COLLEGE STATION, Texas — On Sept. 4th, Fabi Payton recorded a video of 81-year old John Simmons in College Station making claims that his land had been stolen by white developers in Bryan-College Station.
Payton, a Bryan native, considers herself a community activist. She posted the viral video on Facebook in an effort to help Simmons. It quickly became the start to unraveling family history, to a viral one-sided perspective of Simmons claim of stolen land, racism, and legal wrongdoing.
The now viral video has 40 million views on TikTok and has gotten the attention of civil rights attorneys, comedians, and even a rapper.
“But now what’s happening? But right now the developers in this area, Trent Thomas, Rountree Development and their lawyers are trying to take my land,” Simmons said in the video.
After extensive research, experts tell 6 News that the claim of land stealing is not quite that simple as Payton and Simmons’ video claims. They also say this whole ordeal could have been avoided with a living will being in place.
“Everyone as of the age 18 needs to be able to give some thought to the notion that we’re human, and because we’re human we might not always be able to make decisions for ourselves, while we’re alive,” said Marie Rodriguez, a civil litigator in estate planning.
Simmons' wife, Joyce, and her six siblings each inherited an equal portion of a 37.615 acre plot of land when their parents, Will and Pinkney Brown, died. However, both died without a will. This made Joyce and her siblings fall into an heirship instead. This means the Browns had the legal right to receive property split up amongst them in lieu of a will or trust in place.
Yet, unbeknownst to Simmons, this all took place in the midst of Simmons caring for his wife who was sick. He merely thought he owned part of the alleged stolen land, under the assumption that his wife left it to him before she died.
“There was seven children all of them got their part, somebody done messed up because our land was clear, and my wife deeded everything to me, so why wasn’t I known about it,” said Simmons.
According to the Brazos County Clerk's office, there is no record of Simmons wife leaving a will or trust in place. However, John attempted to give the land he thought he owned to his great nephew, Randall Brown, before being informed by Rountree that the entire Brown family sold their portions years ago.
“He’s known," said Thomas. "He said you don’t own my land, I said 'I hate to tell you I do, and that was four years ago. All I did was right, now and we did it with the utmost of integrity and with law, I told you we owned your property. I can’t help what wasn’t done right before me.'”
“Once we cleared up that title, that cleared up all the Brown property on both sides," said RTD President, Trent Thomas.
Additionally, a seventh sibling was left out of the original partition deed that was done, and listed the other six siblings. Nathaniel Brown was the sibling who was cut out of the deed because he had already died at the time. However, his two daughters, Brenda and Cynthia-McLaney Brown, sold the portion they claimed from their late father to Rountree in 2017.
As a result, this gave Trent Thomas and Rountree Development the 10% of a 1/7 portion that was left to Simmons' wife Joyce and her six siblings. Including the two heirs that were originally left out, whom had an undivided interest.
An undivided interest means two or more persons have an interest in a property held under the same title. This means Cynthia and Brenda just sold their undivided interest to Rountree, which was the last piece of property needed to clear the company's title to build more land.
Unfortunately, Mr. Simmons wouldn't be someone that would be included in this.
This is because of Texas’ intestate estate law. The law states that if both parents die, the property then goes to their children or their descendants – which doesn’t necessarily mean spouses. In order for property to be portioned to a spouse, the person who dies--which in this case is Joyce--must have no living children or descendants of the deceased spouse. There are living members left from the Brown family.
Although probate records show Simmons has been paying taxes on the land, Texas' Adverse possession law, which is the legal term of 'land stealing', explains that it doesn't show as proof that you own the property.
We asked Simmons for any documentation that would show he holds any ownership of the property he claimed was stolen, but he did not provide any. In order to establish a claim for adverse possession, you must provide documentation that is open and notable to the public. If not, those reports of paid taxes just become a gift to the owner of the property if requirements are not met.
Payton’s viral video post of Simmons spoke on his behalf as millions chimed in on the situation, with Payton showing no real proof of Simmons claim.
As a result, Thomas and his family have been threatened with violence and racial bias claims, which has overwhelmed them with emotions as online comments damage the family and company.
“To be lied on, to be threatened, at this point my whole family has been damaged so that’s what we’re seeking," said Thomas. "We could care less about the land at this point. We did not steal anyone’s land. My whole life has been dedicated to expose that historical injustice.”
6 News has attempted to reach Payton several times, but have not received any response through messages or emails as of publish time.
Despite the ugliness of everything, Thomas says he doesn't harbor resentment towards Simmons and says he's free to stay on the land. However, he also faults Simmons for not stopping what he called a plan orchestrated by Payton for shock value.
Now, he plans to take legal action against Payton and those making threats as a result of her viral video. Rountree now has two projects on hold and plan on getting authorities involved to survey the land they bought despite Simmons' claims that the developer doesn't have access to the land.
“I forgive Mr. Simmons, but I think everybody that is liable in this defaming, slanderous, farce of a show that has been put on need to pay, some criminal and some civil,” Thomas said.
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