FORT LAUDERDALE — The Hyatt Extreme Christmas house, which made national news for its fight with the city over its over-the-top holiday display, was wrongfully occupied by the Hyatt family all along, according to investigators with the Broward Property Appraiser’s office.
Mark and Kathy Hyatt “squatted” in the house, nestled in the upscale neighborhood of Plantation Acres in the city of Plantation, without buying it or taking out a mortgage for 15 years, according to the team of property appraiser’s detectives, who spent seven months on an investigation that involved interviewing multiple witnesses and uncovering what they say are fake deeds.
Now, county officials are coming after the estate for back taxes for a homestead exemption they say never should have been granted. The county on Tuesday filed a claim for $34,724 in back taxes against the property since the Hyatts wrongfully received a homestead exemption for seven years, according to property appraiser’s office records.
The statute of limitations only allows the office to go 10 years back, and three of those years — since Mark Hyatt’s death in 2020 — there was no homestead exemption, or taxes paid at all. The county is pursuing the taxes for 2020, 2021 and 2022 as well.
“It’s important the people of Broward County get reimbursed for the money they owed on this property,” said Marty Kiar, the county’s property appraiser. The taxpayers, he said, “are also the victims of fraud and deserve to be made whole.”
How the house changed hands
The investigation of the Hyatt house began after Kathy Hyatt contacted Kiar’s office late last year. She said she had information about the 2005 deed “resulting in the Hyatts’ unlawful ownership of the subject property,” according to a memo drafted by an expert real estate attorney hired by the appraiser’s office.
Kiar was visiting real estate offices, including one where she worked, since “he has been on a campaign of real estate fraud in South Florida and how it’s rampant,” she said in a sworn deposition to investigators. “And he would tell all the Realtors, you know, ‘If you see something, say something.’ "
Investigators said in 1998 the Hyatt house on Northwest 14th Street was originally owned by Brett Perriman, a former Miami Dolphins player, who failed to pay his $400,000 mortgage. Facing foreclosure, Perriman took out a second mortgage for $585,000 to pay the first, according to investigators.
But that mortgage didn’t get paid either and it got foreclosed on, and Perriman and his wife left the house in 2004, according to the investigation.
Eventually it was scooped up by a private investor, who bought $50,000 of the original mortgage, changed the locks, set up an alarm, and started working on the house with plans to flip it, said Vivian Gallinal, the chief investigator on the Hyatt house case who works for Kiar in his Crimes Against Property Unit.
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But the investor was improperly given a quit-claim deed to the property instead of an assignment of mortgage, according to a November memo drafted by an expert real estate attorney to Kiar.
The private investor could not be reached for comment by the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Mark and Kathy Hyatt, who divorced about 2017, were a married couple when they were seeking a home in the 2000s.
Around that time, Mark Hyatt became interested in the house in Plantation, according to an August sworn deposition of Kathy Hyatt, who spoke to investigators at the Property Appraiser’s Office.
According to Kathy Hyatt’s deposition, the pair wanted to purchase a house in Parkland, but it was too expensive for them. Mark Hyatt found the Plantation Acres house, which was then “vacant and looked abandoned,” while driving around, and spoke to neighbors who told him the previous owners had moved to Georgia, she said.
Kathy Hyatt said Mark Hyatt reached Perriman, who agreed to sell the Hyatts the house for $900,000, but Mark Hyatt, who then worked as a mortgage officer, correctly discovered Perriman no longer had a valid deed.
Kathy Hyatt told authorities that Mark Hyatt called Plantation police and accused the investor of squatting.
The police told them it was a civil matter.
The former police chief emailed Mark Hyatt in August 2005 that “he believed that some type of fraud has occurred and may still be occurring with respect to the property,” according to the investigation. He told Mark Hyatt that the lawful owner of the property is unknown.
Kathy Hyatt then told investigators that her ex-husband took matters into his own hands.
At the kitchen table, she said, he drew up a deed using “cut and paste.” He never filed the fake deed, she said, but then “we break in.”
Mark Hyatt called a locksmith to change the locks, and when the alarm went off, Mark Hyatt told the alarm company that he was with the mortgage company, Kathy Hyatt said.
“What Mark was surprised about was that they never called the police,” Kathy Hyatt told investigators. “They just believed it.”
They then tossed all the investor’s belongings, such as his tools, onto the swale, according to investigators.
“We threw out the living room,” Kathy Hyatt told investigators. “We threw out the kitchen. … We threw out everything in the refrigerator. … Mark said that we had to discard any evidence of him so he could not come back and say that he did have possession before we arrived.”
“Well, we broke in,” she told investigators. “I’ve never done that before in my life.”
“We never paid any money to occupy,” Kathy Hyatt told investigators in her deposition. “We were squatters.”
The investor called police, but Mark Hyatt “showed the police the false deed he prepared,” according to the county memo. “The Plantation police advised this was a civil matter and left.”
The private investor pursued his case in court but did not win. That’s because Hyatt’s deed, dated later, trumped the investor’s earlier quit-claim deed, said Mike Fisten, an investigator for Kiar’s office.
Kathy Hyatt told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Thursday that the couple tried to purchase the home, but Perriman no longer owned it. “And we already sold our house and we had nowhere to go and the house was vacant and in real estate, 9/10ths of the law is possession,” she said.
“I had my real estate license, and I remembered that from class,” she said.
Kathy Hyatt told the Sun Sentinel the couple eventually paid $900,000 for the mortgage note years after the couple lived there for free. She said it was the same amount they wanted to pay for the house, but they never owned the deed.
“Everybody was squatting back then,” she said.
“We own the paper, we don’t own the deed,” she said. Then, “we lived our happy little lives.”
“We never owned the home, never.”
She elaborated to investigators saying when she asked questions, her ex-husband told her he was taking care of it.
“‘Don’t worry,’” she says he told her. “‘Take care of the kids. That is your job now.’”
An expert attorney hired by the Property Appraiser’s Office pressed her during her deposition that having a mortgage note doesn’t mean she owns the house: “You were a Realtor. You had to know.”
“Oh, I didn’t get licensed until, until after the house,” she responded.
The Christmas house
The Hyatts then turned the home into a holiday destination.
The house catapulted to national fame, with its whimsical display of lights, stuffed animals, a snow-blowing machine, and on occasion, a reindeer. In 2013, the Hyatts were featured on “The Great Christmas Light Fight,” an ABC reality show.
As the display grew in popularity, becoming a regional destination, the city of Plantation filed a lawsuit in February 2014, arguing the surge in car traffic was an accident waiting to happen, and asked a judge to force the Hyatts to scale back or shut down the display.
In 2015, the Hyatts were featured on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” with Bill O’Reilly in what the host dubbed the " big Christmas controversy in Florida.” The controversy riled viewers, and the mayor received angry calls and emails.
In a four-day trial in 2016, a Broward judge ruled that the city failed to prove the attraction creates a public nuisance and that the city didn’t provide evidence to prove its allegations, which included that emergency services would be hampered by the traffic the Hyatts created.
Mark Hyatt used his popularity to oust an incumbent to parlay himself a seat on the City Council in 2016, arguing the case was an example of city fiscal mismanagement. The city had spent about $427,000 in legal bills pursuing the case against him, according to records.
The display ended after the 2017 season after a contentious divorce between Mark and Kathy Hyatt. And Mark Hyatt died three years later.
But as the couple were in divorce court over child-support payments and alimony Kathy Hyatt owed, the probate court told Kathy Hyatt to sign the deed to Mark Hyatt’s estate — and that’s when she told the court they had never owned the property and the deed was fraudulent, Gallinal said.
Kathy Hyatt told investigators she sold the nearly $1 million mortgage note for $50,000 in cash, to a stranger at a Plantation Starbucks.
The “international broker” seemed “very legitimate,” she told investigators.
Fisten, the investigator for Kiar’s office, said Kathy Hyatt claimed the investor had contacted her through WhatsApp, and she spent the $50,000 on groceries.
The house had been vacant for two years, but in the last year the couple’s adult son has lived there, according to Mark Hyatt’s sister.
His sister, Jane Zimmerman, calls the accusations by Kathy Hyatt and the property appraiser’s investigators inaccurate.
Zimmerman acknowledges the sale is “very convoluted,” but said the Hyatts had originally paid cash for the five-bedroom, 6,378-square-foot home. It has taken her three years to fight in court to get the title so she can sell the house and give the proceeds to the Hyatt children, a process that isn’t yet over, Zimmerman told the Sun Sentinel.
“Anybody can make up a story,” Zimmerman said.
Kathy Hyatt told the Sun Sentinel she disputes Zimmerman’s assertion that the information she provided was untrue, saying “Jane was never privy to our lives, she has no clue.”
“Mark wanted the house, that was it. I was a stay-at-home mom. Mark’s like, ‘We’re moving.’ I’m like ‘OK.’ That’s how it went down. I had no reason to question him. I trusted him with every fiber of my being. That’s what he said we do, we do.”
By Lisa J. Huriash, South Florida Sun Sentinel