(Updates with police comment, details)
By Scot J. Paltrow
Nov 29 (Reuters) - A notary who was to be a lead witness in a major foreclosure fraud criminal case was found dead on Monday in her Las Vegas apartment, according to police.
Police said there was no sign of foul play and that the cause of death was unknown.
The notary, Tracy Lawrence, 43, had worked in Nevada for for Florida-based Lender Processing Services, the largest U.S. provider of mortgage services, including preparing foreclosure documents.
On Nov. 16, Nevada Attorney General Catherine Masto announced a 606-count indictment against two California-based LPS employees, Gary Trafford and Gerri Sheppard, accusing them of directing the filing of tens of thousands of “fraudulent documents” in Nevada foreclosure cases.
Lawrence had pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count in the case and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. In a telephone interview with Reuters, John Kelleher, Nevada’s chief deputy attorney general, said that Lawrence “was one of our key witnesses.” He said it was too early to tell what impact her death may have on the case but that it would go forward.
She had pleaded guilty to falsely notarizing Trafford’s signature, affixing her official stamp to his signature even though he wasn’t present.
Lawrence was due to be sentenced Monday on the single count, and the attorney general’s office had agreed to support her lawyer’s request for probation. But Lawrence failed to appear in court for the sentencing. The attorney general’s office called the police, who went to Lawrence’s apartment and discovered the body, Las Vegas Police Sergeant Matthew Sanford confirmed.
Sanford said in a phone interview that the death “currently is not being investigated as a homicide.” He said the cause of death likely won’t be known until completion of toxicology tests by the country coroner, which would take several weeks.
LPS, which wasn’t named in the indictment, has said that it has provided lawyers for Trafford and Sheppard to defend them against the charges. In a statement issued Nov. 17, LPS said that after an internal review the company “acknowledges the signing procedures on some of these documents were flawed; however, the company also believes these documents were properly authorized and their recording did not result in a wrongful foreclosure.”
Kelleher said the investigation is continuing and that additional indictments relating to false foreclosure documents may be forthcoming. Nevada has been among the states hardest hit by the collapse of the housing boom, with large numbers of homeowners in the Las Vegas area defaulting on mortgages. (Reporting by Scot J. Paltrow in New York; Editing by Claudia Parsons and Steve Orlofsky)