TAMPA — Without permission, he went into vacant homes, changed the locks and rented out properties, authorities say.
And in a odd twist, the Plant City man claimed what he was doing was allowed by an obscure legal concept called adverse possession.
Until now, authorities have battled this unusual practice with local prosecution, but on Thursday — for the first time — the Attorney General's Office announced plans to prosecute two of these cases, both in the Tampa Bay area.
In a statement, Attorney General Pam Bondi called the practice "shameful."
Chris McDonald, 47, of Plant City was charged Thursday with organized scheme to defraud and booked into jail. He owned a company named Chateau-Lan Property Solutions.
In an April interview with the St. Petersburg Times, McDonald defended putting tenants in homes he didn't own. He noted that tenants were improving the properties and paying taxes.
Under Florida Statute 95.18, the "adverse possession" law, 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.
But in the meantime, they're trespassing, authorities say.
Deputies also arrested Demetrius Lewis, 37, of Land O'Lakes, on a charge of organized scheme to defraud.
His business — named Help is Here Foreclosure Prevention and Credit Repair — ran a little differently than McDonald's.
Lewis would gather the addresses of vacant homes and for $1,000 teach anyone how to occupy them using adverse possession, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
"McDonald and Lewis took advantage of everyday citizens who were simply looking for an affordable home to rent," said FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey in a prepared statement. "This was a shameless scam, doomed from the beginning."
McDonald was booked into the Hillsborough County Jail and Lewis was booked into the Pasco County Jail.
Before each man's bail can be set, a judge must hold a hearing to determine where that bail money would be coming from, according to jail records. Funds obtained illegally cannot be used.
Because their dealings spread across five counties, the Attorney General's Office of Statewide Prosecution will try these cases. But McDonald and Lewis are not the first two to be arrested in connection with adverse possession.
George Williams, 41, faces organized fraud, burglary and grand theft charges in connection with several Hillsborough properties he rented. He has pleaded not guilty.
Also, Joel McNair, the Sarasota man who told the St. Petersburg Times that it was his idea to take over empty houses and rent them out, was under investigation until he committed suicide in May.
Authorities believe there may be other victims. They ask that anyone with information call their local law enforcement agency or FDLE Special Agent Krystyl Watson at (813) 878-7300.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.