NEW PORT RICHEY — The news could anger anyone who's ever owned something, and it burns at a patriotic level, too.
Mike Sharkey was deployed as a U.S. Army specialist in Afghanistan when a man he doesn't know moved into his New Port Richey home and refused to leave. When TV news crews confronted Julio Ortiz last week in the front yard of the home that wasn't his, he vaguely cited a verbal contract with a woman who told him he could live there.
Pasco sheriff's officials' hands were tied because Ortiz had established residence. He'd been living in the home since September 2012. When Sharkey left for deployment, he put his home in the care of a woman named Lisa Pettus, the Sheriff's Office said.
Not that authorities didn't want to intervene.
"There's a lot of times where even our emotions, we have to hold back, because we have to follow what's in this book," said Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco, holding a copy of the Florida Statutes, at a press conference Monday.
In an open letter to WFLA TV news, Pettus explained that the home had fallen into disrepair and she intended to renovate it before Sharkey returned from Hawaii, where he was stationed. She said she commissioned Ortiz to install cabinets, countertops, a sink and refrigerator.
When the work was finished, she wrote, her intention was to drive by the home, at 6814 Westend Ave., now and then to check on it. One day — she didn't state when — she noticed cars parked outside. She found Ortiz living there with his girlfriend, Fatima Cardoso. The locks had been changed. Ortiz was even getting mail delivered to the home.
She wrote that she immediately called the Sharkeys, who said they wanted Ortiz out.
In December 2013, the Sharkeys called the Sheriff's Office, but deputies were powerless. Ortiz would not let them on the property, said Sgt. Mike Jones. He claimed he had a verbal agreement with Pettus, letting him live there rent free in exchange for his renovating work.
Deputies are skeptical of Pettus' story. They haven't been able to reach her since the ordeal. They don't consider Ortiz a squatter because squatters move into a home unannounced and without permission. Under statutes, Nocco said, deputies would have needed evidence that Ortiz was not supposed to be there.
"It's plain and simple," Jones added. "Mr. Ortiz gave us (Pettus') name. There's no way that Mr. Ortiz knows Mr. Sharkey. He says his intermediary was Lisa Pettus."
He said if Pettus had contacted the Sheriff's Office in 2012 when she says she first noticed Ortiz had taken over the home, he could have done something.
Nocco said he suspects Pettus forged a clandestine agreement with Ortiz, who has 12 prior arrests, and blew the whistle when she realized she would be caught.
Once the news broke last week, veterans groups from around the area took action. One threatened a motorcycle gang-style intimidation display in front of the home. Another had an attorney draft an ejection order that got Ortiz out of the home within 48 hours of WFLA airing the story.
With Ortiz out of the home, detectives were free to investigate inside. They found that he had been siphoning electricity from nearby homes, Jones said, and charged him with grand theft. Because Cardoso, who has 21 arrests including felonies, was in a home with illegal activity going on, she was charged with violating probation. They were both arrested Monday morning.
Contact Alex Orlando at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.