RIVERVIEW — Johnny Valentin fell in love with the house. His children screamed when they saw the pool.
But two days after his family moved in, a woman tried to unlock the door. When she couldn't, she pounded furiously and demanded to know: What are you doing in my house?
Valentin thought his Valrico landlord, George Williams, owned the home. Williams had placed Valentin's sister in a house, too. But Williams didn't own either of the properties. Nor did he manage them.
Since last summer, Williams and two acquaintances have cashed in on vacant Hillsborough homes, pretending they have the authority to hand over keys and collect money, according to county property records and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
In an odd twist, the men claim the practice is permitted by a legal concept called adverse possession. Under Florida Statute 95.18, people can ask a judge to declare abandoned property theirs if they fix it up and occupy it for seven years while paying the taxes.
One of the three, Joel McNair of Sarasota, told the St. Petersburg Times that it was his idea to take over empty houses and rent them out.
The Sheriff's Office calls the practice illegal. Deputies have served about a dozen eviction notices and arrested Williams on charges of burglary, theft and fraud. They're investigating McNair and a third man, Chris McDonald of Plant City.
Combined, the three have filed for adverse possession of about 30 Hillsborough homes, county records show.
Empty homes, McNair emphasizes.
"It's not like we're coming in the middle of the night, running a family out," he said. "If they want their house back, they can get their house back."
McNair, 60, has previously served prison time for real estate fraud. In 1988, he was sentenced to 25 years for a Madeira Beach time-share scheme that netted him $1.8 million. He was released after serving five years.
In prison, he pored over state law. He learned on his own about adverse possession. Prison employees wrote letters praising him, noting that he was researching laws concerning low-cost housing for the homeless.
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Years later, both McNair and McDonald say they're doing society a favor by fixing up vacant homes.
"There are people living in shelters," McNair said, his voice rising. "I get emotional about this. … I'm up here trying to solve a big problem, and they say I'm the bad guy."
McDonald said he helps homeowners by raising property values. "We do a lot of repairs that help to enhance the property," he said.
Williams, currently held at the Hillsborough County jail, did not respond to an interview request. His attorney did not return several phone calls.
Williams has filed paperwork with the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office to establish adverse possession on nine homes.
McDonald also filed paperwork on nine properties, and McNair filed on 12.
Though the three men worked separately, the language of their paperwork was nearly identical.
At least some of the contracts stated explicitly that the landlord was not the home's owner and that the housing arrangement was temporary.
Still, because the men don't own the houses or have permission to rent them, anyone they move into them would be trespassing, said Tampa real estate lawyer Randall Reder.
That's the case, even though adverse possession is a legal process. They would be trespassing for seven years — until the title is transferred, he said.
"It's pretty reprehensible to make money by getting people to commit a crime," Reder said.
Williams was charged with burglary because he unlawfully entered the homes to commit a crime, said sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon. Then he defrauded the tenants, according to the Sheriff's Office.
McNair was arrested in December amid similar activities in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
McDonald has not been arrested. But some of his tenants are feeling the consequences.
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Stacey Mobley, 38, got the keys to her new Valrico home just after Christmas.
She planned to rent until she got her credit in order, then buy the property from McDonald — the man she thought owned it.
She barely got in the door before a deputy pulled up. The Sheriff's Office had received a call about a burglary in progress.
"I told the officer, 'We're moving in,' " she recalled. She showed him her paperwork.
She says she now realizes the contract was worthless. The Sheriff's Office served an eviction notice.
"I had no idea what adverse possession was, but I learned then," Mobley said. "We got a quick education."
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Similar cases have popped up in South Florida, Polk and Pasco counties, and elsewhere.
Last week, the Florida Senate voted unanimously to amend the adverse possession statute.
If the changes become law, property appraisers will have to notify rightful homeowners when someone files for adverse possession. And anyone who seeks adverse possession will have to disclose, under penalty of perjury, the intended use of the property.
The companion House bill is still going through committees.
"Every once in a while we need to go back and modify laws that might be antiquated," said Sen. Paula Dockery, the Polk County Republican who sponsored the bill in the Senate.
"That's just what happened here."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or [email protected]