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Tarrant County gets tough on squatters

FORT WORTH -- Less than a year after so-called squatters claimed rights to $8 million worth of abandoned homes, Tarrant County may now be the least likely place for the activity.

County officials responded to the outbreak of squatters with an aggressive counterattack, pursuing criminal charges, getting attorneys to help homeowners for free and establishing a system to alert homeowners when "adverse possession" papers are filed at the courthouse.

"Squatters understand that you just don't mess with Tarrant County," said Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia, who condemned the activity as "fraudulent."

A Tarrant County grand jury has indicted almost a dozen offenders. And thousands of homeowners have armed themselves with county anti-fraud protection in order to protect their property interests.

Under state law, persons are legally able to claim ownership of abandoned properties when they file affidavits of adverse possession, as long as they agree to maintain the property and pay taxes on it. Persons pay a filing fee of $16 for the affidavit.

But Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon has said that the law was being abused to hatch up fraudulent schemes.

During the last six months of 2011, about 55 affidavits were filed seeking ownership of abandoned homes with the county clerk's office. The affidavits laid claim to the tune of more than $8 million in county properties, according to a Star-Telegram analysis of those affidavits requested under the Texas Public Information Act.

In September, a Mansfield traveling nurse reported the first case of a squatter in the county to the offices of Mansfield Constable Clint Burgess, whose deputies handled a number of squatter arrests. The nurse told Burgess' office that she had discovered a stranger living in her home after a three-day stint for work. The man found in her home had changed the locks, entered the house without permission and took two TVs and a lawn mower, she told police.

That set the stage for a handful of other attempts. One woman paid $16 to file an affidavit on a $2.7 million Fort Worth mansion. Others claimed rights under their affiliation with a religious organization and claimed that their ancestry did not make them subject to Texas and U.S. laws.

The incidents terrorized neighborhoods and affected the very vulnerable -- such as a Mansfield widow and a cancer survivor who had been gone for months from her Arlington home to seek treatments in Houston.

On Nov. 7, Shannon instructed Garcia's office to refuse affidavits of adverse possession, as they had been determined as "fraudulent," he said. He also advised police chiefs, constables and the Sheriff's Department to be aware of the so-called squatters and encouraged the officials to pursue criminal prosecution against them.

"These so-called squatters could possibly face charges of burglary, theft by deception and fraudulent filing, among others," Shannon wrote.

Nine people have been charged with crimes associated with unlawful trespassing or possession of people's vacant or apparently abandoned homes, according to the district attorney's office.

The last squatter, a 64-year-old man, was apprehended in late February in Grapevine, police said.

Also, Garcia said that one person tried to tack an affidavit of adverse possession to a county information billboard after her office refused to accept it.

"We immediately removed it and have not seen or heard from that individual again," she said.

Shannon says no new cases have been brought to his attention.

But, he said, "If they are, how we deal with them will depend upon the facts of each case."

Meanwhile, Tarrant County taxpayers have been taking matters into their own hands.

Garcia hooked up with officials at the Tarrant Appraisal District to ensure that property owners received a flyer about a free county anti- property fraud service.

So far, 17,000 property owners have signed up for it, she said.

The automated system, which alerts taxpayers if a document is filed on one of their properties, had only 7,000 subscribers in 2009.

In addition, she contacted the Tarrant County Bar Association to provide six real estate attorneys to provide pro bono work to potential victims.

"We're going to work together in Tarrant County to protect our property owners, our taxpayers," said Garcia, whose office runs the county's anti-fraud program. "It's a collaborative effort."

Yamil Berard,

817-390-7705

Twitter: @yberard

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