Squatting gone wrong?: AG charges 5 in housing scheme

FRESNO, Calif.

State prosecutors filed 288 felony counts against five people here in the Valley accused of a statewide housing scheme to illegally take possession of homes.

Adverse possession law essentially lets you take somebody else's property as long as you've been there for five years and they haven't complained about it. But the state says Sandra Barton and her family just looked for abandoned properties, then claimed they were living there to steal homes from the rightful owners.

$850 dollars a month is the price listed on the lease and the rent one Fresno family has paid Sandra Barton every month for almost four years. They delivered the last money order just last week, and with the main bread winner now unemployed, it emptied their bank account.

"And now I have no income and I've been worrying all this time how to pay next month's bill," she said.

The lease doesn't list Barton as the owner, but the renters say Barton is the one who signed the name of Keith Woolridge and she's the one who collects the rent.

Police arrested Barton, plus two family members and two attorneys Wednesday, accusing them of basically stealing the home and at least 22 others, from the Bay Area to L.A. Her arrest leaves many families in a legal limbo.

"Now I don't even know what I'm going to be doing next," said the renter. "It's upsetting. I'm just totally shocked that this could be happening to me."

Another family told me they're in the process of buying a home from Barton. In all, the attorney general's office says Barton and the others essentially stole five homes in Fresno, one in Raymond, one in Porterville, and one in Tulare. The alleged scheme came unraveled when a Santa Barbara County woman tried to get a loan on a home she owned, but found out she was no longer the owner.

Prosecutors say the Bartons took dozens of homes by lying to judges, claiming they'd occupied the homes for years.

ABC30 legal analyst Tony Capozzi says the law allowing them to do that dates back centuries, and even though the Bartons couldn't have lived in every home they claimed, it's possible they were looking at a different interpretation of the law. "I think you can go in and occupy and perhaps rent it out to someone else," he said. "That may be a theory they're going under. Again, that may be their good faith belief that they didn't intend to steal this."

All five suspects who were arrested were just booked into the county jail late Wednesday afternoon. At least one of them has already hired an attorney, but that attorney hasn't yet returned phone calls from Action News.

Police are still looking for Sandra Barton's younger sister, Cambria.

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