By Kelle Schillaci
(Originally published in the November 2012 issue of The National Notary magazine)
Criminal trials tend to be full of drama, but the news coming out of California’s high desert about one particular case has the juicy plot of a well-crafted Hollywood script — fraud, forgery, deception, and murder — with a twist. A diligent Notary, who recorded a conspirator’s thumbprint in his journal, helped bring the murderers to justice.
The case began in 2008 when two San Francisco Bay area men targeted 74-yearold Palm Springs resident Clifford Lambert in a plot that would rob the man of his home, his money, and eventually his life. But despite a plan two years in the making and involving at least six co-conspirators, the criminals made one very critical error. They had an imposter, posing as Lambert, enter a Notary office to sign several power of attorney documents, transferring property and possessions to one of the criminals.
“They drained (Lambert’s) bank account, used his credit cards, they took his house, used his cars, they took everything down to his shoes,” said Deputy District Attorney Lisa DiMaria. “They erased him.”
They even took his dog. But they left something in return: the thumbprint of conspirator David Replogle, a San Francisco attorney, who was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the plot. His four co-conspirators also have been convicted — the last two in September — and are either serving or facing lengthy prison sentences.
“The most important material piece of evidence linking [the suspect] to the murder was the thumbprint in the Notary journal,” said John Hall, the Senior Public Information Specialist with the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office.
Replogle impersonated the victim on two separate occasions to get powers of attorney notarized, according to court documents. Following California law, the Notary had Replogle leave his fingerprints beside his journal entries.
Protecting The Public
While Notaries may not wear badges or uniforms, the high-profile Clifford Lambert murder case illustrates the valuable role they play in serving the public by providing evidence in investigations. Thumbprints collected in journals can deter crime while also protecting the Notary from liability.
A Notary’s primary responsibility is to ensure the proper identification of a signer. But there is clearly a limit as to how far one can go in his or her efforts. If the identification appears authentic, and the photo and physical description of the signer seem to match that of the ID, a Notary is likely to proceed, barring any other indication that something is amiss.
As criminal cases have shown, however, there are ways to hijack this system. There is, for example, the case of identical twins, whose IDs might look as similar as their DNA, or criminals who may impersonate a victim — which is something Notary Ed Newsom witnessed firsthand.
“You can lie about your name, fake a signature, but your fingerprint is inviolable,” says Newsom, whose practice of always taking signer’s fingerprints came in particularly handy several years back.
When a man walked into Newsom’s UPS store in Thousand Oaks, California, needing a grant deed for his Beverly Hills property notarized, Newsom was happy to oblige. The man presented proper ID, he resembled the photo, and he didn’t object to being thumbprinted as part of the transaction.
It wasn’t until two years later, when a private investigator reached out to him, that Newsom learned that the actual property owner to whom the deeds rightfully belonged had been murdered. The criminals had stolen the man’s driver’s license and hired an actor to impersonate him before the Notary, one who bore enough resemblance that Newsom didn’t bat an eye. Luckily for him, the fingerprints didn’t lie, and Newsom was able to quickly access the signer’s prints in his journal, helping law enforcement identify the imposter, and protecting Newsom against litigation.
As Newsom’s encounter illustrates, crimes can go undiscovered for years, and a Notary may be hard-pressed to recall details of a past notarization. But a journal record and thumbprint makes up for that.
Currently, Illinois and California are the only states with thumbprint laws, and California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a law expanding the notarial thumbprint requirement in his state.
Even in states that do not require it, recording the irrefutable evidence of a thumbprint helps protect Notaries from potential liability, should a case ever go to court, even years after the notarization.
Gaylor Smith, a Notary Signing Agent from Oceanside, California, recalled the time he answered a late afternoon call from a man who needed Smith’s services. Smith promptly responded and arrived at the beachfront home belonging to the caller’s aunt, where he was asked to notarize a deed transferring title to the property to the nephew.
A licensed California real estate broker, Smith admitted that the transaction seemed unusual, but he deemed the signer mentally and physically capable of making the decision to sign, and she presented acceptable ID.
Smith did everything by the book, but he was contacted several months later by a law firm requesting to see his journal. They specifically asked to see the signer’s thumbprint. The print was deemed genuine, and Smith never again heard from the law firm. That was an important lesson. To this day, he asks to ink the thumbs of all of his signers for all notarizations, and he has yet to have a signer refuse.
Whether required by law or not, Notaries in most states may request a thumbprint for their journal. Notaries who exercise this option further protect themselves from liability, in the same way they do when checking signer IDs or making sure that their Notary seal and journal are always secure. In some cases, a simple print analysis might indicate that the signer is, in fact, who they say they are, and a crisis is averted. In other cases, the lines of one’s thumb might reveal an imposter, a cheat, or even a murderous con artist. In the end, recording thumbprints protects everyone.