If life is a roller coaster, Margaret Murray and her family are at the top of the incline, and they're hoping -- no, praying -- that there's a nice level section of track ahead.
An 11th-hour ruling by a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge, reversing his own ruling from last spring, has saved Murray's modest Taylor Avenue rowhouse and the home of her 83-year-old mother from the auction block. It has also relieved Margaret Murray of responsibility for paying $34,000 in principal, interest and late fees on an 11-year-old mortgage loan she and her husband obtained from a disreputable loan merchant.
"I feel good," says Murray, 54, of the latest ruling. She says the decision has lifted a great weight from her and her mother. "Oh gosh, does it ever," she says.
Judge J. William Hinkel declared the mortgage unenforceable, because Albert S. Blank, an oft-convicted mortgage lender who issued the loan in 1980, "acted fraudulently" and "a mortgage procured by fraud is a nullity and unenforceable."
It was a triumph also for Murray's lawyer, Alan B. Niedermayer, whose persistence won his client the last-minute reprieve and hearing.
Hinkel agreed to hear arguments in the case just two hours before both homes were to have been auctioned June 20.
A full court hearing was held Aug. 16, and the new decision was handed down last week. If there's no appeal, it will be the end of a very long and harrowing road for Murray.
She and her late husband, Leroy, were two of dozens of Marylanders who responded to ads that Blank originated in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Murray says she wanted a $3,000 loan to replace a faulty furnace in the couple's two-apartment brick rowhouse in the 1300 block of Taylor Ave. near Towson. Her daughter and family live in the other apartment.
She says Blank told them he couldn't lend her $3,000 but could lend her $10,000 with the house as collateral and her mother's nearby house as security. He then tacked on $4,000 more, and kept that as his fee. Blank charged 2 percent interest a month, or 24 percent a year, the commercial loan rate.
Leroy Murray committed suicide in 1981 after falling behind on payments and facing possible foreclosure. In all, Murray paid $14,000, mainly in interest, until a scandal surrounding Blank's loan practices erupted in 1983, and he declared bankruptcy after being sued by the state.
His criminal record began in 1958 with a loan fraud conviction, and continued into 1986, when a conviction for bankruptcy fraud sent him to prison for three years. Margaret Murray got back $4,000 from a court judgment of $255,000 in the mid-'80s against Blank, 67, who now lives in Florida.
The woman also eventually got a court order in 1989 declaring the original loan invalid, which absolved her of further payments to Debra Kushner, a former neighbor of Blank's who invested with him the money he lent to the Murrays. Murray says she took the loan payments she had been saving in escrow and lent them to her son in an unsuccessful business venture.
Kushner fought back, and got another court order from Hinkel on May 15 this year, reversing the 1989 order and making Murray liable for the $10,546 she still owed on the loan principal, $21,302 in accumulated interest since 1983 and $2,525 in late charges. Murray said at the time that she was stunned by the ruling.