NEW PORT RICHEY — Thirty-one Pasco families found out Wednesday that their landlord didn't actually own the homes he rented to them.
And now they have to move.
"They are squatters, basically," said Pasco County Sheriff Bob White at a news conference.
Authorities say the landlord —Stephen Bybel, 48 — set up a company in September called Real T Solutions LLC, with the listed purpose of being a "short sale specialist; legally and ethically working with distressed home owners."
"Lean on me … I promise we can help," Bybel's business card read.
Bybel drove around Pasco County scouting for vacant homes. When he found one, authorities said, he would put a small notice on the door citing an obscure state law on "adverse possessions," stating the property "has been found to be vacant, abandoned, open, unsecured and a hazard and a nuisance to the community."
He gave the owners seven days to contact him.
If they failed to do so, deputies said, Bybel would claim the property as his.
And authorities say he did – 72 times.
Saying the homes were now his, Bybel entered them through unlocked doors, according to what he told the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
Then he called locksmiths to change the locks.
He made minimal improvements to the homes with his own money, a report states.
And then he began renting them in December, advertising the properties on Craigslist.
He appeared as a normal landlord and had tenants sign traditional contract agreements, authorities said.
By the time he was arrested Wednesday and charged with scheme to defraud, Bybel was actively renting 31 homes. In January, he pocketed $16,780 in rent, the Sheriff's Office said.
One of the tenants was a Pasco Sheriff's deputy renting a home at the Verandahs in Hudson. White said the deputy, whom he declined to name, is young and in his first week on the job.
The other homes were in the Land O'Lakes communities of Terra del Sol, Asbel Creek, Grand Oaks and Connerton. Bybel also rented out homes at Westbrook and Ashley Pines in Wesley Chapel, authorities said.
White said the tenants have to move. He didn't give a time frame, but he said they need to vacate the homes "quick."
And if they knew Bybel wasn't the owner of the property, "they might be charged as well," White said.
Deputies began contacting tenants Wednesday.
Doug Daden heard the news from a reporter.
"This is a nightmare. The air has been knocked out of me," he said.
The 38-year-old said he moved into a three-bedroom, two-bath, two-car-garage house on Crippen Drive in Grand Oaks last week. The 1,373-square-foot home has two porches and a palm tree in the front yard.
"The people who own this house don't even know I'm here," he said, in shock.
He found the house on Craigslist as he planned his move from Virginia. His parents live in Brooksville and he wanted to be closer to them.
Daden said Bybel didn't ask for a first and last month's rent and didn't do a background check on him. He said Bybel asked for $700 a month.
Daden is a Web designer and he was just starting to put this address on his new business cards. He planned to stay six months or so, as he looked for a house to buy. Now, he has no idea what he's going to do. He said he spent $3,000 moving his belongings from Virginia.
Now he'll have to move again.
"I don't know where that money is doing to come from," he said.
He said Bybel seemed very trustworthy. Documents show the mission of Bybel's company was to:
"Help homeowners who have abandoned the property.
"Help stabilize communities blighted by vacant homes.
"Clean up the properties and provide affordable housing to citizens in transition.
"Secure and maintain the homes from vandals and or further deterioration."
"He seemed like a genuinely nice guy," Daden said.
"This is unbelievable."
Authorities began investigating Bybel after a Realtor showed up at one of his seized homes to do an open house – and found the locks changed and tenants living inside.
"In law enforcement," White said, "we call that a clue."
Bybel told authorities "he is doing everyone involved a favor, as these vacant properties are being vandalized, burglarized and are a detriment" to neighborhoods, according to a report.
The legal premise Bybel used to claim these homes is called "adverse possession" — Chapter 95 of Florida Statutes, which 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.
What Bybel did, "was never the intention of the statute," White said.
"This is closer to burglary and grand theft than it is to adverse possession," the sheriff said.
This is Bybel's first arrest in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He moved here from New Jersey, where he owned a company called Final Touch Glass & Mirror Inc.
Bybel filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Court records show he owed more than $1.3 million in mortgages on his Jackson, N.J., home worth $1 million. The bank filed for foreclosure.
Bybel, who lives at 22430 Stillwood Drive in Land O'Lakes, was released from the Pasco County jail Wednesday on $5,000 bail.
He was unable to be reached for comment.
Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Helen Anne Travis contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.