LARGO — Vanessa Rodriguez thought she found the right house for her three kids, in the right neighborhood, for the right rent. She signed the lease for April 30, sent a $2,300 money order and planned to move in June 1.
Then the delays started. She said landlords Nicole and David Johnson told her they couldn't move out until the air conditioner in their new place was fixed. Then they said Nicole Johnson gave birth prematurely.
Three weeks after Rodriguez was supposed to move in, the Johnsons' cell no longer worked. So she and her boyfriend went to 1091 Lexington Court on Tuesday to find out what was going on.
There were officers there, and other families who said they had all signed a lease for the same house.
Now Largo police are looking for Nicole and David Johnson, who are accused of renting the house out to at least 15 families and making off with $30,000 — and counting.
One family moved down from Indiana, according to police, and can't afford to go back.
"It's sickening …," Rodriquez said. "It's unbelievable. I can't believe they would do that especially to people out of state who brought their families, their dogs and are staying in hotels, just hoping to get into this house in a great neighborhood."
Nicole Johnson's father, Christopher Dominick, owns the 1,400-square-foot home and the car that police believe the couple are driving. It has since been reported stolen. The Johnsons are also believed to be traveling with their children, though police offered no other details about them.
Largo police will seek arrest warrants for the couple, who they believe fled the state Friday.
The families left behind say they're out thousands. Some have nowhere else to go. They're now living with relatives, negotiating with landlords for more time in their old homes or paying for motel rooms just to have somewhere to sleep.
Melissa Colon is a single mother with three children crammed into a single hotel room. Without the $2,400 she spent on the Lexington Court deposit, she said, she has to work every shift she can to keep her children sheltered and fed.
"Just keeping it day by day. There's not much else you can do," the mother said. "I was holding onto hope that maybe, maybe this will work out one way or another. That I'd maybe get my money back or be able to move in."
It was a story told by five of the families at a Wednesday news conference held at the Largo Police Department.
The Johnsons entered lease agreements with all the families at the same time, according to Largo police. Each family provided a deposit ranging from $1,000 to $4,300.
The scheme started to unravel on Tuesday, police said, when four of those families showed up to the Lexington Court home ready to move in. Then they called police.
Police said the Johnsons searched Facebook and Craigslist to find the victims and offer up the property for rent.
Katina Johnson of St. Petersburg said David Johnson posed as a real estate agent when he called her. Some of the families even got to tour the house before they signed the lease.
Bryan Walker said he questioned whether the rental was legitimate or not. But then he said Nicole Johnson encouraged him to visit. He brought his kids. The Johnsons seemed nice, he said, and his kids played with their kids.
"Almost all of the families did their due diligence and researched the home and suspects involved," Largo police said in a statement.
The families who police said signed the leases were given receipts for their deposits and shown tax returns and insurance information for the house.
But just like Rodriguez's case, Walker said the couple also stonewalled him, claiming there were complications from birth. He had heard that Nicole Johnson suffered a stillbirth and the family needed time to mourn.
"We held on strong because we wanted that environment for our kids and a great house to live in and ended up being in one big scam," Rodriguez said. "I think she's disgusting and a horrible person. Both of them. I hope they get what they deserve and get caught."
Records show David Johnson was arrested in September 2017 on a charge of aggravated domestic battery, accused of hitting his mother, according to an arrest report.
Anyone with information about the Johnsons or this case was asked to contact Largo police at (727) 587-6757 or (727) 586-7475.
Contact McKenna Oxenden at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter & Instagram @mack_oxenden