Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Carmel on the Case: Property Grab Follow-up
More investigations tonight in connection with what some are calling illegal property grabs. Charges have been filed in some cases; police are investigating others, where companies have taken control of vacant homes without buying them. Investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero first exposed the practice and is back on the case.
WSVN -- Trevor Chang-Leung: "Well, they're not even taking care of the pool."
Trevor Chang-Leung was disturbed to discover the pool at his Hollywood house was full of green water.
Trevor Chang-Leung: "I have to drain it, wash it and cover it up again."
It added insult to injury to what he considers a bizarre situation. His home is in foreclosure, and although he moved out, he still hopes to be able to keep it.
Trevor Chang-Leung: "This was a $400,000 home when I got it."
Without him knowing, and without his permission, a company took over his house and then rented it to someone.
Trevor Chang-Leung: "So they basically broke into the house, you know, changed my locks, filled my pool back up, got electric running again, and then the tenant moved in."
Hollywood Police are investigating what took place here. Throughout Broward County, several companies are using an old law designed for abandoned property to take over foreclosed homes that are empty. That law requires seven years of paying upkeep and taxes before ownership can be changed.
The property appraiser's office says it rarely happens.
Ron Gunzburger, Property Appraiser Counsel: "So all the people doing this are, in essence, chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It's fictional."
And prosecutors think the way the law is being used is illegal.
The Broward State Attorney's Office has filed a felony charge against 47-year-old Mark Guerette of Wellington. He is accused of "an organized scheme to defraud" after his company, Saving Florida Homes, took possession of six Broward County properties the state charges he had no right to take.
Fitzroy Ellis: "Story for what?"
Carmel Cafiero: "For the news."
Sixty-three-year-old Fitzroy Ellis is facing a grand theft charge for a similar transaction through a company called Helping Hands Properties.
Fitzroy Ellis: "I am not taking no properties, ma'am."
Carmel Cafiero: "Oh really, Helping Hands?"
Fitzroy Ellis: "Ma'am, go away from me, ma'am. You're not the judge. That's why I'm in court."
He was charged with grand theft in connection with a home in Plantation.
According to the arrest report, he changed the locks twice without permission of the rightful owner.
While in court to enter a not guilty plea in that case, Ellis learned the state has filed five more grand theft charges against him for allegedly taking five other properties.
Al Guttmann, Assistant State Attorney: "This is outrageous conduct. What we have here is basically someone attempting, endeavoring to steal a piece of real estate that he has absolutely no interest in from the rightful owner."
Ellis argued, the law allows it.
Fitzroy Ellis: "The federal statute gives me the right, your honor, any property that is abandoned and vacant for sixty days, your honor. I have a right as a non-profit organization to own that property."
Judge Matthew Destry revoked his bond and ordered Ellis locked up.
Trevor, meanwhile, got the renter out of his house with the help of Hollywood Police. There have been no charges filed in connection with the takeover of his home.
Carmel Cafiero: "In some cases, these property grabs have caused pending sales to be canceled. And that means more problems for an already troubled housing market."
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