Imagine going to a house or condo you own and finding a stranger living there who claims the property no longer belongs to you.
It’s happening across Florida and other parts of the country through what authorities say is abuse of a centuries-old concept known as adverse possession.
Dating back to Renaissance England, adverse possession allowed people to take over abandoned cottages and farmland, provided they were willing to live there and pay the taxes. These days, officials say, the legal doctrine is being misused by squatters, trespassers and swindlers to claim ownership of vacant or foreclosed homes.
In Broward and Palm Beach counties alone, adverse possession claims have been filed on some 200 homes in recent months. Three of the four people behind the claims have been arrested, and police are investigating the fourth man, who along with his father, a convicted mobster, tried to take over properties in Hollywood.
“We look at this as another con job, another get-rich-quick scheme,” said Don TenBrook, a Broward state prosecutor of economic crimes. “You’re starting to see them pop up all over the place. It’s been spawned by the real estate crisis.”
A bill in the Legislature this spring would have helped cut back on the abuses and better protect Florida property owners, but it failed to pass — the result of political retribution, state Rep. Ron Schultz, one of the sponsors, told the Sun Sentinel.
“We tried to nip this in the bud, but that didn’t quite work,” said the Republican from Homosassa. “This is becoming a fairly wide scam in Florida.”
Antonio Vurro owned an empty rental home in Sunrise that he was trying to sell when he discovered in February that someone had moved in, changed the locks and was trying to open a utility account.
“There were boxes all over the place and a mattress in each room,” Vurro said in a recent interview. “This is not right. It’s my house.”
The occupant, Fitzroy Ellis, told Vurro he was entitled to take over the home because it was abandoned. Police disagreed, and Ellis, 64, is now in the Broward County Jail charged with six counts of grand theft.
Ellis tried to claim a total of 48 properties in Broward, including a $1 million house in Coral Springs, through a company he formed called Helping Hands Properties Inc., county official records show. He told a Plantation police detective he planned to rent out the houses and condos and could offer tenants a good price “since he didn’t have to pay anything for the homes,” according to a police report.
Ellis, who is representing himself, wrote in court documents that the allegations against him are “false and an abuse of power.”
Another South Florida man, Mark Guerette of Wellington, filed notice in official county records that he was taking possession of 100 homes in Broward and three in the Palm Beach community of Lake Worth through Saving Florida Homes Inc. and two other companies. On one day last November, he filed takeover notices on 10 condos in the same North Lauderdale complex at 1200 SW 52nd Ave., records show.
Police say Guerette, 46, rented out six of the properties and collected more than $20,000 from tenants before he was arrested in April. He has pleaded not guilty to a charge of organized scheme to defraud.
His lawyer, Robert Shearin, said Guerette is nothing more than a good Samaritan, rescuing blighted homes.
“The banks are letting these properties go down the tubes,” Shearin said. “Here’s a guy trying to help out, and he ends up in jail.”
New Twist, Old Law
The attempted takeovers are more fallout from Florida’s declining housing market, said Dennis Koehler, a West Palm Beach lawyer.
“People who are upside down just choose to leave the property, let it sit,” he said. “Some people have decided, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity for me.’ “
The opportunity involves a new twist on a very old law, dating to 16th-century England. Adverse possession allows non-owners of a property to eventually take ownership if they pay the taxes, occupy, maintain and improve the land for a period of years — seven in Florida. The purpose was to prevent abandoned properties from sitting idle with no one paying taxes on them.
It’s been used mostly to take over abandoned farmland or settle boundary disputes, such as a fence or building encroaching on a neighbor’s property.
In theory, vacant houses can also be taken through adverse possession, if the seven-year window passes and the property owner makes no attempt to pay the taxes or liens an unlikely scenario, especially when a bank is laying claim through foreclosure, property experts say.
And claimants risk breaking other laws if they trespass, break into a home or try to collect rent without being the actual property owner.
Even if someone claiming adverse possession manages to legally occupy a home and pay taxes on it, “an owner could come in the sixth or seventh year and say, ‘I want my property back,’ ” Koehler said.
Koehler said he was hired by a West Palm Beach man, Carl Heflin, to provide legal advice on taking over homes through adverse possession. Koehler told the Sun Sentinel that he outlined a series of steps Heflin would need to take and stressed that he “couldn’t just move in and squat.”
But that’s exactly what Heflin did, according to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Beginning in December 2008, Heflin filed adverse possession notices on properties in West Palm Beach and even submitted deeds declaring ownership of 27 of them, police and court records show. He also moved his computer into a law office of a now disbarred attorney and changed the locks, the records say.
“When he told me about that,” Koehler said, “I dropped him as a client like a hot potato.”
Danielle Rubio said Heflin duped her into believing he was a legitimate landlord and in April 2009, she rented a three-bedroom home from him. The home was in disrepair, Rubio said, and Heflin’s ex-wife Cheryl collected a deposit with the promise to fix it up.
Rubio and her family spent just a few hours in the house when her 2-year-old son got sick from mold and was hospitalized, she said. Seeing little progress on the home in the following days, Rubio said she started checking Heflin out and tracked down the owner of record, who told her the house was in foreclosure and he had no tenants.
Rubio said Heflin refused to return her money, about $1,200, and she moved her family in with a relative.
“We were with my aunt two months before we could save enough to get a place,” she said. “We gave all the money to (the Heflins).”
Heflin, 52, was arrested last summer and is scheduled for trial June 21 on multiple counts, including organized scheme to defraud. Two associates, George Chambers and Sue Ann Smith, pleaded guilty in March to petty theft and as a condition of their probation must testify against Heflin.
Heflin and his attorney could not be reached for comment. Heflin’s ex-wife has not been charged and declined to comment. “I don’t care to speak to you about any of this,” she said.
“It’s scary that people can just take your money without even thinking about it,” Rubio said. “We never thought we would ever be in something like that. The paperwork looked legitimate.”
Similar problems have occurred in Florida’s St. Lucie and Pasco counties, in Las Vegas, Nev., and southern California.
A squatter citing adverse possession took up residence last month in the former home of the mayor of Deltona in Volusia County. The house had been foreclosed on and sold when a woman moved in, hooked up cable television and refused to leave until sheriff’s deputies forced her out and gave her a trespass warning.
In South Florida, those trying to take properties have included people with criminal records, experience in real estate, or both.
Heflin told a sheriff’s detective he had “always been interested in real estate” and worked in 2007 for a company that secured foreclosed properties for banks.
Guerette had been an officer in property management, mortgage funding and real estate companies, corporation records show. He was convicted of misdemeanor and felony theft charges in 1994.
Adverse possession even lured a Hollywood man with ties to the mob.
Joseph Spitaleri was a member of the Trafficante organized crime family when he was convicted of racketeering in 2001, sentenced to nearly five years in federal prison and ordered to repay $1.7 million. He was one of 19 people named in a wide-ranging indictment that included charges of laundering money through mob-controlled check-cashing stores in Broward County.
In February, Spitaleri filed adverse possession notices on 14 Hollywood homes and one in Fort Lauderdale through Saving Florida Neighborhoods Inc. His son, Michael, claimed 13 other properties through his company, MAS & Son Inc., records show.
Joseph Spitaleri withdrew his claims in March, and his son gave up all but four of his last month.
One of the homes Joseph Spitaleri claimed ownership of is on Hollywood’s South Lake and is currently under contract to be sold for $1.2 million, said real estate agent Mike Harris. He said he learned of the adverse claim through another Realtor, and the owner’s attorney “contacted the outfit that was trying to steal this property” and cleared the title.
Joseph Spitaleri could not be reached, but was “not really involved” in the adverse possession claims, his son said.
“I canceled everything (for him) and had it all in my name,” Michael Spitaleri said. He declined to answer further questions.
Hollywood police are investigating Michael Spitaleri’s property claims, said spokesman Lt. Manny Marino.
Politics Killed Solution
For property owners, consequences of adverse possession can be costly. A claim can cloud the title and affect future sales, forcing the owner to hire an attorney and in some cases go to court.
One Polk County nursery owner has spent more money fighting an adverse possession claim than his property is worth, said county Property Appraiser Marsha Faux. Polk holds the state record for the most adverse possession claims 613 — many in unplatted subdivisions that are delinquent in their property taxes.
“Most are foreign owners, and they thought one day it might be developed and it would be close to ( Walt Disney World) and they’d make a fortune,” Faux said. Others are properties in use by the actual owners but someone beat them to paying the property tax bill, she said.
The judiciary committee of the Florida Senate warned of the potential abuses of adverse possession last fall. Rep. Schultz, a former property appraiser, introduced legislation to stop them, including requiring all property owners to be notified when a claim is made and preventing non-owners from paying a tax bill until it becomes delinquent.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Paula Dockery, cleared the Senate unanimously but died in the House the last day of the legislative session, April 30.
Schultz said a House leader told him the sponsors were the problem. Dockery, a Republican from Lakeland, was running for governor, but the preferred candidate of the House leadership was Attorney General Bill McCollum, Schultz said.
And Schultz said he angered leaders by voting against their priorities, including bills tying teacher pay to student test scores and requiring pregnant women to get an ultrasound before an abortion.
“When you are the lone ‘no’ vote among Republicans, you can expect to be noticed, and your bills have a certain aroma,” Schultz said. “I was quite disappointed. It was a general purpose, anti-fraud bill and it didn’t get a hearing.”
Palm Beach County Property Appraiser Gary Nikolits said the “political payback” has hurt all Floridians.
The proposed law “had statewide consequences and had benefit for all taxpayers,” he said, “so shame on the leadership.”
Database specialist Dana Williams contributed to this report.