DeSoto man convicted of felony theft, burglary in squatter trial

Posted Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- A Tarrant County jury convicted a 26-year-old squatter of first-degree felony theft and burglary Wednesday for occupying a $405,000 Arlington home after filing an "adverse possession" affidavit.

David Cooper of DeSoto faces a maximum sentence of life in prison on the felony theft charge and 20 years for the burglary.

His wife, Jasmine Williams Cooper, 23, was found not guilty on identical charges against her. Prosecutors presented no evidence against her and she did not testify.

In the first trial against so-called squatters in Tarrant County, prosecutors condemned the couple's behavior as an "abomination" and "perversion of law."

In his closing arguments, prosecutor David Lobingier told jurors that an acquittal would declare "open season" on abandoned or vacant properties, allowing use of the adverse possession law to gain ownership.

"Please don't let this tragedy of justice happen," he said.

Defense attorney Deborah Goodall asked jurors to find her clients not guilty because their intent was not to burglarize the home.

Prosecutors failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Coopers were acting like criminals, she said.

Their "actions are inconsistent with criminal intent to commit theft and burglary," Goodall said. "Was [Cooper] wrong or mistaken? Possibly so."

But that doesn't raise his behavior to the level of criminal intent, she said.

Five other defendants are awaiting trials on charges stemming from affidavits of adverse possession.

Last year, such affidavits were filed on 60 properties in the county valued at more than $8 million. In November 2011, Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon declared the affidavits fraudulent and instructed the county clerk's office to reject them.

The adverse possession statute, which became law in the 1800s, allows people to gain title to vacant properties as long as they maintain them and pay taxes for a lengthy period of time, which can be up to 25 years.

The Coopers moved into a home in the 3000 block of Forestwood Drive after the owners, Raymond and Julie Dell, moved to Houston in March 2011 so Julie Dell could undergo chemotherapy, prosecutors said.

In October, David Cooper filed an affidavit of adverse possession claiming ownership. Two weeks later, on Nov. 9, he was arrested on suspicion of burglary.

Raymond Dell, who testified Tuesday, said he was shocked when he learned that his home had been burglarized. He said furniture was missing and large trash bags of his family's belongings were piled up in the house.

Prosecutors estimated that the theft involved more than $200,000 in valuables. A neighbor of the Dells' testified that she saw an ornate piece of bedroom furniture in Cooper's red truck.

Goodall said Cooper filed the affidavit and then made a serious effort to follow the law. For example, she said, he cleaned up the property.

"He did the best he could," Goodall said. "He only had two weeks to do it, and he did a lot during that time."

Jurors deliberated about two hours.

Cooper was expressionless when his verdict was read but gave a faint smile when his wife was declared not guilty. She bowed her head.

Cooper, who had been free on bail, was taken into custody after the verdict.

"If God is for us, nobody can be against us," Jasmine Cooper said. She walked out of the courtroom with friends and relatives who were teary-eyed.

"They're young folks. They didn't do anything," family friend Eli Jacobs said. "They know this man wasn't breaking in. ... This is just wrong."

The sentencing phase is set to begin at 8:30 this morning in state District Judge Sharen Wilson's Criminal Court No. 1.

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705

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