest Atlanta. Hobson paid the taxes on the land until 1995, when she fell behind. In September, 2003, Sam Dickson bought the tax deed on the south Atlanta property for $7,000.
Here began Deborah Hobson's self-described "nightmare."
Within days of acquiring the deed, Dickson approached Hobson about buying her interest in the property. She was entertaining the idea of selling, she says, until she realized that Dickson had no intention of offering anything near fair market value; his first offer was $1,500 on a lot worth between $35,000 and $60,000. She told him that she did not want to sell the land. Instead, she would try to pull together the money needed to redeem the tax deed and retain all her pre-existing rights to the property, possibly by cracking open her 401(k) account.
That's not what Sam Dickson wanted to hear. Hobson says that he stepped up pressure on her and her sisters to sell the property at once, telling them to forget ever trying to pay his bill. Unable to convince Deborah Hobson, Dickson began contacting her sisters independently, playing one off the other, whispering that their family spokesperson in the matter, Deborah, did not have their best interest at heart and was costing them money.
At one point, Dickson even tracked down a Hobson sister at the hospital where she was being treated for a head injury. He suggested he come down and she sign the papers then and there.
"When we refused to sell, he got aggressive. He was relentless. I felt like I was being stalked," remembers Deborah Hobson. "I considered trying to get my Cingular Wireless records and suing him for harassment."
"He'd leave these threatening letters on my door," says Hobson. "They'd say, 'I know you're bitter because you lost your land, but you aren't going to get it back so you might as well take what you can get.' It was like, how dare we question him! He's a liar and a snake in the grass."
Worn down and eager to be rid of Dickson, the Hobson sisters hired a lawyer to sell their property to someone else. The other buyer offered them more than Dickson — but still less than what the property was worth — but by then money was no longer the sisters' main concern.
"It got so ugly that we took the path of least resistance," explains Deborah Hobson. "We still didn't get fair market value, but I would have given it away just to keep that evil man from getting his hands on my mother's house."
It was after months of dealing with Dickson and his associates that Hobson learned of her suitor's Klan connections and extreme views on race. After running an Internet search on Dickson, she was furious and horrified.
"I started to have nightmares about him," she says. "I couldn't believe this man was coming to my home, that I ever talked business with him. It will always haunt me."
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