The lobby and front counter at Ward Real Estate and
Foreclosure Inc. are expensively overlaid in granite. But the marble fountain
that faces the glass double-doors is dry, and the office plants that decorate
the foyer are dusty and neglected.
Out front, a stack of uncollected phone books sits at one
side of the entrance, and trash overflows from a standing ash tray nearby.
The property on the corner of Central Avenue and 11th
Street used to house a company owned by one of Tracy’s most successful Realtors
— 42-year-old Leesa Ward.
But with little notice late last year, she dropped out of
sight, leaving behind a stack of unfinished business and a handful of lawsuits.
The few properties left to her name have slid into default.
Neighbors, former colleagues and a slew of past clients
wonder where Ward went — and why.
It’s clear she left behind a tangle of angry customers,
employees and colleagues — and at least one who may have sought revenge nearly
five months ago by detonating a pipe bomb that shattered a window at her
Police don’t know who placed it or why, according to Lt. Ken
police officer who handled the incident.
Judging by the number of allegations against Ward, though,
the perpetrator could have been an upset investor or homebuyer, or a
disgruntled former employee.
About 10 former coworkers and acquaintances were interviewed
for this story, but most refused to be named.
The story they tell,
which is backed by public records, is one of a woman who extravagantly rebuilt
an office that fronted a failing business, lured investors — and ultimately
left a trail of lawsuits in the wake of a career that collapsed with the
Ward, along with her business partner and sister, Athena
Handleson, sold $1 million in shares to local investors beginning in August
2005, according to a notice from the state that charged Ward and Handleson with
misleading investors. The team promised to use the money to buy “foreclosure
properties, homes in distress (and) fixer-uppers,” said the statement, signed
by California Corporations Commissioner Preston Dufauchard.
Handleson did not return phone calls, and Ward could not be
found for comment.
But according to the state Department of Corporations’
Desist and Refrain Order, Ward said she would renovate and resell the homes at
a profit, then return the surplus to investors.
State investigators allege that Ward and Handleson lied
about their ability to repay investors the promised interest and further misled
them about how the money would be used. Instead of buying homes to flip for
resale, Ward used the money to pay her top staffers and pay off some of her
personal expenses, the state’s notice reads.
Ward promised shareholders that even when her company’s
profit dropped to nothing, they would “take none of that risk,” the documents
said. But everyone who bought stock in Ward’s company either lost their money
entirely or got next to no return. Furthermore, no one involved in Ward Real
Estate had a legal license to sell stocks in the first place, according to the
Ward and Handleson were barred from selling any more stock
as of Nov. 28.
The state’s ban is one of several cases against her, her
company and some of the people she worked with.
Tracy resident Kenneth Rines, along with his wife, Tami
Rines, a former agent of Ward’s, will take Ward to court the first week of
February for an alleged breach of contract.
The elusive Ward has another hearing in April for a lawsuit
filed by a former receptionist, Danielle Young, who claims sexual harassment.
Ward’s close friend and co-worker, Alison Jensen, is jointly named with Ward in
Another lawsuit has been filed by two homebuyers who claim
that agents who worked for Ward’s company lied about their home’s value.
As little as a year and a half ago, few people would have
predicted the agent’s career would end so abruptly.
Some of the 15 agents who worked in the Ward office say they
had no idea the company had operated briefly on money from investors or that
the company was poised to collapse.
But things weren’t always so dire for the vanished Ward.
She got her start in real estate in the late 1980s, on the
brink of the housing market crash a few years later. Her career took off on the
steps of the San Joaquin County Courthouse, where she bought foreclosed homes
with money she’d earned from her own commissions, well before refurbishing
bank-owned and abandoned properties was “the thing to do,” said Tracy Realtor
A former assistant of Ward’s said she was bright and
successful. The assistant worked for Ward for 10 years but asked that her name
be withheld to avoid any association with her.
“She was very smart when it came to real estate,” the assistant
said. “She was a sort of prodigy in the business (and) had a lot of foresight.”
Born Leesa Marie Poulos in
Greek-American family with her two sisters, Athena and Maria Poulos, who years
later became business partners through Ward’s shuttered business.
She moved to the Bay Area with her mother and sisters as a
child and went to high school in
Young and ambitious, Ward moved to
husband, Walt Wehrle. The couple had their first child soon after Ward
got her real estate license and just a few years after they’d settled in
Despite her newcomer status, Ward had little trouble wooing
In a few short years after getting her start, Ward found her
niche in real estate — “flipping” foreclosed homes. Her winning bids on cheap,
bank-owned properties earned her a name in the business — and a consistent
six-figure income during her first decade as an agent, remembered a former
“She made a comfortable living,” Ward’s former assistant
said. “Nothing lavish, but she did well for herself.”
Ward was still in her early 20s when she earned her broker’s
license, and in 1989, she got her start as an agent at Century 21 Realty in
Her good looks and friendly personality helped secure her
place as a well-liked and respected agent. Her peers thought well of her, and
young as she was, she had little trouble securing clients.
Several acquaintances remember her as a devout Christian,
who loved to help people. One former co-worker, who declined to be named, said
she volunteered at various nonprofits, including a stint as a board member for
to the San Francisco-based Women’s Community Clinic, which provides health care
to uninsured women.
“She really did want to help people, whether it was to give
them a leg up in life or give them a good deal on a home,” said the longtime
assistant. “Success was simple for her.” Ward worked her way up from Century 21
to sole Realtor at a startup company called Albright Real Estate.
It was during her time at Albright that she met her second
husband, Tom Ward, a city engineer who was working to redevelop
where the Albright office used to be, said Ward’s former assistant, who worked
with her at Albright. The couple had two children together. They divorced in 2001, less than a decade after they met.
Neither Tom Ward nor Walt Wehrle returned phone calls for
From Albright, Ward and her assistant quit and joined
Coldwell Bank in 1995, where they stayed for less than a year. The two got
another job in late 1995 at ReMax.
Ward invested most of her time and work to refurbish her
short sales and foreclosures from the time she started in the early ’90s until
about eight years later, when she met a local broker, Kimberley Celeste Ayers,
who gave Ward the financial backing to buy, flip and sell even more homes.
Their professional relationship proved successful, and Ward
began work under the umbrella of Ayers Investment Group in 1998.
Ward and Ayers got along well enough to eventually form
Ayers and Ward Real Estate Lending Inc. The partners bought the old Wells Fargo
Bank building at
in 2001 — the one that now collects dust, litter and the occasional loiterer.
But the Ayers partnership was a contentious one. Records
show that after a legal battle, the two parted ways. Ayers moved to a branch in
like Ward, apparently left the business once the market took its recent turn
for the worse.
“There was a little tension about who was really in charge,”
the assistant recalled.
The longtime assistant left the company as an office manager
before things started to fall apart. By then, in 2005, Ward Real Estate and
Foreclosure, Inc. was a family-run company.
Ward has a second sister, Maria Mekus, also in the real estate business. However, Larry and Maria Mekus have indicated that they were never partners of Ward or Ward Real Estate and that they never merged their business with hers.
Meanwhile, Ward’s old street-corner office has changed hands
twice since it was closed. It was sold in January to a third-party lender and
again in August to a small title company.
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