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Salvaging the American dream
One judge decides foreclosure cases in DuPage County Circuit Court
By Anna Marie Kukec | Daily Herald Staff

Bonnie Wheaton is the only judge in DuPage County to handle the rising level of foreclosures.


Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

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Published: 11/26/2007 1:02 AM

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Bonnie Wheaton looked Daniel Belz of Glen Ellyn in the eye.

The fate of his home was one of 45 foreclosure cases on her DuPage County Circuit Court docket. Another day that week would be worse -- 115 cases. And because Wheaton is the only judge in DuPage who handles foreclosures, Belz and those who follow have no one else to decide their futures.

Belz, dressed in shorts and sandals, stood on one foot, then the other. Did he have a lawyer? No. Could he wait in the courtroom until the break, so they could provide some referrals and information to him? Yes.

The former technology worker had been caught in a downward spiral since he lost his job and his beloved career during the tech bust in 2002. His income plunged from six figures to doing other jobs for roughly $30,000 a year.

The Dream Foreclosed

He and his wife and three children have lived in their house for 11 years. Their lifestyle already has radically changed. Now, they could lose their home.

"My kids were raised there; I don't want to sell out," Belz said later.

Belz told the judge he had a workout, or payment plan, when he fell behind with his mortgage company. But when that company was bought by another, the new lender didn't honor the plan and started foreclosure proceedings, he said.

He promised Wheaton he would work with his new mortgage company.

"I'll also give you some time to talk to a lawyer," Wheaton told Belz. She scheduled another status hearing.

The judge says that a lot lately.

People coming before her cannot pay their mortgages because of unemployment, high medical or credit card bills, subprime loans, ballooning adjustable interest rates on their loans, divorce or a myriad of other situations.

About two years ago, the court docket had just a few foreclosures. Now they dominate.

Next year, when many five-year adjustable-rate loans reset to higher interest rates, Wheaton is expecting to be deluged.

And the worse part has been communication, or the lack of it, between homeowners and their lenders, she said.

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"I've got people coming in here all the time who can't get a call back, or they get too many referrals and can't keep track," Wheaton said.

Wheaton said she wants to help people who come before her and are honest about their situations. She wants to give them time to know their rights, to figure out what to do, to save their homes and credit ratings and, in some cases, salvage their American dream.

"Ownership is part of the American dream, and a lot come here to get that American dream, and now they're unable to attain it," Wheaton said in her chambers.

The judge said she has seen more Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Eastern European immigrants pass her bench this past year.

"It's been very confusing for them as for everyone," said Wheaton, who speaks fluent Spanish. "Some people just abandoned their home; some return overseas. They give up."

Regardless of who stands before her, many of the stories are the same. They just can't pay. They are broke, out of work, ill or on disability.

"People don't just stop paying for no reason," Wheaton said. "I cannot give them legal advice, but I encourage them to talk to an attorney."

In some cases, homeowners fall through the cracks when their mortgage companies have been bought out and their prior agreements are somehow lost in the shuffle or not accepted for a new policy reason.

Years ago, people would obtain mortgages from their neighborhood bank and it stayed that way, Wheaton said. "Now we're seeing that mortgage sold to a loan server in California or somewhere else," she said.

Often it spirals from there. As mortgage companies start foreclosing on more homes, their staffs, cut in size because of the losses from mounting defaulted loans, are stretched thin and overworked. That leads to a lack of communication with customers and mistakes.

Also, some people co-sign mortgages for friends and relatives and then become liable and have to clear themselves, she said.

The tone varies for each person who stands before her. Some are apologetic; others are confused.

"Some are angry and just want someone to talk to them," Wheaton said.

Others who come in with a notice of eviction seek time to find a place to live.

"The last thing I want is to have all of their stuff put out on the front lawn," Wheaton said.

She wants to give them time to seek legal advice, work out a payment plan, and get back on their feet.

"Most lenders are reasonable," Wheaton said. "They don't want to have all these properties on their hands. … I have a great deal of sympathy for people in financial difficulty and who are having health problems. But I'm limited in what I can do and am bound by ethical obligations."