BRANDON — Pastor Tami Robinson believes she was doing God's work.
She filed paperwork with the Property Appraiser's Office, changed the locks on two empty Riverview homes and moved people in — people who need homes, she said. Struggling people.
But authorities say it's a crime: burglary, fraud and grand theft. They arrested Robinson and one of her church members, Samantha Magras-Gavin, last month.
The women are suing the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and say they have been unfairly harassed because they are black. They say they never aimed to do anything illegal and, in fact, properly used an obscure a legal concept called "adverse possession."
Under Florida Statute 95.18, people can ask a judge to declare abandoned property theirs if they fix it up and occupy it for seven years while paying the taxes. Robinson said she even mailed a required letter to the homeowner, saying she was attempting to establish adverse possession.
If the homeowner had asked her tenants to leave, she said they would have immediately packed. It irks her that deputies got involved.
"I didn't want to do anything illegal," she said. "And if this is so illegal, why does no one stop you and say, 'You can be put in jail, be called a criminal, be charged with grand theft?' At no time during my filing — or while talking to the Property Appraiser's Office — was I told this."
Deputies say that one of the homes was owned by a woman serving at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. The other was left vacant. Its owner, Nelly Flaque, was planning to sell the home in a short-sale.
Her husband, Tito Flaque, said Friday that he and his wife would never have condoned people squatting in their home. They were showing it to potential buyers. Also, they wouldn't want the liability, he said.
"I was just taken by surprise that somebody could think they could just break into a vacant house and claim that it's theirs," said Flaque, 33.
Robinson said she changed the locks but added that she never claimed to own the homes. That couldn't happen until she had paid the property taxes for seven years, she said.
"I was an adverse possessor," she said.
In the lawsuit, she lays out her logic and then appeals to the heart. The complaint states:
"Plaintiffs are Christians who believe that God favors those who make beneficial and positive use of the resources of the earth.
"Plaintiffs believe that it is a sin to leave property unused or to force others to suffer for the avarice and hoarding gluttony of others, including the anonymous and soulless banks.
"Plaintiffs submit that they are doing the same work as Jesus did in clearing the money changers from God's first house."
It also states that the women believe they were unfairly targeted because they are black people using adverse possession in upper-middle-class homes.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
The sheriff's office filed a motion to dismiss the suit. No court dates have been set in the civil case nor in the two women's criminal cases.
Robinson says the charges have affected her reputation, and some people at her church, Well Pavilion Empowerment Center in Ybor Heights, have left.
"We all have our opinions, and I understand you may not like this," she said. "You may feel as if a law is being abused. But why not change the law? Don't arrested us because you don't like what's going on."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.