LUTZ — At lunchtime Wednesday at the Royal Lanes bowling alley, fugitive task force deputies and U.S. marshals moved in on their suspect: 60-year-old Joel McNair, a smooth-talking felon who, authorities say, just can't quit the con.
McNair had warrants out for scheme to defraud and grand theft in Sarasota and Manatee counties, where he's accused of finding empty homes in foreclosure and renting them out — even though he didn't own the properties.
The Sarasota Sheriff's Office said McNair cited a centuries-old legal concept called adverse possession. Chapter 95 of Florida Statutes spells out how someone can take possession of a property through squatter's rights. 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, in order to obtain ownership.
"I will continue until someone can show me that I'm breaking the law," McNair told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune earlier this week while he was out on bail from a November arrest on similar charges.
"But until then," he said, "I'm going to keep on going."
McNair said his plan offered a way to combat homelessness by offering housing to people who otherwise couldn't afford it — and filling homes that otherwise would be vacant, according to the Herald-Tribune. He charged about $500 in rent, the newspaper said.
"This is a fairly common scam that's been going on ever since the foreclosure epidemic," said Dave Bristow, spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office. Bristow said McNair called his company Homes for Americans.
There is no hard tally yet on how many homes McNair is accused of stealing as agencies continue to investigate. Manatee has two cases. Sarasota County Sheriff's Office has four, said spokeswoman Wendy Rose.
She said McNair claims to have property in Hillsborough County.
McNair told the Herald-Tribune his company has at least 11 houses in Sarasota County and about 60 in counties from Pasco to Charlotte.
Kevin Doll, spokesman for the Pasco Sheriff's Office, said the agency is investigating the matter. As of Thursday, McNair faced no charges in Pasco.
"We have had that same scam tried in our county before," Doll said, referring to the February arrest of Stephen Bybel, a 49-year-old who set up a company called Real T Solutions LLC, with the listed purpose of being a "short sale specialist; legally and ethically working with distressed home owners."
Bybel is accused of claiming squatter's rights on 72 properties in Pasco. When he was arrested and charged with scheme to defraud, Bybel was actively renting 31 homes, authorities said.
His trial is slated for March 21.
This isn't McNair's first time behind bars. According to Times archives, McNair masterminded a scheme more than 20 years ago to falsify the financial data of time-share buyers to defraud a Treasure Island condo owner of nearly $2-million. Investigators said McNair directed a ring of 11 unlicensed sales representatives who made kickbacks of up to $8,000 to more than 100 condo buyers to get their signatures on loan papers. McNair's group filled out the papers with phony data, then pocketed a 40 percent sales commission on each sale.
The 1988 trial lasted for five weeks. McNair was convicted of racketeering and 52 counts of grand theft and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
But, according to Times archives, the sweet-talking McNair was a model inmate while at prisons in Sumter County and Zephyrhills and impressed people with his plans to one day provide shelter for the homeless. With good behavior and gain time, McNair won early release in 1993, after serving less than seven years.
His November arrest in Sarasota was his first since being released from prison, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
McNair was being held at the Pasco County jail Wednesday night.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.