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Final foreclosure act: wading through the debris of lives left behind

PORT RICHEY

Eight years of handling evictions at foreclosed homes has taught Pasco Sheriff's Office Cpl. B.J. Wright a crucial lesson: Always knock. • Not to alert the residents, who are usually long gone. But to make the cockroaches scurry from the door frame so they don't drop down his neck. • "It only has to happen once," Wright said.

The final link in the foreclosure chain, the Pasco deputy has become an expert at sizing up how families lived by what they leave behind.

On a recent morning, equipped with gun, Taser, radio and flea spray, Wright pulled his cruiser in front of a faded-looking home in a subdivision off U.S. 19.

The home­owner had taken a $146,200 mortgage on the property in June 2006. She had stopped making payments in February 2009 and lost the house to the bank in a foreclosure sale in August.

A few days earlier, Wright had taped the court's "Writ of Possession" order on the home's rust-stained screen door, giving occupants 24 hours to leave. Now the corporal, a veteran of 35 years in law enforcement, was back with the bank's cleanup crew to make sure all humans and pets were gone.

Though Derrick Nails and his two assistants from Lawn Geekz, a property maintenance firm in Lehigh Acres, were ready to drill out the lock, there was no need. The place was unlocked. Knocking, then gently pushing open the front door, Wright took a deep breath, pointed his flashlight inside and shouted, "Sheriff's Office. Anybody here?"

The living room looked like the residents left in a rush, with underwear, fast-food wrappers, a footstool, fan and kid's football helmet making a minefield of the matted green carpet. A Christmas wreath hung on the wall above a sagging black faux-leather sofa speckled with mold. Three Eureka upright vacuums were posted like sentinels around the room.

There was a reminder of the family dog behind the front door. Unopened mail, flash cards, pill bottles and a Dunkin' Donuts box were piled precariously on the kitchen counter. A "Student of the Quarter" flier from Marchman Education Center was taped to the refrigerator. Two big bottles of margarita mix were tucked in the cupboard, an unopened bottle of cheap champagne stood next to the stove.

A makeshift bed on the back porch suggested that one family member had stayed behind, with no power and no water, after the rest had moved on.

"This is not a surprise. They've had plenty of notice," Wright said, as he picked his way from bedrooms to bathrooms to garage, opening all closets, stepping over dead bugs. "But sometimes they become complacent. They don't know exactly when we'll come."

He arrives on the scene when a home­owner has hit rock bottom, but Wright, 60, keeps his feelings about the job strictly in check.

"It's an order of the court," he said of the document that delivers the property to the bank, the last step of the foreclosure process. "It's nonnegotiable at this point."

Wright has arrested residents for trespassing when they refused to leave the property immediately. He has dealt with shocked renters who have been kept in the dark by the delinquent home­owners. He has run off squatters. And he has been surprised — and saddened — to discover how often spouses hide the bad news from their partners. Wright's appearance shatters that fairy tale.

He recalled one woman who answered his knock. Wright could see the house was lived in, full of furniture. Then he heard the husband call from another room, "Who is it, dear?"

"I looked at her and said, 'You haven't told him yet, have you?' " said Wright, who added that the woman just shook her head in response. "He was very upset."

Nails, who has done "trash outs" for banks for the past 2 1/2 years, said he once had a woman jump on her couch and refuse to leave; his workers simply carried the couch and the woman to the curb.

Nails' worst experience was at a foreclosed home in Tampa. The home­owner had shot himself in bed and the body was not discovered until it had decomposed. Although it was gone by the time Nails got there, bodily fluids had seeped through the mattress and box springs and into the carpet. A dead raccoon had fallen through the rotten ceiling onto the bed. The owner's dead cat was in the living room.

"He was a hoarder, too," Nails said. "It took six 40-yard dumpsters to empty that house."

• • •

A year ago, before the robo signing controversy and lenders' moratorium, when foreclosures were moving quickly through the judicial system, Wright and his two colleagues on the sheriff's eviction team were each handling as many as 15 evictions a day. Now, that number is down to five or fewer.

Nails, who works a territory from Bradenton to Gainesville, is seeing foreclosures reaching the once-wealthy, including owners of a 25,000-square-foot home in Tampa he secured for a bank last year.

"These are people who had a little more money or an attorney that could prolong the process," he said. "But that time is running out."

When he first started doing evictions, Wright said, people usually left their homes in decent shape.

"Now, they're more likely to be a mess," he said. At one eviction, Wright was stunned to find a home in Land O' Lakes had been completely stripped bare — from kitchen cabinets to granite countertops to electrical fixtures to the laminate flooring on the second floor.

To combat the problem, Nails said, he's seeing more foreclosed home­owners leaving voluntarily through "cash-for-keys" deals with the banks, where they pay the homeowner to leave the property quickly and in good condition.

Wright said he and his colleagues have found rabbits, snakes, rats, fish, cats and dogs in abandoned homes; most times they're caged, sometimes not. Latest surprise: a caged squirrel.

Multiple pets aren't unusual, nor are pit bulls. Wright calls the county's animal control unit to handle pets left homeless by foreclosures, but he's puzzled by one thing:

"Why would you have multiple pets if you can't take care of yourself?"

• • •

Nothing was moving in the home in Port Richey, not even the clock on the kitchen wall. But every room was littered with cast-offs of the family's lives: a machete under a bunk bed, a broken skateboard on the bedroom floor, a greasy Fry Daddy deep fryer, a dictionary and Billy Joel CDs in the dining area.

"This didn't happen overnight," Wright said of the cluttered floors, punched-in doors and water-stained ceilings. "This is the way they lived. They'd stopped cleaning, organizing, they made no repairs because they had no sense of ownership. They knew they weren't going to be here for the long run."

In the garage were a couple of partially assembled mini-motorcycles next to a mountain of discarded toys. Said Nails: "These kids had everything but a place to sleep."

Once the Sheriff's Office has declared a property vacant, the bank's crew will replace the locks and move anything of value to the curb. Twenty-four hours later, they'll return to finish the job, cleaning out every room and hauling it all away. One cardinal rule: Never open the refrigerator.

Said Nails, "You just tape it up and move it out or you'll never get the smell out of the house."

What doesn't end up in Dumpsters sometimes finds its way to Goodwill, flea markets or the clean-up crews' homes.

"When you first start this job, you see all this stuff and say 'Wow,' " said Nails, who picked up a 26- foot boat that had been abandoned. "Then you run out of room in your garage. But I have a co-worker who made $70,000 last year at flea markets."

Within an hour, Wright's job is done and Nails' workers are hauling dressers, an exercise trampoline, sleeper sofa, mattresses, bunk bed, Dell printer and microwave to the curb, taking pictures every step of the way. They'll get $25 per person, per hour, for a maximum of $1,500, to get the house cleaned out, cleaned up, and to make a tally of all damages. But they have to work fast. Cleanup companies have just three days to get a HUD property ready to remarket.

For people like Nails, who flipped houses during the real estate boom, the job comes down to erasing the past and making way for the future. Pointing to an old wooden swing hanging from a big oak tree, he said, "That will be gone. Banks don't want any reminders of the previous owner."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at khundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

New Web page

Check out the St. Petersburg Times' new foreclosure Web page. The site will help you understand the foreclosure crisis, explain what it means to you and track the latest foreclosure activity. Highlights include an animated feature of how we got into this mess and video interviews of home­owners and experts on navigating the complex system. It's all at tampabay.com/foreclosure.

Final foreclosure act: wading through the debris of lives left behind 03/25/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 28, 2011 5:04pm]

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