Nightmare: squatters claim more than $8 million in Fort Worth properties

Fort Worth Star-TelegramDecember 5, 2011 

While county officials were asleep at the wheel, Tarrant County became a magnet this year for an odd assortment of squatters claiming other people's houses all over the area.

The cast of characters includes a homeowner who scooped up a dead neighbor's house; a woman who came to Fort Worth from Memphis to lay claim to a $2.7 million mansion; people who cited Bible verses as legal justification for taking properties; and career criminals who grabbed homes to lease to tenants.

All told, county records show that squatters and their associates claimed more than $8 million worth of properties, from Grand Prairie, Mansfield and Arlington to Fort Worth, Haslet and Keller, according to a Star-Telegram examination of county documents. Some of the squatters' elaborate schemes have stumped law enforcement officials. One Tarrant constable has even asked the Texas attorney general's office for help in straightening out the mess.

"Everybody is just trying to learn what in the world is going on," said Mansfield Constable Clint C. Burgess. "It's the craziest thing how anyone could be so brazen to just break into a home and start living in it."

The schemes are hard to unravel because of a loophole in a state law that allows people to suddenly claim supposedly abandoned sections of property if no owner is on the spot to challenge such a claim. The law's intent was to help ranchers and others who had tended vacant land for years, so they could eventually gain legal ownership of the property. That's done by filing a document called an adverse possession affidavit with the county clerk.

But the law doesn't distinguish between a claim on a $27 section of sod and one on a $2.7 million mansion with an elevator, three master bedrooms, a five-car garage and a pond with fish in the back yard. File the proper paperwork, pay a $16 filing fee, keep up with the property taxes and live in the house three years or more, and even the courts may not be able to evict you.

Properties vulnerable to squatters include those whose owners died. Other properties belong to people absent from their homes because of work or illness. They can return to find their houses trashed, their belongings gone and their privacy violated -- all while the neighbors watched in shock.

"This is the worst thing that I've been through," said Joe Bruner, a certified public accountant in Arlington whose neighbor's home was seized by two squatters in October. "It's not healthy for anybody, for the neighborhood, for the county. It's just not healthy for humanity.

"You don't come in and steal somebody's home."

Read the complete story at star-telegram.com

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