LAS VEGAS (AP) - A notary public found dead at her home after missing sentencing on a misdemeanor charge would have been a key witness against two Southern California title officers accused of orchestrating a massive mortgage foreclosure "robo-signing" fraud scheme, a state prosecutor said Wednesday.
Tracy Lawrence, 43, had agreed to testify against Geraldine Ann Sheppard, 62, of Santa Ana, Calif., and Gary Randall Trafford, 49, of Irvine, Calif., in a case alleging that tens of thousands of fraudulent foreclosure documents had been filed in Las Vegas, said John Kelleher, a chief deputy Nevada attorney general.
Sheppard and Trafford are identified as officers in a publicly traded company, Lender Processing Services Inc., based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that processes home repossessions for major banks across the country.
Company officials were not immediately available for comment Wednesday. But President and CEO Hugh Harris acknowledged in a Nov. 17 statement that signing procedures on some documents were flawed. However, the statement said the company also believes documents were properly authorized and their recording did not result in a wrongful foreclosure.
Lawrence would have faced up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine Monday after her Nov. 14 guilty plea to a single count of notarizing the signature of a person not in her presence.
Las Vegas police have said there were no obvious signs of foul play in Lawrence's death, and it wasn't being investigated as a homicide.
The Clark County coroner is conducting blood toxicology tests that could take up to eight weeks to complete before ruling on a cause and manner of Lawrence's death.
Kelleher said Lawrence received a favorable plea deal after agreeing to cooperate with the prosecution of Sheppard and Trafford. He said Lawrence estimated she fraudulently notarized more than 30,000 documents between 2005 and 2008 by attesting to the validity of signatures of people not in her presence. The documents were then filed with the Clark County recorder's office.
Trafford and Sheppard have not been arrested or appeared in a Nevada court to answer more than 200 felony charges of offering a false instrument and false certification of an instrument, and more than 100 misdemeanor notarization charges in the 439-page indictment handed up against them Nov. 16. They could face decades in prison if convicted.
Kelleher said three other notary witnesses testified before the Clark County District Court grand jury. Their names have not been made public.
Attorney Kenneth Julian of Costa Mesa, Calif., who represents Sheppard, declined to comment about the indictment and Lawrence's death. He said he was negotiating a court date and bail terms with Kelleher. Julian said a lawyer had not been hired for Trafford.
The indictment alleges that between 2005 and 2008, Trafford and Sheppard directed employees to notarize forged signatures on documents. The defendants then had the employees file the fraudulent notices of default with the Clark County recorder's office to begin home foreclosures.
Nevada has been the state hit hardest by the recession and the housing crisis, leading the nation in bankruptcies, foreclosures and unemployment.