Jurors decided Friday that David Farr, also known as Javani Ali, was not a community servant.
Ali was found guilty of theft of more than a million dollars in the form of six houses on the South Side.
The basic facts were never in dispute: Ali, along with a partner, took over vacant houses, mostly bank-owned, without permission. He lived in one and put tenants in the others. Ali said he believed himself to be operating within the law, based on his own reading.
His project appeared to be part protest, part Robin Hood, and part hustle. The primary victims were mostly financial institutions that had a hand in causing the mortgage crisis that left these homes vacant in the first place.
Ali, acting as his own attorney, claimed the moral high ground in opening statements.
“I fixed up vacant properties,” he told the jury. “You may say, ‘He did illegal things.’ I say, we’re all responsible for fixing our community.”
However, an early prosecution witness undermined any idea that banks were the only victims: Tonya Lloyd still owned a house on Longwood Avenue when Ali took it over in 2014. At the time, she was working out of town, and was behind on her mortgage.
Lloyd said she attempted a “short sale” — an agreement with the bank to sell the property for less than the value of the mortgage — which would have lowered the amount she owed the bank.
Ali installed tenants who did not leave, even after Lloyd called police, and he filed paperwork with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds that claimed he was now the owner. Ali’s efforts made the short sale impossible, Lloyd said.
The bank ended up taking possession of the home, leaving her on the hook for a much bigger loss, Lloyd testified.
In closing arguments, prosecutors described tenants who “endured a Chicago winter without heat or electricity.”
“The notion that he was helping the community is ridiculous,” Assistant State’s Attorney Yvette Loizon told the jury. “The only person he was helping was himself.”
In his closing arguments, Ali admitted “things got twisted” at times and expressed some regret. However, he did not admit to wrongdoing.
“We all have the right to make a claim against the owner of a property, if it is an eyesore,” he said. “Did Mr. Ali do that? You bet I did.”
Jurors didn’t buy it. They deliberated for less than an hour before announcing a guilty verdict.
One juror, Kathleen Jezek of Glenview, said what surprised her most was how long it took authorities to arrest and try Ali, who first started taking over houses in 2012.
“I think the state wanted to get enough evidence that there was no doubt we could possibly have about a guilty verdict,” she said.
Sentencing will come later. Ali’s partner will be tried separately in October.
Dan Weissmann is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @danweissmann.