Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Carmel on the Case: Property Grab
It was a property grab first exposed in a 7 News exclusive. Now, its a criminal case and a jury has decided if a serious crime was committed in the process. Investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero is On the Case with another exclusive report.
WSVN -- Fitzroy Ellis: "And what ever price I wanted for the property was legal sir."
Sixty-five-year-old Fitzroy Ellis was confident and combative during his trial on grand theft charges. He paid $13.70 to file a court document involving this $200,000 house in Jacaranda Lakes, which was in foreclosure. Ellis claims the document made the property his.
Don Tenbrook: "Did you find it strange or unusual that you'd be able to get ownership of a house or property for paying $13.70?"
Fitzroy Ellis: "No sir."
Ellis claimed an old law designed for abandoned properties justified his actions. It's called adverse possession, and requires upkeep and taxes paid for seven years before ownership is changed. Ellis didn't wait.
Fitzroy Ellis: "There was never a statute on the books in Florida for arrest under adverse possession sir."
Nerissa Spannos: "He told me he was the owner."
Nerissa Spannos was the realtor representing the bank that foreclosed on the house. She testified Ellis changed the locks on the property and when she changed them back he wanted her arrested.
Nerissa Spannos: "He kept saying 'I'm sorry my dear, you've just lost your money. This is my house.'"
Another person involved in the sale of the house testified that Ellis offered to drop his claim for $30,000.
Don Tenbrook: "Did you pay him the $30,000?
Person: "No we did not."
When he took the stand in his own defense, Ellis claimed a second law. A federal law also gave him a right to the property.
Don Tenbrook: "Isn't it a fact sir that there's nothing in this act that provides you or your companies the right to take property without compensation to the owners?"
Fitzroy Ellis: "You are absolutely wrong sir."
But Ellis's attorney told the jury he had relied on the state adverse possession law.
Brian Greenwald: "Florida statute section 95.18 is a law. So by definition Mr. Fitzroy Ellis was not acting unlawfully if he was acting pursuant to this law."
The state argued otherwise.
Don Tenbrook: "He was hijacking this house. He was looking for a ransom. It's a scam it's pure and simple."
Judge Jeffrey Levenson: "OK Mr. Ellis please stand."
It took the jury less than an hour to reach a verdict.
Court Clerk: "The defendant is guilty of theft. The value of the property being $100,000 or more."
The decision is significant in that it sends a message to others who have tried or might try to use the adverse possession law to grab property.
Carmel Cafiero: "It doesn't fit today's foreclosure problems?"
Don Tenbrook: "Not at all."
Meanwhile, Ellis is behind bars until his sentencing next month. He faces a maximum of 30 years in prison in this case, and has five more property grab cases pending.IF YOU HAVE A STORY FOR CARMEL TO INVESTIGATE: