"Squatter" trial goes to jury after prosecutors call defendants "scam artists"

Posted Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- A Tarrant County jury began deliberations this afternoon to determine the fate of two defendants who tried to take ownership of a $405,000 northeast Arlington home under an obscure property-rights law.

David Cooper, 26, of DeSoto is charged with first-degree felony theft over $200,000 and burglary. The first charge carries a maximum of life in prison, the second a maximum of 20 years. His wife, Jasmine Williams Cooper, 23, faces the same penalty under the same charges of theft and burglary of a habitation.

Closing statements from prosecuting attorneys and the couple's defense attorney were packed with emotional punch.

Defense attorney Deborah Goodall pleaded with jurors to find her clients not guilty because their intent was not to burglarize the home. But prosecutors labeled the Coopers as "scam artists, thieves, looters, opportunists, burglars."

The owners who hold the title to the home on Forestwood Drive are Raymond and Julie Dell. The Dells moved to Houston in March 2011 in order to obtain chemotherapy treatment for Julie Dell, prosecutors said.

In October, David Cooper filed an affidavit of adverse possession claiming ownership of their home. Two weeks later, he was arrested for burglary.

Last year, Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon deemed adverse possession affidavits "fraudulent" and directed the county clerk's office not to accept them. Dozens of people had taken ownership of more than $8 million of Tarrant County property.

On Tuesday, jurors heard details of how a so-called "squatter" used an obscure law from the 1800s to try to take ownership of the Arlington home.

"I wasn't trying to take no one's house,'' the soft-spoken David Cooper told jurors. "I was just trying to take the property under adverse possession."

Prosecutors portrayed Cooper as a lawbreaker who abused the intent of a law created to help settle minor ranch disputes. The law permits people to claim vacant property as long as they maintain it and pay taxes on it.

On Tuesday, prosecutors Steve Gebhardt and David Lobingier called witnesses, including Raymond Dell.

Dell purchased the home years ago from former Texas Ranger Juan Gonzalez. Dell testified that his family went to Houston for several months while his wife was receiving cancer treatment. When they were notified by police that a stranger was living in their home, Dell said he was in shock.

Dell testified that his family's furniture was missing and their clothing had been stuffed into giant garbage bags.

Cooper's attorney waited until the afternoon to present her opening statements and then called Cooper to the witness stand.

"Everything they did, they were open and aboveboard," defense attorney Deborah Goodall told jurors. "And he made remarkable changes to that property."

Then a soft-spoken Cooper explained how he had abided by the adverse possession law. He said he spent time at the law library at Southern Methodist University to research the obscure law.

"My intent was to properly perform an adverse possession,'' he said.

He stumbled upon the property while working at his lawn-care business, he said.

He also owns a marketing firm, he told prosecutors.

Once he moved in, he trimmed trees and cleaned up trash. It was an "all-day job," he said. And he said he was open about what he was doing when police came knocking on the door. The officers left when he showed them the affidavit of adverse possession he had filed with the county for a $16 filing fee Oct. 25. He said he did not steal items or furniture from the property.

Even the neighbors were glad to see him because they feared that their property values would drop if the abandoned home continued to deteriorate, he testified.

And he restored water and utilities, he said, with help from the connections provided to him by his grandmother, the mayor of a Louisiana town.

He said that his wife was at cosmetology school and not on the property when he was there.

He was arrested Nov. 9, 2011.

Prosecutors questioned Cooper about his adherence to other laws. Lobingier pointed out that the tags on the truck he was driving had expired. (Cooper said the truck belonged to a friend.)

Cooper also said he had not bothered to file income taxes in recent years and did not pay property taxes on the Forestwood Drive home.

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705

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