Thomas Hill thought a friend was putting him on last fall when he asked how much Hill got for selling his share of an Allentown house, a three-story "painted lady" with a distinctive tower that won a beautification award from the Allentown Association.
Hill had been in Washington State for the past five years, taking care of his ailing sister, but he wasn't that out of touch. He still owned half the house at 33 Elmwood Ave.
No, his friend insisted, Hill was wrong. Word was out in Buffalo's close-knit gay community that Hill had sold, and the new owner had put a ton of money in the place.
So how much did he get?
"I didn't get any money, I didn't sell my house," Hill said. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing."
It wasn't until Hill called the Erie County clerk's office that he found he was indeed homeless, that someone had stolen his house out from under him.
The deed showed he had signed away his share of the house in October 1993 to his former partner, Barry Smith, a Toronto school teacher. The two had bought the house in 1991 for $80,000.
The transfer bore the signature of Thomas P. Hill Jr.
But it was not the elegant signature with flourishes and exclamation point that Hill, a full-blooded Quinault Indian, uses to sign his name.
This signature was small and shaky, and such a poor forgery that it didn't take an FBI handwriting analysis -- which was done later -- to prove it wasn't Hill's.
Hill then discovered that the impostor, who went to attorney William D. Scott's office in the fall of 1993 to sign away the house, didn't look a thing like him.
As Hill points out, there are not many 5 foot 4 inch Native Americans in Buffalo, as he is, who wear their hair in long braids down to the waist.
The bogus Thomas P. Hill Jr. was tall, with dark hair and a beard, mustache or goatee, Scott later said. Hill's hair is sandy-colored, and he's clean shaven.
With the help of Buffalo attorney Keith D. Perla, Hill put together a case that prosecutors from the Erie County district attorney's office last Friday presented to a grand jury. He also brought a civil suit in U.S. District Court.
"I want my house back," Hill said after his grand jury testimony.
Hill said he also got swindled out of a 1992 Dodge, which was nearly new when he left it in the garage at 33 Elmwood. Again, the transfer carries a badly forged copy of Hill's signature.
Deputy District Attorney Christopher J. Belling confirmed that prosecutors are awaiting the grand jury's report but declined comment.
Hill said he was questioned before the grand jury about Smith and Carmello Ranno, more commonly known as Carl Rosetti, who is currently living in the house at 33 Elmwood.
Smith declined comment. Ranno, the owner of CAR Construction Co., said Hill's claims are false.
"His lover and boyfriend owned the house; he left five years ago," Ranno said of Hill.
"The guy's an opportunist," Ranno said. "I'll finish with him in court."
Scott, the lawyer who handled the bogus deed transfer, confirmed that he testified before the grand jury.
Scott, formerly Ranno's attorney, said Ranno, Smith and a man claiming to be Thomas Hill came to his office sometime during 1993 so Hill could sign the property over to Smith.
After the real Thomas Hill complained about Scott's involvement to the state grievance committee that investigates lawyers' conduct, Scott wrote Ranno to tell him he was no longer representing him.
In the letter sent March 5, Scott wrote Ranno: "It appears that both you and Barry Smith have intentionally involved me in the commission of a crime."
In a separate letter to the lawyers' grievance committee, Scott said he recorded the deed transferring the house to Smith on Nov. 1, 1993. He said Ranno bought the place the following March by assuming a $58,777 mortgage and giving Smith a $5,000 promissory note.
But Ranno later told the lawyer not to record the deed, Scott said, and he eventually returned the documents to Ranno.
Ranno denied last week that he owned the house. He said he did all the rehabilitation work on the house and elegant rear gardens that helped it win the Allentown Association award.
But he said Smith paid for it, Smith still owns the house, and he (Ranno) is only a tenant.
Scott said Monday that he has no idea who it was who claimed to be Thomas Hill, and that he relied on the word of his client, Ranno, that it indeed was Hill who signed over the house.
In addition to his grand jury testimony, Scott gave a full account of the case to the attorneys' grievance committee. He said the committee had closed its case against him.
Hill said he wants his house and his car returned.
State Department of Motor Vehicles records show the title first was transferred from Hill to Ranno, then to Smith. Hill said he saw the car parked recently in front of Smith's house in Mississauga, Ont.
Hill said he wants Ranno and Smith prosecuted and said he also has sued them both for civil damages in federal court.
But most of all, Hill said, "I want my house back."