TAMPA — After going out of town, an 82-year-old man returned home to find his house emptied out. Even the trash was gone.
He found a padlocked door and a sign for a company that cleans out properties in foreclosure.
But Benito Santiago Sr.'s home wasn't in foreclosure, public records show.
In a lawsuit filed this month in Hillsborough Circuit Court, Santiago claims that Field Asset Services Inc., took his property and changed his locks in the fall of 2009. He sued the company, along with Countrywide Home Loans, for damages.
A Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy estimated in an Oct. 5, 2009, report that the Santiago's possessions were worth $29,100.
In an interview, Santiago, a retired antiques dealer, guessed they were worth $100,000.
"At least," he said.
Pictures of his deceased wife were among the items taken. He lost everything, including his furniture and an antique wagon wheel. The incident upset him enough that he moved in with a friend.
"Everything was taken out of the property," he said. "I feel nervous. I'm not going back."
Neither Field Asset Services nor Bank of America, which now owns Countrywide, commented on the incident when contacted by the St. Petersburg Times. Field Asset Services said it doesn't discuss client cases. Bank of America requested a copy of the suit.
In February, an attorney representing Field Asset Services sent Santiago's attorney a letter denying any wrongdoing.
"FAS has found no record of servicing the property belonging to your client," company attorney Chris Helling wrote.
But Santiago's attorney, J. Scott Murphy, said in the complaint that agents from Field Asset Services were hired by Countrywide Home Loans to carry out janitorial and cleanup services to a condominium next door — at 4255 W Humphrey St.
Santiago lives in a single-family home at 4205 W Humphrey St.
In the fall of 2009, when Santiago and his son, Benjamin Santiago Jr., returned to the northwest Tampa home after spending time in New Mexico, they discovered a big sign posted on the house that read Field Asset Services.
The locks were changed and a padlock was left on the front door. Everything was gone.
Santiago Jr. called a phone number on the lock.
He reached the clean-out company and talked to a worker there, the Sheriff's Office said in a report.
Santiago Jr. said the company initially acknowledged that a mistake may have been made.
"The lower-level people were saying, 'It had to be us. We had a work order to go out to 4255,' " Santiago Jr. said.
His father's mailbox could have caused confusion.
On one side, it displayed the number "4205." But on the other side, the "0" was missing.
The land formerly known as "4255 W Humphrey St." does not exist in Hillsborough County Property Appraiser records. Santiago's property is surrounded on three sides by Grand Reserve, a condominium complex that once used that address. Others have arrived in error to 4205.
After the initial incident, Santiago's house had its lawn mowed by an unknown company, a visit from a tow truck company, and a visit by someone who left a notice for the occupant of 4255.
The Santiagos have repeatedly called the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office about unwanted visitors, according to sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon.
They called upon discovering the house had been emptied.
Deputy David Feenaughty investigated the incident.
"At this time, it appears that a cleaning company for foreclosures (Field Asset Services) may have mistakenly arrived at the residence in error on 9/17/09 and removed its contents," he wrote in a report.
As foreclosures sweep the nation, more people have come home to surprises.
For contractors hired by banks to clear out houses, business is booming. But they don't always get the right place.
Carlin Phillips is a Massachusetts attorney who specializes in cases of wrongful "lock-outs" and "trash-outs." In the past year, he's had hundreds.
Sometimes, the homeowner is delinquent, but the lockout is premature. Sometimes, cleaners go to a "road" instead of a "court." And in some cases, people who just purchased a bank-owned home will return to find it cleaned out, because no one took it off the foreclosure list.
Phillips says banks have failed to adopt policies to make sure they have the right house.
His experience doesn't bode well for Santiago's possessions.
"We have never gotten one piece of property back," he said.
Staff writer Alexandra Zayas and news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 223-3401.