He thought he bought a lakeside home for $65K. The seller allegedly didn't own it.

Photo of Peter Yankowski
Eugene Tortorici, of Southbury, purchased a home from a man posing as the legitimate owner in 2021. He eventually purchased the home from the legitimate owner, and the man police said sold the home that didn't belong to him has been charged criminally.. Thursday, August 11, 2022, Newtown, Conn.

Eugene Tortorici, of Southbury, purchased a home from a man posing as the legitimate owner in 2021. He eventually purchased the home from the legitimate owner, and the man police said sold the home that didn't belong to him has been charged criminally.. Thursday, August 11, 2022, Newtown, Conn.

H John Voorhees III / Hearst Connecticut Media

NEWTOWN — The uninhabited home along the shoreline of Lake Zoar piqued Eugene Tortorici’s interest.

The self-described entrepreneur had wanted to purchase property along the lake, a reservoir on the Housatonic River that snakes through four towns in lower Connecticut.

Tortorici saw the waterfront property, located down a slope off Bankside Trail, as an investment in an up-and-coming neighborhood.

The little white house looked to be abandoned—one of only two abandoned properties Tortorici, a Southbury resident, was able to locate along the lake. Better still, a neighbor suggested to him the owner might be willing to sell.

But tracking down the owner, a Massachusetts man in his 60s, proved to be a challenge. Pulling the records from the town led him to a dead phone number and a P.O. box address.

“Me being persistent as I am with every business that I have, I’m like, I’m not stopping there,” the 32-year-old said in a recent phone interview.

While police records don’t indicate exact details of the search for the owner, an undeterred, Tortorici had his Realtor conduct a name search. It came back with three names— one was the contact information that led to a dead number. But when Tortorici called the second contact on the list, a man picked up.

“He says yeah, you found me. I’m the owner and I’d like to sell it,” Tortorici said. “That was the fraudster.”

It was the moment what could have been an ordinary real estate deal took a bizarre turn. Because the voice Tortorici heard over the phone did not belong to the actual owner, but another man entirely who police say impersonated the owner and agreed to sell the home to Tortorici.

Ultimately, the man Tortorici spoke with on the phone that day was identified by investigators as Edwin Robert Lewis III, of Willington. Newtown police charged him last month with second-degree money laundering, first-degree identity theft, first-degree larceny, criminal impersonation and second-degree forgery.

Lewis has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges. His attorney said in a statement last week that “we intend to present evidence in the appropriate forum to confirm his not guilty plea.”

Tortorici and the man agreed to a purchase price of $65,000, records show.

“Fast forward a couple months down the road, I buy it, completely correctly through attorneys,” Tortorici said. “He duped two law firms.”

The home was sold on July 26, 2021, records show.

Investigators believe the sale was able to go through because Lewis’ name was very close to to that of the genuine owner. The sale only raised suspicions for police after the real owner called Newtown police on Aug. 24 2021 and told them he believed his identity had been stolen, according to the warrant. The subsequent investigation led to the recent arrest.

A neighbor had noticed Tortorici was on the property and contacted the actual homeowner. “Thank God for him,” Tortorici said. “At the time I would have kept on investing” in the property.

The neighbor informed him that the owner had not, in fact, sold the property. Tortorici said he disregarded the neighbor at first— that was until the police became involved.

“I didn’t believe it,” he said. But police told him they were almost certain the man who had agreed to sell him the house was not who he claimed to be. They had triangulated the man’s cell phone, they told him, Tortorici said.

The warrant shows police were able to use the phone number for Lewis and a Virginia driver’s license for him to establish he was not the actual owner of the property. When police ran his identity through a state police criminal record system, they found Lewis had been arrested in Wethersfield in 2007 and charged with second-degree larceny, credit card theft, second-degree forgery, and criminal impersonation.

Details from that case were not immediately available.

Police also tied Lewis to the fraudulent sale through paperwork from the sale notorized at a bank in South Windsor on July 21, 2021, according to the warrant. Lewis’ phone location shows him near the bank on that date, and a man matching his description was seen on the bank’s surveillance photo having documents notarized there, according to the warrant.

There was another clue that had led Tortorici to believe he was dealing with the true owner of the home. A neighbor had told him when he first expressed interest in the house that the owner had tried to convert the home’s electrical system. Tortorici said the owner later denied that, but when he searched Lewis’ name, he learned he owned an electric company.

Records in the state’s Department of Consumer Protection show more than two dozen complaints were filed against Lewis dating back to 1996.

“Most of the complaints are related to conducting work without the appropriate credential or permits,” a spokeswoman for the agency said in an email.

The agency said Lewis held an electrical unlimited contractor license, which expired in 2000, and had his electrical unlimited journey person license revoked in 2006. In 2008, he was ordered to pay more than $6,000 in fines and restitution for doing electrical and plumbing work without permits, a press release said.

During the purchase, Tortorici said only one moment gave him pause. Early one morning during closing, around 4:30 a.m., Tortorici said he and his wife were awoken by a phone call from Lewis’ number. He picked up, but he said Lewis didn’t speak. Tortorici said he hung up and called back, but Lewis didn’t answer.

“I remember getting this weird feeling,” Tortorici said. “I felt really bad about it.” He called back the next day ready to walk away from the deal, but he said Lewis offered an excuse— claiming he’d pocket dialed Tortorici by mistake on his way to work.

Tortorici said he had to open a case and sit for an hours-long deposition, but after around 5 months, he was able to get his money back from the purchase. “I was ecstatic,” he recalled. “I literally started crying on the front step.”

Then he got a call from the real owner’s lawyer, who pointed out that the house was still in his name. He offered to quit his claim to the home. The lawyer told him he’d meet him at his door the following morning.

As the lawyer was leaving with the paperwork, “I told him listen, if he ever does want to sell it, it’s a long shot, if he ever does want to sell it, let me know,” Tortorici said.

A few days later the lawyer called him back and told him the real owner was interested in selling the home.

A month later, Tortorici bought the home again— this time, with a different attorney and different insurance policy, he said. The purchase price was $8,000 over his original purchase price from Lewis.

The owner, reached by phone Friday, declined to comment other than to say he was “grateful that the Newtown police concluded their investigation and that there was no violence upon the arrest.”

Court records show the owner later a suit in Connecticut civil court requesting that the courts identify him as the proper owner, and seeking damages. Tortorici was later removed from the suit.

Kent Mancini, an attorney with Cramer & Anderson who represented the owner in in the suit, said this week that the lawsuit is proceeding in parallel to the criminal case. He said he didn’t know about the second sale of the home.

Tortorici is unsure now exactly what he plans to do with the home, suggesting at one point he may fix the home up and move in, rather than flipping it, as he had originally planned.

“I’m going to make it nice, it’s going to be a nice property in the end,” he said.

After the sale closed, Tortorici said he and the real - now prior - owner of the property went out to lunch. Tortorici considers him a friend. The two, as he put it, have been through the ringer together.

“He didn’t do any of this,” Tortorici pointed out. “and that was the most horrible part for me, I’m like, I created all the problems for this poor guy— because I was the one door knocking, I was the one calling, I put this all into action.”

But, “I believe you do the right thing in life, you live righteously, things follow,” he said. “You know the worst luck of my life turned out to be one of the best afterwards.”