TAMPA — Neighbors thought they had seen the last of Alphonso Brown and his wife Brenda in 2015 when they moved out of the large Carrollwood house with three truckloads of furniture. They had spent several months as squatters before a bank ordered them to leave.
The house sat vacant for four years until the couple returned just before Thanksgiving. Jim and Jennifer Gregory, who live next door, phoned the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office but the couple was gone by the time a deputy arrived. A few days later, though, Gregory got a call from the woman.
"Jennifer, this is Brenda Robinson,'' she began. “I’m calling to tell you that my husband and I are taking that property back. We have proof of ownership and want you to stop confronting us.”
It wasn’t the first time 56-year-old Brenda L. Robinson had claimed ownership of a house that wasn’t hers. Last year, she pleaded guilty to felony counts of grand theft and unlawfully filing a false document — a deed. Authorities said she had “bought” a $300,000 house in Valrico with a $5,000 money order and occupied it.
Robinson was still on probation when she showed up at the Carrollwood house in November. While she has not moved back in, there’s a deed with her name on it that could make it difficult to get her out if she does, neighbors fear.
“I don’t care who lives in that house as long as they do it legally,” Jennifer Gregory said. “I just don’t think people have a right to take over things that are not theirs.”
The 2008 housing crash and subsequent foreclosure crisis left thousands of Tampa Bay homes vacant. Conditions often were ripe for squatters to move in, especially when it was unclear who owned a house whose mortgage had been passed from lender to lender or that had been packaged with other loans into mortgage-backed securities.
“It might be that a bank had it, or the servicer had it. You didn’t always know and it was very confusing,” said Jamie Meloni, a Tampa real estate agent who handled foreclosures. “If you looked at the title, it was often a long name with a bunch of numbers.”
In 2014, Citibank N.A. as trustee for PHHMC Mortgage Pass-through Certificate, Series 2007-5, obtained a final judgment of foreclosure against an airline pilot and his wife. They had bought the house on Schefflera Road in Carrollwood at the peak of the boom and could no longer afford the payments.
Citibank got title to the house in December 2014. Some months later, a man began mowing the lawn.
“We were glad somebody was doing something because it was a mess,” Jim Gregory said. “I thanked him and was curious to know who retained him. He said he didn’t know, but the next thing I know his wife is moving in. He lied to me.”
The Gregorys called the Sheriff’s Office, but deputies said they couldn’t do anything because the couple had what they claimed was a lease. Neighbors saw trucks delivering new appliances, and one man who had been invited in later told the Gregorys that “they’ve got the prettiest furniture, the neatest artwork on the walls.”
"I said, ‘Yes, but they’re squatters,' " Jennifer Gregory recalled..
By late 2015, the bank had retained Meloni, the Realtor, to deal with the house. A lawyer sent a “dear occupant” letter giving notice that the couple had five days to get out. On Nov. 13, they packed up and left.
About the same time, two deeds on the property were filed in public records. One showed "Citibank’' deeding it to a California company called Global Trust 283153-6910321-102031. The other showed Global Trust deeding it to the Brenda Lee Bey Estate/Trust at the Schefflera Road address.
To anyone who looked closely, the deed from Citibank to Global Trust would have raised suspicions. It did not include the seller’s full legal name, just Citibank. And while the deed said Citibank sold the house for $700,000, only $21 in transfer taxes were paid, not $4,900 as should have been the case.
Moreover, both deeds were signed by a "Kevin J. Bey,'' who had the same unusual last name as Brenda in the trust. On one deed, he signed as a representative of Citibank while on the other he signed as a representative of Global Trust.
With the Schefflera Road home now empty, Meloni held several open houses so other Realtors could see it. More than 5,400-square feet, it was a four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bathroom house in overall good condition and in a desirable neighborhood near Lake Carroll. But the newly filed deeds clouded who owned the title so a sale was impossible.
"We were asked constantly, ‘What’s going on with that house?' " Jennifer Gregory said. “A lot of people wanted to buy it.”
Nothing more happened until last summer when Brown again began mowing the lawn. Then on Nov. 19, Jennifer Gregory was reading in her backyard when she heard a screen door at the neighboring house rattle. Her husband hurried outside to snap photos of Brown and his wife heading toward the house, their sport utility vehicle, a black Mercedes GL 450, parked in the driveway.
The sheriff’s deputy who came after the couple left “said there was nothing he could do,” Jennifer Gregory said. “He said there wasn’t a crime against anyone and there’s not a clear title.”
Two days later, Gregory got a call on her cell phone from Brown’s wife. Gregory had never knowingly spoken to the woman, so she was taken aback by the warning to “stop confronting us.” But when the woman identified herself as “Brenda Robinson,” Gregory suddenly realized she knew her — she had worked as a home health aide for a close friend of the Gregorys.
“I was always impressed with how kind Brenda was to her and nice and considerate and thoughtful,” Gregory said “All this time she was living over there, she knew who I was while I had no idea who she was. It was unnerving to me.”
Gregory learned that Robinson had continued working for the friend until 2017 when she was stopped for a traffic violation. That’s when a warrant came up showing she faced felony charges over the phony deed and illegal occupancy of the house in Valrico’s gated Diamond Hill community.
A judge withheld adjudication on Robinson’s guilty plea and sentenced her to five years probation.
“Wow, she was let go,” said Realtor Rod Banks, who had a sale of the house fall through because of problems created by the false deed.
Court records show Robinson with an address off South Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. When a reporter recently knocked on the door of the modest house, which had a black Mercedes SUV parked outside, Robinson and a man were there. She started to speak but he quickly said she wouldn’t be answering any questions and shut the door.
The Gregorys said they have been contacted by an investigator with the fraud unit of the Sheriff’s Office. Though they think Robinson and Brown were wrong to occupy the house, they blame Citibank for not moving quickly to invalidate the deed by which it supposedly transferred the house to Global Trust. Had Citibank acted in 2015, the house might have been sold long ago.
This week, the Gregorys went to a meeting of their homeowners association and suggested that its attorney send a letter to Citibank. Board member Ashley Gray said she is uncertain whether the association legally can do anything since the dues are being paid, although it is unclear by whom.
“Anytime a situation is brought up where there’s potentially fraudulent or criminal activity, of course we’re going to be concerned,” said Gray, a Realtor. “If we had any kind of authority at all, we’d be on this for sure but I just don’t think we have standing other than to support the Gregorys in their efforts to get this resolved, which would of course benefit all of the homeowners.”