Last year, Olga Aponte sold the New York home she had owned for 32 years and paid cash for a foreclosure house in Kissimmee. The 67-year-old wanted a solid retirement investment. For months, she lived in peace.
That was, until she learned about the intruder. It happened this summer, when her son saw the name of a stranger on her property records, on a deed filed one month after she bought her house: Jacob Franz Dyck.
But Aponte had never met Dyck, or agreed to sign anything. And she wasn't the only one.
Dyck, the Times has learned, has filed more than 100 "wild deeds" laying claim to properties in Osceola county. The deeds bear no signatures of the rightful homeowners or any evidence of their consent.
What is he doing and what does he stand to gain?
Authorities can't find him to answer that question, but his track record gives them cause for concern.
Dyck, 72, is a self-proclaimed "sovereign citizen," purporting to be above the laws of government. He's also a felon. The St. Petersburg Times wrote about him in August after homeowners said he misled them into thinking they could avoid foreclosure by deeding their houses to him to put into a "pure trust." For this, he charged a fee. Owners lost their homes anyway.
"Sovereign citizens" have declared themselves free from government and believe banks don't have a right to foreclose on properties; they often flood the courts with documents, a practice known among critics as "paper terrorism."
The theories for Dyck's actions matter less than the implication:
There is little to stop this from happening to you.
• • •
This is how transfers of property should work: When Person A sells a home to Person B, they record a deed with the county clerk, reflecting the transfer. The chain of ownership serves as proof that the new owner has rights to the property.
But in a "wild deed," an outsider appears on the property out of the blue, clouding that chain of ownership, causing problems when it comes time for the owner to sell the property.
In the summer of 2010, Dyck filed more than 100 such deeds in Osceola County.
The grantor: himself.
The grantee: his trust.
The clerk's office accepted each; it was required to by law, said Osceola clerk's office spokeswoman Amy Envall. "If he pays the fee and it is notarized, we have no discretion. We have a ministerial duty just to record it."
That's true, according to Florida Statute 28.222.
The clerk of the circuit court shall record the following kinds of instruments presented to him or her for recording, upon payment of the service charges prescribed by law:
First on the list: Deeds.
The rule goes for court clerks across the state, said R.B. "Chips" Shore, clerk of the circuit court in Manatee County. "Under the law, we can't turn it down," said Shore. "No matter what it says, as long as they pay for it, we have to put it on the record."
And so, the wild deeds were filed and recorded alongside rightful ones in the county's official records.
• • •
Upon discovering Dyck's deed, Olga Aponte's son Kelvis Melo made a list of other homeowners in the same situation.
That's how Fernando Pita and his wife, Rosa, learned about Dyck. The Venezuelans wanted to buy in a country where they felt their investment would be safe. "And now," Rosa said, "this happens."
The Pitas are paying a lawyer to file something called a "quiet title action" — a land dispute lawsuit — to get rid of Dyck's deed. So far, the process has cost them $1,200.
Aponte got a quote from a lawyer, between $5,000 and $10,000. She refuses to pay.
"Why should I pay that money," she asked in Spanish, "because somebody decided to put his name on my property and there's no one there to stop him?"
She has filed a report with the Osceola County Sheriff's Office.
She has contacted Gov. Rick Scott, whose office said he couldn't intervene in criminal investigations or prosecution.
She and her son visited the office of Osceola Clerk of the Court Malcom Thompson, to ask why he allowed Dyck to record the wild deeds. Officials gave her the same response they gave the Times, that they had no choice. But Aponte, whose English is limited, continued to ask why.
The clerk's spokeswoman, Envall, said Aponte was "getting louder" and becoming "antagonistic." Aponte was told to leave.
"I need help," Aponte says.
She is worried. She has done research on Dyck.
She knows he went to prison in Tennessee for stealing coins and a car from an elderly man.
She knows the FBI has labeled the sovereign citizen movement extremist and capable of domestic terrorism.
She doesn't know why Dyck filed the deed to her house.
• • •
The most obvious connection between the homes is that they were, at some point last year, foreclosures. Dave Heine, vice president of PCS Title in Orlando, recognizes Dyck's pattern.
Heine, who ran into a Dyck deed during a closing, said the sovereign citizen's name is well-known across the title world and the subject of statewide bulletins. Stewart Title put one out in October 2010, alerting associates not to do business with him.
At first, Heine thought Dyck was filing the deeds to get money out of banks. Maybe they would pay him off to make him go away. But so far, there's no sign Dyck has made money that way. So Heine wonders if Dyck's actions are more about his philosophy: Does he see himself as some sort of Robin Hood?
Dyck is the same man who convened a people's court at a Hernando County fish camp to indict a judge; the man who filed countless federal lawsuits against defendants including the United States of America.
Dyck's trusts appear on deeds in at least 21 of Florida's 67 counties — in Pinellas, about 40 deeds; in Hillsborough, more than 150.
"My understanding is he's got deeds all over the place," Heine said, "which makes me think someone is helping him.
"Because this little old man isn't going to do this on his own."
Dyck did not begin his work in Osceola with wild deeds; he started with the ploy he tried in the Tampa Bay area, getting homeowners in default to put properties into his trust.
Dyck filed about 16 such documents last year. Witnesses signed them; notaries stamped them. One witness is a convicted money launderer; another, a convicted cocaine trafficker. One is a real estate broker.
The homeowners who put their faith in Dyck? Some have real estate licenses.
It appears Lilian Abuchar, whose real estate sales associate license is current, but inactive, placed her house in Dyck's trust. Her stamp notarized another deed and her name is signed as a witness on several wild deeds, including the one filed on the home of Olga Aponte.
Abuchar did not respond to attempts to reach her, including a letter mailed to her homesteaded property.
• • •
Warren Weathers, chief deputy property appraiser for Hillsborough County, put a label on what Dyck did in Osceola county last summer:
The Osceola County Sheriff's Office is investigating fraud allegations.
The Osceola clerk's office has been told to notify deputies if Dyck returns to file more deeds; security cameras are poised to record the transaction.
At least two other counties are investigating Dyck.
The Times asked Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office to look at Aponte's wild deed.
Spokeswoman Jennifer Davis said it's not yet clear whether the state agency has jurisdiction.
But she said a prosecutor reviewed documents Dyck has filed throughout the state and found what could form a basis for forgery, racketeering and fraud charges.
Dyck has not responded to two letters the Times sent to his last known address, a lock box in a Pak-Mail store in Miami. A manager there said Dyck still gets a lot of correspondence and picks it up about twice a month.
His voice mailbox is full.
Lawyers are looking for him. Detectives are looking for him.
Olga Aponte wants answers.
Miami Herald reporter Jay Weaver contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354. John Martin can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3372.