DADE CITY — In February 2010, Pasco County sheriff's Deputy Brian Kozera determined that contaminated drywall in his recently built house was making his son ill.
"I was in a real pinch," he recalled on Tuesday. "I needed to get my family out as quick as possible."
He went on Craigslist and found a house in the same subdivision — the Verandahs in Hudson. He called a man named Stephen Bybel, who told him he could rent a place month to month. Kozera gave Bybel a check for $700.
Soon after, a detective from the same sheriff's department knocked on the door. Kozera was a victim of fraud, the detective said. He rented the house from a man who didn't own it. He would have to vacate the property.
On Tuesday, dozens of people with similar tales paraded into a courtroom in Dade City, where Bybel, 52, stood trial. They included home owners and renters and public officials, and they all agreed Bybel seemed so convincing and legitimate.
Authorities said Bybel set up a company in 2009 called Real T Solutions LLC, with the listed purpose of being a "short sale specialist; legally and ethically working with distressed home owners."
He drove around Pasco County to find vacant homes and then post notices detailing a state law on "adverse possessions" and that the properties had been found to be "vacant, abandoned, open, unsecured and a hazard and a nuisance to the community."
When owners didn't contact him, he claimed the property, authorities said. He did this 72 times, calling locksmiths to change the locks.
"There is a specific way about how adverse possession works," Assistant State Attorney Stacey Sumner told a six-member jury on Tuesday. "At end of trial you'll see that Mr. Bybel didn't follow those steps."
His attorney claimed the opposite.
"He believed the houses to be empty or closed and vacant," Assistant Public Defender Marie Mabry said, "and he intended his actions be lawful. So I conclude (you'll find him) not guilty."
Bybel caught the attention of authorities after another sheriff's deputy, Ronald Buzzetto, got suspicious. Buzzetto, also a real estate broker, testified he had a home for sale and was getting ready to close on it. He needed an appraisal first, but the appraiser couldn't get into the house, Buzzetto said.
He said he called Bybel. They met, and Bybel said the property was his. Buzzetto researched records and found 35 cases of where Bybel filed for adverse possession. But there had been no sale. He contacted authorities.
Jose Cabrera, who lives in Miramar, owned a house in the Ashley Pines subdivision, in Land O'Lakes. He testified he was going to do a short sale, had a buyer and was ready to close. When they went to inspect the property, they noticed people living there.
In all, 31 families were forced to move after authorities learned about Bybel.
When detectives first approached him for an interview they recorded, he was cooperative. He told them he was helping the neighborhoods.
"The last thing I need is to go to jail," he said. "What actual law am I breaking?"
For adverse possession, the law requires that a person occupy the property for at least seven years and fulfill other legal requirements, such as paying taxes on the property.
If convicted, Bybel could face up to five years in prison. His trial continues today.
He was also charged with acting as an unlicensed real estate broker in February of 2011. That case is not yet set for trial.