Editor’s Note: As 2022 comes to a close, Asheville Watchdog staffers take you back and inside their most memorable stories and news events of the year.

Local and state law enforcement officers entered the Biltmore Park home of Lisa K. Roberts in the early morning hours of Feb. 2, 2022, with warrants to search her home, seize her records, and arrest her on nine felony counts of notarizing an action by fraud or forgery.

My investigative series, Equity Erased, published in the three months prior, had detailed how Buncombe homeowners, many of them elderly and Black, lost years and sometimes generations of property wealth in deals with Roberts and Asheville investor Robert Perry Tucker II. Tucker, who is also an attorney, has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Mary Thompson lost some $70,000 in equity on her house // Photo credit: Pat Barcas, Asheville Watchdog

The series had been more than a year in the making. We’d published five stories toward the end of 2021, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, there were more yet to be told.

With any investigative series, especially one as labor-intensive as this, you hope at a minimum to raise awareness, shine a light where none existed before.

I received news of Roberts’s arrest from the daughter of an elderly woman in my series. Another woman I’d profiled told me, “We’ve been praying that she’s stopped, and somebody would pay attention.”

Document Overload, Reporting Dead Ends

Many of you know that most of us here at Asheville Watchdog are volunteers. We’re veteran journalists who came from major media markets to this lovely mountain community to retire. We’re still working on that last part.

Each of us gravitates toward the kind of journalism we know and love. For me, that’s investigative reporting.

I spent my 30-year newspaper career in Florida, most of that on investigations teams, where we typically spent three months to more than a year on a single story — researching, interviewing, writing, editing, and lawyering an investigative series. The topics changed, but the goals were the same: righting an injustice, exposing a problem that those in power had been unable or unwilling to solve, and speaking up for those least able to do so for themselves.  

Like many investigative stories, Equity Erased started with a tip — to look into real estate deals involving Tucker and Roberts, who also goes by Lisa Roberts Allen. Checking it out involved a deep-dive into property and court records, and multiple, often fruitless attempts to speak to property owners. More often than not, phone numbers would be disconnected, emails would bounce back, and messages would go unreturned.

One reluctant source dodged my voicemails and texts and did not respond when I left a note on her door. I finally caught her on my third visit to her home, on a Sunday morning.

I made four trips to a Swannanoa church to interview and confirm facts with a minister whose family home had been sold, according to a deed, for just $500. On one visit, I sat in the parking lot for more than an hour waiting for a church service to end.

More Arrests, Investigations Continue

Roberts’s arrest did more than provide some semblance of justice for homeowners who felt wronged. It also helped a son solve a mystery involving his recently deceased father and led to another installment of Equity Erased on May 21.

George Jones and his house in Asheville

Drake Jones said he never knew his father, George, had taken out a reverse mortgage on his Asheville home until after his death in 2019. He’d seen an unfamiliar name as an alternate contact on his dad’s 2017 mortgage application, Lisa Allen, and then through an Internet search discovered Equity Erased and news of her arrest.

Jones wondered why Roberts was listed on his father’s mortgage application, and what happened to the loan proceeds. He contacted me, and we put the pieces together.

Drake Jones provided bank records that showed two payments to his father from the reverse mortgage totaling $74,617. Each time, the money was wired into George Jones’s account and transferred out the same day — to an account belonging to Roberts’s company.

The records also showed the address on George Jones’s bank account was changed at the time of each transfer — to P.O. Box 111 in a South Asheville area post office. The mailing address for Roberts’s company was P.O. Box 112 in the same post office.

Roberts has not been charged in Jones’s case. Drake Jones has contacted the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the F.B.I. and filed documents in Buncombe Superior Court, alleging his father was the victim of fraud. 

George Jones, 85, died on Christmas Day 2019, rear-ended while pulled over on the shoulder of Interstate 26 in Woodfin. An autopsy noted a concern of “advancing dementia.”

Drake Jones, while undergoing treatment for cancer, was left to fight the mortgage lender, American Advisors Group (AAG), which has been attempting to foreclose on George Jones’s house for repayment of the loan.

“It’s truly a miracle I survived to see this day where the truth is revealed,” Drake Jones told me. 

Less than a month after that story ran, on June 15, Roberts came to the Buncombe County Courthouse for a hearing on her nine felony fraud charges. As she waited on a bench for her case to be called, detectives with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office quietly led her out of the courtroom and down to the county jail, where she was booked on 32 additional counts of felony forgery related to allegations detailed in a December 2021 Equity Erased story.

That same day, detectives arrested Roberts’s attorney, Ilesanmi “Ile” O. Adaramola, on six felony counts of notary fraud.

Ilesanmi “Ile” O. Adaramola // Photo credit: Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office

Roberts was charged with forging the signature of her uncle in Gary, Ind., on deeds, mortgages, and checks in Buncombe County, and Adaramola was charged with notarizing the signatures on legal documents.

Reporting this story took months and involved hundreds of property and legal records, dozens of trips to the courthouse, and many miles on my car — the kind of reporting that is increasingly lost when corporate-owned newspapers cut staff and require their remaining reporters to write multiple stories a week. We created Asheville Watchdog in 2020 to fill that void and provide the kind of in-depth and investigative reporting that many newspapers can no longer do.

The criminal cases against Adaramola and Roberts are pending; both have declined to comment. Early on in my reporting, Tucker, through his attorney Peter R. Henry of Arden, denied any wrongdoing.

As of late December, investigations by the Buncombe County District Attorney, the North Carolina State Bar, and the North Carolina Attorney General were still open.

Equity Erased won three national journalism awards in 2022 and the top prize for Public Service from the North Carolina Press Association. I’m humbled by the recognition but mostly for the gratitude of readers and the community.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email skestin@avlwatchdog.org.

Asheville Watchdog gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Duke University School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic, with special thanks to Ben Rossi.

2 replies on “Year in Review: A Look Back at Equity Erased

  1. thank you sally for bringing outstanding journalism to asheville. it was sorely needed. this is what journalism looks like folks. great story and glad it resulted in charges. more charges are hopefully coming.

  2. Could you please look into Mission Hospital gets the county appraisal department to settle with “Mission Hospital settle with county appraisal for One hundred million LESS than original appraisal value, because this is best solution for all concerned.” That’s one quarter (1/4) or 25 percent reduction. Could this be because Mission Hospital has the resources (money, lawyers, time) to fight a long battle where as the average over valued home owner does not.

Comments are closed.