A "fad'' crime has grown familiar to Hillsborough County sheriff's officials and Riverview appears to be one of the most popular areas for perpetrators.
An archaic state law known as "adverse possession" has been at the center, officials say. The latest arrest occurred on Aug. 15. Deputies said Jeanella Pollock, 51, had broken into a home at 6915 Potomac Circle and moved in with her husband and teenage children, changed the locks and turned on the water and electricity. She faces charges of burglary and grand theft, deputies said.
Her husband, Manatee County sheriff's Deputy Leon Pollock, 54, was not charged but his employer placed him on administrative leave.
In 2012, Samantha Gavin-Magras, 40, and Tami Robinson, 44, were each charged with two counts of invasion by false personation, two counts of organized fraud, two counts of burglary and two counts of grand theft after they tried to use the obscure law to take possession of homes in Riverview.
Prosecutors dropped charges against Gavin-Magras but Robinson's case is scheduled to go to trial Sept. 30.
Like Gavin-Magras and Robinson, Jeanella Pollock had filed an "adverse possession'' form with the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office before moving into the home.
For the last two years, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies have been watching out for people who obtain adverse possession status over property. Florida law allows people to petition for a judge to grant them title to abandoned property, provided they fix it up, occupy it and pay the taxes for seven years.
The problem is evident: Despite filing the form, it's still breaking and entering, according to deputies.
During that time, they face trespassing charges for being on the property without the real owner's permission. Changing locks and using the house for their own benefit could result in burglary charges, say Hillsborough sheriff's officials.
"It's clearly fraud,'' says Charles Gallagher III, a St. Petersburg lawyer who represents homeowners in property disputes. "There's nothing legal about that at all.''
Hillsborough deputies arrest about 30 to 35 adverse possessors per year, says Cpl. Bruce Crumpler of the Sheriff's Office's economic crime section.
"Recently, it's reared its head again,'' Crumpler added.
The number of people filing adverse possession forms with the Hillsborough Property Appraiser's Office on supposedly abandoned property jumped to 102 in 2013 from three in 2008. So far this year, the office has received 121.
Riverview has been a favorite of adverse possessors looking to move into an empty house or turn it into a rental. Will Shepherd, general counsel for the property appraiser's office, figures the reason is simple: Riverview has a surplus of unoccupied and abandoned houses.
"It's supply and demand,'' he said. "There were a fair amount of subdivisions that didn't take off" when the housing bubble burst and values plummeted.
"It's a fad,'' says Sheriff's Office spokesman Larry McKinnon. "And unfortunately, others see it and want to jump on board."
The owner of the home that Pollock moved into was notified by mail that someone filed an adverse possession form with the property appraiser. Reached at her Alabama home, Sharon Bond, 62, told detectives she didn't allow anyone to move in. Bond had moved out while trying to work out new mortgage terms with her bank.
Sheriff's deputies will allow inhabitants in illegally occupied homes for 30 days as long as they're not aware of the scam, McKinnon says.
"But people need to understand that if it doesn't belong to you, you don't have people move in and take it,'' he said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.