Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents and Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives arrested two men tied to a real estate scam that spread to five counties in the Tampa Bay area.
The Florida attorney general's statewide prosecutor charged 47-year-old Chris McDonald, of Plant City, and 37-year-old Demetrius Lewis, of Land O' Lakes, with organized scheme to defraud.
McDonald and Lewis contend adverse possession, an obscure Florida law, allowed them and others to snatch up dozens of empty houses, move people in and collect rent without the property owners knowledge or permission.
Statewide prosecutor Nick Cox said they can tell it to a judge.
"These people are breaking into homes, removing furniture in some instances of the rightful owner of the property, and then just basically putting on their own locks and moving somebody else in. The adverse possession law doesn't allow for that," Cox said.
Adverse possession allows someone to take possession of abandoned property if they live on it and pay taxes on it for seven years.
"We said all along it was a scheme, it was a crime," said Detective Larry McKinnon of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
McDonald runs a company called Chateau Lan. The company's address listed with the Florida Department of State is McDonald's mother's house.
In February, an 8 On Your Side investigation detailed how Chateau Lan and two other companies, Homes for Americans and Brevkam Ventures, grabbed scores of houses in Hillsborough and moved people in, claiming under the adverse possession law it was legal.
At the time, McDonald admitted he took possession of at least 20 houses in Hillsborough. Danuta Brown discovered in December that Chateau Lan moved someone in to her vacant Dover house.
"I feel angry that someone can go to my house, change the locks and put other people in my house without my permission," Brown said.
She called the sheriff's office. The occupant of the house, Yvette Swain, produced an occupancy agreement with Chateau Lan. A deputy then told Brown it was a civil matter.
Downey Connolly also discovered in December someone living in the Valrico house left to his daughter. He discovered Chateau Lan moved someone, so he called the sheriff's office. Connolly got the same response from another deputy: It's a civil matter.
"It should be criminal. When you go into someone's home and change the locks, that's a crime, that's breaking and entering, it's simple, even a 6-year-old child can figure that out," Connolly said.
McKinnon admitted the adverse possession scam at first caught deputies off guard, but as the complaints piled up, detectives determined it was an elaborate scheme to defraud.
"This will send a clear message that if you do this type of scheme you will go to jail," McKinnon said.
Cox said Lewis ran a scheme in Pasco County in which he provided forms and showed others how to perpetrate the fraud.
"We intend on attacking this in other parts of the state as well, but here in Hillsborough, I mean quite honestly, when we heard about this on Channel 8 is when I was going, 'you've got to be kidding me that this is happening. We've got to do something about it,' " Cox said.
The News Channel 8 reports in February and March detailed how Chateau Lan, Homes for Americans and Brevkam Ventures laid stake to scores of houses throughout Hillsborough.
George Williams of Brevkam Ventures denied moving anybody to any empty houses. News Channel 8 aired video that showed Williams moving a family into a vacant Riverview house.
Hillsborough sheriff's investigators arrested Williams, charging him with grand theft of that house.
The sheriff's office direct filed at least five similar cases with the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. It chose not to prosecute.
Homes for Americans, run by Joel McNair, broke into and then rented out a vacant house in Riverview that Tamra Wondrow was trying to sell in August 2010.
"This is the most insane thing I've ever been through in my life," Wondrow said.
McNair claimed the adverse possession law allowed him to take the house, because he wasn't staking ownership, just taking possession.
"You have all these empty houses, you have all these individuals who need housing, let's put those two together legally," McNair said.
Last February, McNair estimated he had taken possession of 60 to 80 empty houses.
"They're empty and they're available, readily available, and you can use them for a while," McNair argued.
"Quite honestly the reason our office got involved is I saw that interview with Joel McNair, and it really ticked me off," Cox said.
FDLE along with the Attorney General's Office and detectives from Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties ramped up their investigation in the spring.
McNair committed suicide in May.
McKinnon said as the snowbirds return to Florida, he expects the sheriff's office will learn of more houses that have been stolen.
"The wheels of justice turned slowly in this one, but they never stopped turning," McKinnon said.