Updated 11/26/2014 to remove information that directly identified the property.
After a tense weekend when speculation about an imminent announcement heightened concerns about protests, on Monday morning the grand jury that had been hearing unusually detailed evidence and testimony for over 3 months announced that it had reached a decision as to whether there was probable cause to indict Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson – who is white – for the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown – who was black.
Just before the start of that weekend, at 4:41pm on Friday, November 21st, property owned by Darren Wilson and his now-wife Barbara Spradling was transferred into a trust, according to St. Louis County land records.
The timing is awfully suspect. Some key dates:
August 9 – During a confrontation, a police officer who was not identified shoots black teenager Michael Brown 6 times in rapid succession. Brown dies on the street almost immediately, but his body is not removed from the scene for over 4 hours. Extended protests ensue over the following weeks.
August 15 – Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson identifies Darren Wilson as the police officer involved in the shooting.
August 20 – A grand jury is convened to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Brown in order to determine if there is enough evidence to indict Wilson.
September 24 – “Sun and Sand LLC”, a trust, is registered with the Missouri Secretary of State’s office. Barbara Wiseheart, an estate planner, is the registered agent.
October 1 – A home in the Lister Heights subdivision of St. Louis (Green Park) is sold to “Sun and Sand Trust”.
October 15 – The mortgage companies (grantors) release the deed.
October 24 – Darren Wilson and Barbara Spradling, a fellow police officer, are married in the Recorder of Deed’s office in Clayton, MO.
November 21, 4:32pm – Barbara Wiseheart, as trustee for “Sun & Sand Trust”, conveys the Lister Heights property to Darren D. Wilson and Barbara L. Spradling.
November 21, 4:41pm – Darren D. Wilson and Barbara L. Spradling convey the property back to the trust.
Why is that important? It gives the appearance of sheltering assets in advance of a lawsuit, which in this case would be either an indictment leading to trial and/or a civil claim by Brown’s family. There is nothing inherently wrong with sheltering assets – families do it, small business owners do it, doctors with medical practices do it. It can be a sensible strategy for ensuring that personal assets are protected from the unexpected, such as a spurious, overreaching lawsuit. And yes, it can also be used as a strategy for hiding assets from the legitimate reach of the law.
Putting property into a trust will not by itself shelter assets, though, unless the trust is irrevocable. There is another way to protect property from claims: hold property as tenants by the entirety. Essentially, each person holds 100% interest in the property, and the property cannot be sold or attached to satisfy a judgment without the involvement or consent of both spouses. This article summarizes the prerequisites:
In order to hold property as tenants by the entirety, four stringent conditions must be met:
- You must live in a state that still recognized this form of property ownership.
- The property must be your personal residence.
- You must be married to your “co-tenant.” This form of ownership is only available to spouses.
- You must take title as tenants by the entirety at the same time and with the same deed.
The Sun and Sand Trust was set up before the marriage took place, and thus cannot be considered a qualified spousal trust which would carry the protection of tenants by the entirety. The trust also purchased the house before the marriage occurred, and so the house would not be fully protected from attachment in the event of a court judgment rendered against Wilson. (It could also be argued that, given the timing relative to the grand jury case, the trust itself might have been set up fraudulently.) That is in all likelihood why on late Friday afternoon the property was transferred to Wilson and Spradling and then, having taken title “as tenants by the entirety at the same time and with the same deed”, the property was then immediately conveyed by them back to the trust.
The timing could have been just a coincidence. Could have been. Maybe the couple had already been planning to get married and merge their assets well before the events of August. But given all that we’ve been learning about the unusual nature and length of this grand jury process and the insider ways the legal system seems to work in Ferguson and St. Louis County, I very much doubt it. Perhaps sifting through prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s document dump and analyzing McCulloch’s background, alleged bias, and the overall strategy for presenting the case – the public jury reviewing the grand jury – will help us understand why it really took so long.