After decades of brushing against the law as one of the city's most frequent violators of the housing code, longtime Baltimore landlord Morris Garbis, at the age of 78, was sentenced to prison for the first time yesterday.
Garbis -- who was described as a "slumlord" in headlines as much as 30 years ago and is still said to owe the city thousands of dollars in fines -- was ordered to serve a year in prison for brokering real estate without a license. In several instances cited by prosecutor Gary Honick, Garbis kept money for down payments on sales that were never completed.
"He has shown utter contempt for not only the technical licensing laws but, more importantly, for the people whose money he takes on the pretense of selling them homes," Mr. Honick said after Garbis was led away in handcuffs.
Garbis received a suspended sentence and two years' probation last year after pleading guilty to six counts of operating as an unlicensed real estate broker. Since then, he has attempted to act as a sales agent for three properties in the city, Mr. Honick told the court yesterday.
In all three cases, Mr. Honick said, Garbis accepted money for down payments paid to his Preston Mortgage Service Co. In two cases, women who made down payments found others living in the houses, the prosecutor said. In the third instance, an absentee owner who showed up to make repairs found a person who had made a down payment living in the house.
Mr. Honick said Garbis also had fallen behind on an order stemming from last year's case that he pay more than $7,000 in restitution and court costs. On top of all that, Garbis violated terms of his probation by leaving the scene of an October 1993 traffic accident, for which he was convicted, the prosecutor said.
Baltimore Circuit Judge David Ross found Garbis, who will turn 79 in two weeks, guilty of violating the terms of his probation.
"One is concerned to see a person who has reached this stage of his life facing prison, but with the evidence that has been presented, there is no satisfactory alternative," Judge Ross said.
Garbis seemed to tremble as it became clear the judge was going to send him to prison but showed little emotion as he was led away.
Earlier, he had told the court: "I am sorry to find myself in the position I'm in, and I'm sorry for whatever I've done, if I've done it. I assume I've done some harm to the people who wanted to purchase these properties."
Garbis and his lawyer, Stuart H. Arnovits, said Garbis had reviewed the law and thought he was operating within legal bounds by assisting other agents as an "independent contractor." Nonetheless, Garbis admitted violating his probation.
Garbis' license to sell real estate was revoked in 1961 after the state real estate commission found that he and his agents had permitted deposits by four clients to become "mingled" with other funds and that he failed to return the money.
By then, his battles with city Housing Court judges were well documented in newspaper articles with headlines such as, " 'Slumlord' is Fined $75" and "Landlord called 'Sore on City.' "
Over the years, he remained a familiar figure in Housing Court, authorities said. In 1983 he was fined $44,000 and placed on probation for 18 months for failing to register his properties with the city.
Mr. Honick said Garbis still owes more than $100,000 in fines for housing code violations. A phone call to a city lawyer familiar with those violations was not returned.
Michael Braverman, an assistant state's attorney who prosecuted housing cases for several years, said Garbis was jailed for short periods in the past for such things as failing to appear in court but had never received a prison term.
"I'm not aware of any jail time he's received," Mr. Arnovits said.
The lawyer asked Judge Ross to consider Garbis' health problems and sentence him to home detention, but the judge left that issue to state correctional officials.
The most recent victims of Garbis' real estate deals were in court yesterday. Lauretta Holmes made a down payment of $2,100 on a house in the 3000 block of Tioga Parkway, near Mondawmin Mall, but she said the sale was never completed.
"He took my money and moved somebody else in," she said. "We went and investigated, and they had Christmas lights up and everything.
"I asked myself, as an intelligent woman, how could I be taken in? I'm hoping this will stop him from doing this to other people."