DeSoto man gets 10 years probation, $10,000 fine in "squatter" case

Posted Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012  comments  Print Reprints

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Moments after he was sentenced to 10 years probation and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine, the first "squatter" convicted of a felony in Tarrant County for occupying an empty home after filing adverse possession papers was led off to jail to serve a short sentence.

David Cooper, a 26-year-old DeSoto man convicted of first-degree theft and burglary, will spend 90 days in county jail before he begins his probation, Criminal District Court No. 1 Judge Sharen Wilson announced Thursday.

"Sometimes, it’s good not to be around for the holidays," Wilson said as he signed his probation papers.

She also ordered Cooper to move to Tarrant County because that is where her court is providing the supervision.

"I will extend your jail time if you don’t live in Tarrant County," she told Cooper.

The three-day trial was focused on Cooper's use of an obscure property-rights law that gives persons the ability to claim ownership of abandoned or vacant properties as long as they pay taxes and maintain them. The law also requires that persons live on the property for as long as 25 years.

Cooper paid $16 to file an affidavit of adverse possession on Oct. 25 with the county clerk’s office.

By doing so, he had claimed title to a $405,000 Arlington home of Raymond and Julie Dell, who purchased it years ago from former Texas Ranger slugger Juan Gonzalez. The Dells had moved to Houston in March 2011 to seek chemotherapy treatment for Julie Dell.

Cooper was arrested for burglary by Arlington police on Nov. 9. Dell said furniture was missing and large trash bags of belongings were piled up in the house. Prosecutors estimated the theft involved more than $200,000 in valuables.

Defense Attorney Deborah Goodall argued that Cooper’s intent was to tap the obscure statute that became law in the 1800s.

She argued that adverse possession was not listed as a crime in the penal code. "It’s like putting a square peg in a round hole," she told jurors on Wednesday.

Cooper did not intend to commit criminal acts, she emphasized Thursday during the punishment phase of the trial.

"I beseech you to give him a chance," she told jurors. "Give him probation. Give him a chance to show he can be a law-abiding citizen."

At the conclusion of the trial, Goodall said her client was glad to have been spared state prison.

"The jury did the right thing,"’ she said. "The sentence was fair ... Of course I didn’t like the verdict .. these (adverse possession) statutes need to be fixed."

Cooper now has 30 days to appeal the jury verdict. Goodall hasn’t made a decision on an appeal.

Prosecutors argued that Cooper hatched up a scheme to use "adverse possession" to trespass and commit burglary and theft.

They said he found the tactic on Google and pursued it. They called his use an "abomination" and "perverse misapplication of the law."

Cooper’s verdict provided a "firm statement" to the community that such behavior won’t be tolerated in Tarrant County, Assistant District Attorney David Lobingier said. Jurors, most of them also homeowners, understood the implications of their decision, prosecutors said.

"Your verdict is going to send a message to the community ... make no mistake ... to anyone who has ever contemplated this ... to get a free house,"’ Assistant District Attorney Steve Gebhardt. Five other defendants are awaiting trials in Tarrant County on charges stemming from adverse possession.

Jurors had been less inclined to send Cooper to state prison because his crimes were not related to violence, Lobingier said.

Cooper could have received a life sentence for the theft charge and a maximum 20 years in prison for the burglary charge.

The most emotional part of the trial came Thursday when Raymond Dell addressed Cooper in a victim’s impact statement.

"You thought you were smarter than the system and you could walk away with all this property," Raymond Dell said, calling him a "con."

Dell choked back tears when he said: "Your own mom has cancer. I’m appalled you did this... I hope you understand how devastating this is ... You need to understand your actions have implications. You need to learn to respect."

Dell also congratulated the jury for its work that led to a guilty verdict.

"Thank you for making a just and right decision," Dell said. "Every homeowner in Tarrant County should be proud."

Cooper is expected to start probation and receive counseling after he serves the terms of his 90-day jail sentence.

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705

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