Thursday, March 15, 2012

3 Church Members, Pastor Face Charges In Alleged Vacant Home Hijacking Racket As Criminal Prosecutions Of Adverse Possession-Claiming Scams Gain Steam

In Jacksonville, Florida, WJXT-TV Channel 4 reports:

  • Four people -- one of them a recent Jacksonville mayoral candidate -- were charged over the weekend with taking over vacant homes, either to live in themselves or to rent them out to others. "They were living in them, or presented them as their own," Sheriff John Rutherford said Monday. "They squatted there."

  • Warren Lee, 46, who ran for mayor last spring, was charged with grand theft, scheme to defraud and acting as a real estate agent without a license. Police called Lee the mastermind of the scheme to take over homes and rent them to others.

  • Marcellous Dunbar, 31, who was previously charged with grand theft after being found living in a $500,000 Oakleaf Plantation home in Clay County, also faces grand theft and other charges in the five Jacksonville cases announced Monday.

  • State Attorney Angela Corey said Dunbar threatened Channel 4 reporter Tarik Minor, claiming the reporter was trespassing the rightful owner of the Oakleaf house to get off the property, and the homeowner sought the help of Clay County deputies for protection when moving in. In Channel 4's coverage of Dunbar and Lee last year, they claimed they were doing this to help homeless people or veterans.

  • Also arrested in the Jacksonville cases were Cleveland Stephens and Rhonda Johnson.

  • "These people simply moved into these vacant residences and claimed them as their own, and then became the landlord of these residences," Rutherford said. "The phenomenon of literally stealing someone's house and either living there or renting it out is pretty rare."

  • The sheriff said the investigation began five months ago when neighbors of the homes involved became suspicious and contacted authorities. "It is unfair that people who have lost their homes in foreclosure, who are fighting, literally, to keep themselves afloat, are having now to deal with someone cutting the locks and moving into their homes," Corey said. "It's offensive, and beyond that, it's a criminal act."

  • Dunbar claimed to Channel 4 last year that he legally took over the property through the controversial Florida statute of adverse possession, which allows change of ownership to an abandoned home. Authorities said he was not in legal possession of the home, which had just been sold to a Navy family. Authorities said Dunbar left the home trashed.

  • Police said all four were members of the Fishers of Men World Harvest Church, of which Dunbar was pastor. One of those arrested told a detective that God "wanted them to have the property."

For the story, see 4 'squatters' charged with grand theft (1 of 4 charged Monday was candidate for mayor of Jacksonville last year).

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