Michael Warren offered an internet course consisting of hours of video purporting to teach people how to obtain ownership of homes without actually having to pay for them, but instead filing some kind of paperwork.
Tessa Modiri, a dentist, and her husband, Cesar Tellez-Zuniga, a real estate agent from Carroll County, fell for the scam, their attorneys said.
From June 16-22, 2021, Warren, Modiri and Tellez-Zuniga were part of a group of people who occupied a 10,000-square-foot mansion, valued at more than $1 million and situated on 2 acres of land on Falls Road in Baltimore County that was up for sale. Someone taped what law enforcement described as legal documents to the windows and placed chains across the driveways with “No Trespassing” signs on them, Baltimore County Police said.
Modiri believed their actions were legal and even filed a lawsuit claiming ownership of the home.
“Access to the inside of the property was gained by way of a broken back door on the residence,” Modiri wrote in the complaint. “Upon entry I noticed that the property was clearly abandoned. It was completely vacant and barren.”
When law enforcement took Warren into custody, he had credit cards issued to “Byqahyah Moeshe” and “Sovo Privatization” and used language similar to members of the sovereign citizens movement, police said. The FBI considers the movement — in which members believe they’re separate from the United States and don’t have to answer to government authority — a domestic terrorism threat.
More than one year later, Modiri, 37, and Tellez-Zuniga, 30, both of Bel Air, entered Alford pleas on Thursday in Baltimore County Circuit Court to charges of trespassing. That means they maintained their innocence but acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to obtain a conviction.
Circuit Judge Andrew M. Battista struck the findings of guilt and sentenced them to probation before judgment. That’s what the state had recommended in the cases.
“They were the victims in this — they were taken in by a con man,” said Craig Kadish, Modiri’s attorney, outside the courtroom. “And leave no doubt: Mr. Warren is a consummate con man.”
Kadish said his client has no criminal record and would not have filed the lawsuit laying claim to the mansion if she knew her actions were illegal. “Criminals hide their identities, right?” he said. “You don’t put it out there in the public domain.”
“Obviously, Dr. Modiri’s a smart lady. She was duped. She was a victim,” Kadish said. “From the moment they realized this was not a legal act, they immediately went and tried to fix every single thing they could,” he later added.
He described the resolution in her case as the “right outcome for this situation.”
Tellez-Zuniga’s attorney, Andrew Alperstein, said his client acted under an honest but unreasonable belief that his actions were legal.
Alperstein emphasized that his client’s conduct, though, was not lawful.
Modiri and Tellez-Zuniga were on vacation out of state and appeared via Zoom for the court proceedings. They declined to make statements before sentencing.
Following the hearing, Assistant State’s Attorney Hannah Bruchman declined to comment.
The state dropped charges including burglary, malicious destruction of property and conspiracy.
Warren, 45, of Bel Air, previously entered Alford pleas to burglary and illegal possession of a regulated firearm and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with all but three years suspended. He received credit for the 308 days that he spent incarcerated awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s office dropped the charges against a woman, 38, of Moorestown, New Jersey, who was also a member of the group. Another woman member, Kia Dyer, 35, of Cockeysville, is set to appear on July 8 for a motions hearing.
The home sold later in 2021 for $1.1 million, according to property records.