DADE CITY — When Stephen Bybel decided to rent out a home he didn't own, he looked for specific criteria.
Was the lawn out of control, 3 feet or higher? Newspapers piled outside? Was there still electricity? Did it seem like someone left in a hurry?
With these visual factors met, Bybel headed to the courthouse to file a notice of "adverse possession.'' He just wanted to help the neighborhood and people "in a pinch," he said, providing a service while capitalizing on an opportunity.
"I understand how people feel about (losing a home)," said Bybel, who in 2008 filed for bankruptcy after a bank in New Jersey foreclosed on his $1 million home. "It's very traumatic. You lose a big chunk of your life's earning."
Bybel, 52, of Land O'Lakes made his comments in a courtroom Wednesday, defending himself against allegations of fraud. It didn't work. A jury of four women and two men deliberated less than two hours before finding him guilty of the third-degree felony.
After the verdict, Bybel spoke to Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa in the open courtroom.
"My intent was never to hurt anybody," he said. "I was trying to help."
Siracusa sentenced Bybel to five years in prison and ordered him to pay more than $2,000 in fees and costs, with an option for the state to file for restitution.
"You really don't think you did anything wrong, and I get that," Siracusa said. "I think your intent was to make some money off the mess. You took advantage of those people. You changed the locks on people's homes."
Authorities said Bybel set up a company in 2009 called Real T Solutions LLC and found 72 homes that fit his criteria. He drafted leasing agreements on 31 of those homes and allowed the unsuspecting tenants to forego first- and last-month payments and deposits.
"I saw it as a business opportunity for myself because of the mess that was going on in Florida a few years back," he testified. "The foreclosures and the walkaways, the bank fraud. It was just a crazy time."
He got the idea, he said, going to short sales and talking to property owners. He talked to lawyers and said he was told adverse possession was a legal "gray area."
"I 100 percent believed it wasn't illegal," he said. "I sent every single property owner a letter. Some got them and some didn't."
The legal premise Bybel used requires that a person occupy the property for at least seven years and fulfill other legal requirements, such as paying taxes on the property.
He started collecting rent in January 2010, he said. He felt like he needed to "start the process" in order to ultimately own the home.
His lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Marie Mabry, said it was simply a case of "good intentions gone wrong."
Assistant State Attorney Stacey Sumner took issue.
"What made you think you had the legal authority to own these homes?" she asked.
Bybel said it was based on his understanding of the law.
"Where did you graduate from law school?"
"I didn't," he said.
"Did you attend law school?"
Sumner said there was simply no excuse for what Bybel did.
"It's not up to him to go out just because something isn't lived in and take it for his own," she told the jury. "That's a crime."