LOS ANGELES — The money orders arrive each year at the Los Angeles County Treasurer and Tax Collector's office to pay the property taxes on the boyhood home of Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The name on the money orders is the owner of record, Sarah Chasa Tokovitz — Sterling's grandmother, long since dead.
The same method of payment is used for another property across North St. Louis Street in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, and the name on those money orders matches the owner of record, Sora Tokowitz, who also went by the name Sylvia, according to immigration records. She is Sterling's mother, who has been dead since the 1980s, according to former tenants who said they lived at the property for 30 years.
DOCUMENTS: Eviction complaint, money orders
In all, there are 49 money orders in the public record, dating to 2001, that bear the women's full names, last names or initials. The return address listed on the money orders is the same for both women: Brentwood Towers, an apartment complex in upscale West Los Angeles owned by Sterling, according to records reviewed by USA TODAY Sports.
Among the residents is Sterling's 73-year-old sister, Marilyn Pizante, who has overseen the seven units on North St. Louis for years and has said she owns them, current and former tenants said.
California law requires the death of a homeowner to be reported to the county assessor — a step that triggers a reassessment of the property at market value and typically a property tax increase. The responsibility to report the death falls upon the surviving spouse or partner, executor of the will, administrator of the estate or the successor trustee of the trust. The report must be made within 150 days of the death to avoid penalties, according to the Los Angeles County Assessor's Office.
Unless there is a living trust, state law calls for the property to go into probate court to determine whether there is a valid will and who is the rightful owner. In a search of county records, none could be found of the property listed in the name of Sterling's grandmother and Sterling's mother going into probate.
In 2013, the property tax for Sterling's boyhood home was $603.66; the tax for the property listed in his mother's name was $1,545.11. Based on their current market value, the combined annual taxes would be at least $13,000.
Jessica Burton, a real estate agent who said she has been helping Sterling's sister with the properties for the past several weeks, said Pizante would not comment for the story. A woman who answered a phone number that a tenant said was Pizante's declined to comment.
Sterling, 80, is worth an estimated $1.9 billion, according to Forbes magazine, and presides over a real estate empire that includes hundreds of properties in Southern California — from low-income apartment buildings to the Sterling World Plaza, a palatial seven-story building in the heart of Beverly Hills that features gold-trimmed exterior, sculpted wood wall moldings and parquet floors.
Tenants say he visited the Boyle Heights properties in 2012, and one former tenant, Danny Vallejo, said house painters who worked on the properties told him they worked for Sterling.
Only weeks ago, Vallejo said, did he put a name to the face of the young woman who accompanied Sterling on his visit. It was V. Stiviano, who recorded a conversation with Sterling that included a number of racist comments by the NBA owner, which prompted the league on April 29 to ban Sterling for life, fine him $2.5 million and begin proceedings to force a sale of his team.
In a response sent to the league on Thursday, attorney Maxwell M. Blecher said Sterling would not pay the fine and did not warrant "any punishment at all" for comments he made to a friend that became public, according to a person with firsthand knowledge of the letter, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Efforts to reach Sterling for comment on the North St. Louis Street properties were unsuccessful. Phone messages left for him Friday at his Beverly Hills office and with Blecher were not returned. Blecher did not respond to an emailed request for comment. Another attorney, Robert Platt, said in an email response Friday that Sterling had no comment. A text message to Sterling's wife, Shelly, drew no response.
USA TODAY Sports' Jeff Zillgitt examines the NBA's situation with suspended Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
More than 50 years ago, the properties on North St. Louis Street were part of an acrimonious divorce.
In September 1959, with Sterling and Pizante grown and married, their father, Louis Tokowitz, filed for divorce from Sylvia Tokowitz, his wife of 24 years. They accused each other of "extreme cruelty," in papers filed in California State Superior Court.
Three months later, Donald Sterling, then 25, was in court — to change his last name from Tokowitz.
DOCUMENT: Tokowitz divorce
His parents' fight dragged on, and at the center of it was property. Louis Tokowitz said the North St. Louis Street residences and the two parcels of land on which they sat were community property that belonged to them both. Sylvia Tokowitz said the properties were hers.
He said his wife had secretly stashed money he made as a junk peddler and bought the real estate without his knowledge. She said her husband signed papers in 1949 stating the properties belonged solely to her. At one point, Sylvia Tokowitz was sentenced to three days in jail for failing to comply with a court order.
In 1961, the court ruled the properties belonged to Sylvia Tokowitz.
Five decades later, it could not be determined from available records how Sarah Chasa Tokovitz — the paternal grandmother of Sterling and Pizante — became the owner of record of Sterling's boyhood home. Known by her married name, she died in Chicago in 1966, according to Cook County records. An obituary in the Chicago Tribune listed her name as "Sarah Friedman nee Tokowitz" and a son among her survivors, "Louis of Los Angeles."
DOCUMENT: Sarah Friedman's obituary
No will for Friedman was found on file in Cook County. No will for Sylvia Tokowitz was found on file in Los Angeles County.
A recording date, used to locate a deed, could not be found for either property at the Los Angeles County Registrar/Recorder's office.
None of more than a half-dozen current tenants and four former tenants interviewed by USA TODAY Sports had heard of Sarah Chasa Tokovitz.
Louis Tokowitz remarried in 1965. Sylvia Tokowitz remained single and was devoted to the two properties, former tenants said. They remember her as a petite woman who brought toys and candy for the tenants' children and even lived at the property for some time. She never mentioned she had children, they said.
She had keys for each of the seven units, and tenants said they occasionally discovered her in their homes eating their food, and she sometimes scooped beans out of pots on the stove. They said they welcomed her to do so because she was was friendly and cheerful and, when the moment moved her, was liable to put on a painter's cap and apply a fresh coat on one of the homes or attempt to make repairs herself.
DOCUMENT: Donald Sterling's birth certificate
"She was so kind," said Maricela Navarette, whose family lived there for 30 years.
The properties, almost directly across the street from each other, have not been fully reassessed since 1978, when California voters approved a law limiting annual reassessment to no more than 2% of a home's value, a cap intended to limit tax increases until a homeowner dies.
That would occur upon the death of the owner, but there are exclusions, such as when property is transferred from a parent to a child – a provision that took effect in 1986 — and when property is transferred from grandparents to grandchildren, a law that took effect in 1996 and is available only if the grandchildren's parents are deceased. In either case, a claim must be filed within three years of the property being transferred.
Things changed in the 1980s after the death of Sylvia Tokowitz, according to former tenants, who said they had not previously seen her two grown children — Sterling and Pizante. Nor had they met Louis Tokowitz, who died in 1987.
One day, Sterling's sister showed up with her husband, Leon Pizante, an attorney in Beverly Hills who later represented boxer Julio Cesar Chavez in a dispute with promoter Don King.
"She would come in the house unannounced and start looking around," Navarette said. "She would say, 'This is my property. I'm the owner.' "
Maria Vallejo, who said she managed the properties for almost 20 years, said Pizante instructed her to only accept cash as rental payments. Vallejo said her routine was to take a bus or get a ride to a location in Westwood where she typically handed Pizante thousands of dollars. Pizante refused to sign receipts or put her name on any documents, said Vallejo, speaking in Spanish through her son, Danny. She said Pizante only began accepting money orders as payment toward the end of Vallejo's tenure as manager.
She said she received discounted rent in exchange for her work, but she started pressing Pizante for financial compensation because Pizante's demands were interfering with her job as a caregiver. That led to a fallout that resulted in the Vallejo family moving out in 2013.
Naverrete's mother, Natalia, was evicted in 2005 over a dispute about an exploded boiler. Natalia Navarette fought the eviction but said she knew she had lost the moment Pizante marched into the courtroom with a pair of attorneys.
But Natalia Navarette said she was confused by what she saw in the courtroom that day. Marilyn Pizante appeared in court, but on court papers, the plaintiff seeking the eviction was listed as Marilyn Sora Tokowitz.
"I thought she was representing her mother," Natalia Navarette said.
It was a ruse, according to Vallejo, the former property manager who was also there that day. Pizante used her mother's name to appear before the judge as the property's rightful owner, Vallejo said.
She also recalled that Pizante gave her a specific instruction: "Call me Sora," she was told.
Maria Vallejo said it happened again during a 2009 eviction case. Court records show Sylvia Tokowitz listed as the plaintiff in an eviction case that year.
Sylvia Goodman Tokowitz had changed her name from Sora Tokowitz, according to a 1943 immigration record. Records also show Sterling's sister was born Marilyn Irene Tokowitz and her married name is Marilyn Irene Pizante.
Pizante's current address is the same one listed with the Los Angeles Treasurer and Tax Collector's office for her — and Sterling's — grandmother and mother.
Betty McGee, who identified herself as the property manager for that building, said she had never heard of Sarah Chasa Tokovitz or Sora Tokowitz in the seven years she has worked there. McGee confirmed that Sterling's sister lives at the property.
Sterling also has a business relationship with Pizante's in-laws through her late husband. Jackie and Jesse Pizante live in and manage Sterling's $4 million apartment complex in Santa Monica. Approached last week, Jesse Pizante, with his wife standing feet away, declined comment.
None of the current tenants knew about Sterling's connection to the North St. Louis Street properties, and that's the way his sister wants it, according to Maria Vallejo, who said Pizante never said why she wanted it kept quiet. Pizante also never explained why shortly after Sterling's visit in 2012 a for-sale sign went up in front of one of the properties that soon after was removed.
On that day in May 2012, Danny Vallejo said he was at his computer and sitting by his bedroom window when an older man in a dark suit without a tie, accompanied by a younger woman wearing black, walked up the driveway. As they got closer, Vallejo said, he immediately recognized the man as Sterling.
"What's he doing with a black girl?" Vallejo said he thought to himself, having heard about the $2.7 million Sterling paid in 2009 to settle a housing discrimination lawsuit that alleged Sterling, who owns residential properties across the Los Angeles area, refused to rent to African Americans, Hispanics and families with children. "I heard he was racist."
Three weeks ago, when Vallejo heard the audiotaped conversation that was leaked to TMZ and saw pictures of Stiviano, he recalled the visit to his home. As the couple walked around that day, Stiviano took photos of the residences about a week after they'd been painted by a crew that said they were hired by Sterling, according to Vallejo. He said Stiviano and Sterling walked just a few feet from his half-open, tinted window, and that Sterling tried to open the gate to his back yard.
"No, no, honey, you can't go in there. You need a permit," Stiviano told Sterling, according to Vallejo, who added, "She just hugged him and kissed him. … I could hear everything."
He said he recalled another exchange between the two.
"Is this where you grew up?" she asked.
"No, I lived across the street," Sterling replied.
Soon they were headed in that direction, Vallejo said, toward a clapboard duplex with the step-up porch, a world away from Sterling's mansion in Beverly Hills. Vallejo said he followed and reached the street in time to see Stiviano pull off in a black SUV. As she drove away, Vallejo said, he ran into an acquaintance and his girlfriend.
FOR THE WIN: Why Sterling, Stiviano changed names
"Who's that?" the woman said.
"That's the owner of the Clippers," Vallejo replied.
"Are they together?" she asked.
In the fallout of Sterling's lifetime ban from the NBA, Stiviano, 31, has said she is a friend of Sterling, 80, but says the two did not have a sexual relationship. The two met at the 2010 Super Bowl, and he has since given Stiviano two Bentleys, a Ferrari and a $1.8 million duplex, according to a lawsuit filed by Sterling's wife that seeks to reclaim it all.
Danny Vallejo said his grandfather used to remind him that Sterling grew up on North St. Louis Street, proof that something spectacular could spring forth from the humble neighborhood. Those who knew Sterling as a boy said the future NBA owner had hustled.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced Clippers owner Donald Sterling's punishment, which included banning him for life from the NBA and a $2.5 million fine.
Growing up, he boxed groceries to help his parents, who were Jewish immigrants, and sometimes accompanied his father, who was known as Mickey, who peddled wholesale nuts and collected scrap metal to sell.
Law school graduation. Real estate acquisition. NBA ownership. The Sterling empire grew.
But it's the properties in Boyle Heights listed in the name of his grandmother and mother that underscore his roots.
His boyhood home, a pale blue, two-bedroom duplex, was built in 1907, across the street from three cream-colored, stucco residences built in 1927. They sit less than two blocks from Cesar Chavez Avenue, a busy thoroughfare that was known as Brooklyn Avenue when Sterling was growing up. Jewish families populated the neighborhood, but now it's almost 95% Latino living in a working-class community.
Mickey Cohen, the notorious mobster, lived in Boyle Heights in the 1940s when Sterling was attending Sheridan Street Elementary School, Hollenbeck Middle School and Roosevelt High School, where he and Stiviano graduated 48 years apart. Now Boyle Heights contends with numerous Latino gangs, including the East LA Dukes, the Ghetto Style Crew and Tiny Boys.
The sound of gunfire is not uncommon.
GALLERY: DONALD STERLING THROUGH THE YEARS
Despite a crime rate almost 50% higher than the rest of Los Angeles, real estate is still pricey. The properties listed in the names of Sterling's mother and grandmother are worth a total of roughly $1.1 million, based on current values in Boyle Heights as listed by the National Association of Realtors and real estate sites Zillow and Trulia.
Tenants pay monthly rent ranging from $675 to $1,200, and several interviewed for this story said they had no complaints.
For years, with the exception of the 2012 visit, Sterling has made himself scarce among the tenants on North St. Louis Street. And for years, the Vallejos said, tenants battled Sterling's sister over who should pay for repairs. But last week, while sitting on the porch of their new home, they recalled a handful of times when she gave them something free.
Tickets to Clippers games.
Contributing: Nancy Armour, Peter Barzilai, David Meeks, Jeff Zillgitt
Follow Josh Peter on Twitter @JoshPeter11. E-mail: email@example.com