That's not your house
FORT WORTH, Texas — While county officials were asleep at the wheel, Tarrant County became a magnet this year for an odd assortment of squatters claiming other people's houses all over the area.
The cast of characters includes a homeowner who scooped up a dead neighbor's house; a woman who came to Fort Worth from Memphis to lay claim to a $2.7 million mansion; people who cited Bible verses as legal justification for taking properties; and career criminals who grabbed homes to lease to tenants.
All told, county records show that squatters and their associates claimed more than $8 million worth of properties, from Grand Prairie, Mansfield and Arlington to Fort Worth, Haslet and Keller, according to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram examination of county documents. Some of the squatters' elaborate schemes have stumped law enforcement officials. One Tarrant constable has even asked the Texas attorney general's office for help in straightening out the mess.
"Everybody is just trying to learn what in the world is going on," said Mansfield Constable Clint C. Burgess. "It's the craziest thing how anyone could be so brazen to just break into a home and start living in it."
The schemes are hard to unravel because of a loophole in a state law that allows people to suddenly claim supposedly abandoned sections of property if no owner is on the spot to challenge such a claim. The law's intent was to help ranchers and others who had tended vacant land for years, so they could eventually gain legal ownership of the property. That's done by filing a document called an adverse possession affidavit with the county clerk.
But the law doesn't distinguish between a claim on a $27 section of sod and one on a $2.7 million mansion with an elevator, three master bedrooms, a five-car garage and a pond with fish in the back yard. File the proper paperwork, pay a $16 filing fee, keep up with the property taxes and live in the house three years or more, and even the courts may not be able to evict you.
Properties vulnerable to squatters include those whose owners died. Other properties belong to people absent from their homes because of work or illness. They can return to find their houses trashed, their belongings gone and their privacy violated — all while the neighbors watched in shock.
"This is the worst thing that I've been through," said Joe Bruner, a certified public accountant in Arlington whose neighbor's home was seized by two squatters in October. "It's not healthy for anybody, for the neighborhood, for the county. It's just not healthy for humanity.
"You don't come in and steal somebody's home."
Squatters moved into his neighbor's furbished $405,000 house in late October. Bruner and another neighbor told the Star-Telegram that squatters had pushed a commercial Dumpster into the driveway and filled it with the home's belongings.
Police records report that tens of thousands of dollars in valuables were removed, including a $10,000 stamp collection, the electric wheelchair of the homeowner's elderly mother, bottles of Chanel perfume, Judith Leiber crystal purses and a hand-carved ivory armoire.
At the time, the homeowner was in Houston undergoing chemotherapy.
Other Tarrant homes have become spoils of the housing crisis — foreclosed properties whose ownership is difficult to track. Some banks that service loans after foreclosure don't make sure the properties are secure.
Some financial institutions contacted by the Star-Telegram were not aware that squatters had claimed homes for which they were servicing the loans.
That was the case with the Fort Worth mansion seized over the summer by a 28-year-old former Tennessee insurance agent. The home — among Tarrant County's priciest dwellings — had been vacant for about two years, neighbors said.
Neighbors said it was foreclosed on in January and a Sotheby's Realtor had been trying to sell it. But in August, Samantha Carter showed up and tried to claim the property. She called police and told them they had no authority to tell her to leave because she had adverse possession.
Later that month, Carter pulled the "for sale" signs from the ground and busted the chain from the mammoth gates that lead to the property's 3-acre gardens, neighbors said. Police were called and she was apprehended, along with a man who had a set of chain cutters, according to the police report.
"These people are romanticizing the idea that they could get a house for nothing," said retired physician Ben Termini, who called the police on the pair. "It's morally and legally wrong."
The foreclosure was serviced by Chase Bank, but spokesman Thomas Kelly said it doesn't have the power to evict squatters. The owner, Bank of America, does. It has had to stop marketing the house until it can get Carter's affidavit dismissed, Kelly said.
A good share of the blame, some angry neighbors and homeowners say, should go to the Tarrant County clerk's office for not policing the process and, instead, apparently accepting adverse possession affidavits from anyone who wanted to file one. Some of the affidavits are filled with legal mumbo jumbo; in some cases, people filed affidavits on more than one house, claiming that they were domiciled in each; in other cases, squatters copyrighted their own names. The Tarrant office also accepted affidavits on properties in Dallas County.
Legitimate or not, the affidavits create a real estate nightmare, muddying up the title of homes and making them impossible to sell.
"The county clerk's office should have standards and procedures in place (for a squatter) to prove that the house is abandoned and that you can pay taxes and will be maintaining the property," Termini said.
"They should make people prove the property is meeting the standard for adverse possession."
Red flags like copyright names and biblical verses would stop the Denton County clerk's office in its tracks, said County Clerk Cynthia Mitchell. Though she can't "police" the filings, she said, her office has requested legal reviews when it has received affidavits with such red flags.
"The (clerks) that record these documents every day are very experienced in filing real estate documents," Mitchell said. "It's easy for them to spot something that looks way out of the ordinary."
When news about squatters became public, the Tarrant County clerk's office said it had a duty to accept the affidavits, not take a "legal dive" into the situation.
Now it says the office acted swiftly to ask for legal advice and stop any threats of fraud.
With thousands of documents being filed, it's virtually impossible to flag affidavits that could be fraudulent, Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia said. "But as soon as these bad actors came to our attention, we did do our due diligence," she said.
However, records show that the affidavits began streaming into the office in June and continued until Nov. 7, when Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon advised Garcia that the affidavits were likely illegal. He stepped in after news reports of a high-profile squatter case.
Garcia said her office has followed up by sending notices to property owners about adverse possession affidavits filed on their property.
"We, in the Tarrant County office, researched and reached out to these property owners," she said.
Shysters. Burglars. Fugitives. Some of the characters seizing homes under adverse possession in Tarrant County have criminal records.
Suspicions are that other squatters have conducted the same racket in other states, said Burgess, the Mansfield constable. "When you come in and start enforcement, they just leave," he said. Then they move to another state to run their scheme, he said.
Others are copycat squatters, who may learn the ropes through Internet videos or how-to books.
Other suspicions are that the squatters have access to enormous databanks of foreclosed homes or that certain banks may be sharing insider information about mortgages. All that is under investigation, Burgess said.
Some squatters come by association or family ties.
Take the case of the LaTours.
Sandra S. LaTour, who claimed a house on Clover Hill Road in Mansfield, is the girlfriend of a squatter in Flower Mound, Burgess said. Andrew LaTour II has claimed another Mansfield home on St. Bartholomew Drive. He is Sandra LaTour's son, Burgess said. She notarized his affidavit of adverse possession, records show.
More than a week ago, Mansfield constables ordered the LaTours out of both homes.
In an email to the Star-Telegram, a Selena LaTour wrote that Andrew LaTour had been evicted from another house he had been renting and sought advice on adverse possession from the Flower Mound squatter. The email also lists Selena Brown as a family member for Andrew LaTour.
A Selena K. Brown filed an adverse possession affidavit on another Mansfield home on Hillgrove Court.
The district attorney has charged another filer, Anthony Brown, with burglary of a habitation, accused of removing property from a home he claimed. Constables said that Brown and another Mansfield squatter, Paul Roper, who was evicted from a home on St. Mark Drive, know each other.
Burgess said he expects more arrests to come.
"We will hold these people accountable. We will charge them just like any crime; it's just complicated," he said.
In Arlington, the cancer patient's home was seized by David Cooper; a man with the same name and birth date has a 2008 Dallas conviction for prostitution. Last month, Arlington police arrested Cooper and Jasmine Williams on suspicion of burglary of the house they were claiming.
Three Arlington homes were claimed by Brenda K. Hollimon or her Women's Intuition Reality. At one home she claimed, a neighbor said the house had been occupied by a family in recent months. Early this year, Hollimon was slapped with a 60-day sentence in the Tarrant County Jail for violating the terms of her probation on a 2005 conviction for claiming thousands of dollars in excessive food stamp benefits. She could not be reached for comment.
Another Tarrant squatter is 37-year-old Sadat Thomas, whose criminal record spans almost two decades in Texas and Arizona. Among his convictions are aggravated robbery, various drug charges, and assault of a family member. In 1998, the Tarrant County Sheriff's Department held him as a fugitive, court records show.
Thomas was released from prison in Huntsville in June 2010. He then set up Energizer Realty, documents show.
Records show he has lived at the same address as another squatter, 18-year-old Andrew Chavarria, who also lived in Arizona. Chavarria or his Ballpoint R.P.M. filed affidavits on four houses in Fort Worth and one in Arlington. Arlington has outstanding warrants on Chavarria for driving without a license or insurance.
That's not where the list of Tarrant squatter landlords with checkered pasts ends.
Three more homes in Fort Worth and one in Arlington have been seized by Pin Point Realty and Property Management, owned by Xavier Watts, who has served jail time for such crimes as drug possession, burglary, theft, assault, evading arrest and possession of a prohibited weapon, district clerk records show.
Watts did not respond to repeated messages.
Not all the squatter landlords have criminal records.
For 11/2 years, Jerome Campbell of Southeast Investments of Mansfield has been finding dilapidated vacant homes in blighted areas and improving them so that people can move in. Southeast Investments has filed affidavits on three homes in Fort Worth.
Neither he nor Michael Littlejohn of Southeast Investments has a criminal record. Campbell bristles at the idea of criminals trying to take advantage of adverse possession laws. That's not what Southeast Investments is all about, he said.
Its focus is on blighted communities to try to improve the environment, he said.
"I hate that adverse possession is getting a bad rap now," Campbell said. "We do everything by the book."
Southeast Investments researches public records to find the owners of small homes appraised at less than $30,000. If an owner cannot be located, he said, the company repairs the house and pays the back taxes, estimating that at times it costs thousands to fix up a property. One 700-square-foot property under adverse possession on Lorin Avenue in southeast Fort Worth is in shambles. Its roof is severely damaged, windows are boarded up, and vandals have taken over. The Tarrant Appraisal District lists its value as $23,000.
Southeast brings homes up to code and removes "the eyesore for the neighborhood," Campbell said.
"When I go in and do adverse possession, it offsets having three, four or five vacant properties side by side incurring a lot of city liens and taxes and code enforcement liens," he said. "We go in and put properties back on the tax rolls for the city and provide affordable housing for someone."
Texas followers of a little-known religious group have used adverse possession to get access to homes in middle- and high-income communities.
It came as a shock to the Brown family of the Glen Springs Addition of Arlington to know that such a squatter lived nearby. The Browns thought the woman who moved into the house with an identical floor plan to theirs had purchased it.
But county records show that Jessica Ann Sharp acquired the 2,100-square-foot home on Ravenhill Lane by adverse possession.
Sharp's affidavit is among about a dozen where people copyright their names or list surnames, like "Bey" and "El," which are associated with The Moorish Science Temple of America.
By signing in such a manner, the individuals are making a claim of sovereign rights, meaning that they are not subject to Texas and U.S. laws because of their Moorish ancestry, said Chistopher Bennett-Bey, grand sheikh of The Moorish Science Temple in Charlotte, N.C.
On most affidavits, including Sharp's, biblical passages are evoked.
Efforts to reach Sharp and other squatters whose affidavits have similar wording were unsuccessful.
Leaders of the Moorish Science Temple have decried the activity as unlawful. They say the North Texas squatters may be part of a splinter group of Moors that has besmirched their beliefs.
"They've gone out and broken the law and now the organization has to stand and answer questions concerning this," Bennett-Bey said.
He believes the activity is being promoted by individuals who at some point were affiliated with the Moorish Science Temple of America.
"They left as an offshoot of the organization and gone off and done all sorts of things," he said. "Under no circumstances, we don't claim sovereignty."
A number of Tarrant homes seized by such squatters have "no trespassing" signs posted.
About a week ago, neighbor Steve Brown noticed a sign at the house Sharp claimed. Brown immediately sought property records to try to discover the rightful owner. County records show its owner is Deutsche Bank of Santa Monica, Calif.
Brown said he called the bank but was told that it served as an agent for the mortgage company. The mortgage is part of a pool of home loans. How to untangle that, nobody knows.
That's one of the problems for law enforcement, Burgess said.
"We've seen the county having a really hard time finding the real owners if it's the bank," he said.