This home at 19 Sabrina Drive was one of a number of vacant residences that were part of an elaborate housing scam throughout Mercer County. (Staff photo by Bill Sanservino.)

The deals were unbelievable. Renters could get a four bedroom house in Ewing Township for just $1,000 a month.

On top of that, some of the utilities were free: a guy at the Trenton Water Works would turn on the water for them, no questions asked.

And sometimes the landlord would just disappear after getting a deposit and never collect rent. It was a terrific arrangement for the renters right up until the moment the real owners of the houses showed up demanding to know why someone was living on their property.

In April, police arrested 12 people in Mercer County and charged them with participating in an elaborate scam in which they occupied abandoned, for-sale, and bank-owned properties in Lawrence, Ewing, Hamilton, Trenton and Princeton, and sometimes even rented out the properties to others (both unsuspecting victims and knowing participants).

A water works employee, who police say was bribed to turn on the tap, was also charged. The suspects face charges of burglary theft of services, failure to make lawful disposition, and criminal mischief in a scheme that involved more than a dozen properties around the county.

The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office Fraudulent Housing Occupancy Task Force, which consists of detectives from the prosecutor’s office and six local police forces, has spent the last two years investigating what at first seemed to be disconnected cases of squatting in the area. The investigation culminated in charges against 12 people including Barbara Brooks, 48, of Trenton, who prosecutors say was the ringleader.

Authorities became suspicious in 2016, when Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri noticed an uptick in squatting cases in Ewing and Hamilton.

Bank-owned and foreclosed homes were being occupied by unauthorized people. When police officers arrived at the houses to investigate, the occupants would show signed leases that turned out to be fake.

“It appeared that the people had been coached on how to respond to police, or anyone else who came to the house to inquire about why they were there,” Onofri says.

Initially, police believed that these residents had all been the victims of scams. In the same year, the county formed the Fraudulent Housing Occupancy Task Force to combat the problem. The task force included officials from law enforcement, public health, social services and consumer affairs.

County Executive Brian Hughes gave a press conference that October warning that people posing as landlords or real estate agents were out to swindle would-be renters by having them move into properties they had no rights to.

‘This is what happens if you have any building sitting around for long enough.’

In December, Onofri and Rachel Cook, chief of the economic crime unit at the prosecutor’s office, held a meeting to compare notes on the cases in different towns and began to notice the same names popping up over and over again. Perhaps they were not isolated cases as they had first seemed.

Ewing Police Lieutenant Michael Flynn said two of his officers, Michael Pellegrino and Daniel Bethea, did much of the footwork on the case, interviewing the people who were living in the abandoned homes.

The types of leases used by all the squatters was the same, and so were the cash receipts given out by the landlords.

Cook says the houses were usually occupied in the same way, too. The occupants would often move in and put up blinds to prevent anyone from seeing inside the house. They would access the home through the back door, so as to be rarely seen by neighbors.

Police said the squatters sometimes had pets and children with them, but brought in minimal furnishings. Sometimes they got the electricity turned on by showing fraudulent leases to the power company, Onofri said.

For the most part, the squatters kept to themselves. However, in one case in Hamilton Township, one of the squatters, Tarrik Boles, was arrested for allegedly operating a “pill mill” out of a foreclosed home.

The investigators came to believe that it was an organized ring at work. They also concluded that some of the “victims” who had rented houses were actually in on the scam.

“Someone we found squatting in a Lawrence home was found a day or two later squatting in a Hamilton home after they were kicked out of Lawrence,” Cook says. “The case just kind of spiralled from there.”

In a few cases, tenants said the fake landlords disappeared after collecting a hefty deposit. “We were like, doesn’t that seem odd that you haven’t heard from the person you were supposed to be paying rent to in four to five months?” Flynn said. “They would say, ‘I know, I just thought maybe they didn’t want my money anymore.’”

Flynn says that some scam victims paid up to $4,000 to the ring.

Onofrio says the scammers found target homes by looking at foreclosure sales and real estate websites. “There was a level of sophistication,” he says. He says the fake documents they produced were good enough to sometimes confuse property managers who confronted them.

The homes were in all kinds of neighborhoods. The ringleaders didn’t advertise the properties, but found tenants by referrals.

One text message allegedly sent from one defendant to another reads: “I know basically lol it’s borderline illegal … I have a squatter available if you refer me somebody … I’ll pay you 100 a person. My fee is 500 and 75 to put water on.”

While the forged documents were fairly sophisticated, Cook says they had a few telltale flaws. Leases had missing pages, and some had gone through the copier askew, which would have been rare to see from a real property management company.

Latasha Love

One of the alleged participants, Latasha Love, 32, of Ewing, is accused of having rented a home at 19 Sabrina Drive in Ewing until being kicked out in 2016, at which point she began squatting at 661 Lawrenceville Road in Princeton—a large home worth at least $1 million.

After being evicted from this house, she allegedly moved back to the Sabrina Drive home. She got kicked out of this house again, but is accused of then renting the Sabrina Drive home to a friend.

Onofri says it appears that Love even filed a complaint in a civil court against one of the property managers, allegedly with forged documents.

Flynn says most of the investigation unfolded over the last four months. “It was a lot of leg work and a lot of interviewing and a lot of long nights to figure out who was the true victim, and who was portrayed as being a victim but ended up being a suspect,” he said.

Onofri says that some of this activity may have been motivated by a practice common in the banking industry called “cash for keys.”

Because New Jersey has relatively strong protections for tenants, for a landlord, evicting a tenant can be a long and costly process. Sometimes to avoid this, landlords will offer a problem tenant cash in order to leave a property. Sometimes banks who owned foreclosed houses treat squatters the same way, creating a motivation to squat just to get a cash payout to leave.

But Onofri says that only tenants with valid leases are protected by landlord-tenant law, and that squatters are considered trespassers and the police can remove them. “You should call the police and let the officers do their job, not make one of these cash for keys deals,” he says. “We can go investigate and determine any criminality that’s involved.” He advised renters to be wary of deals that seemed too good to be true.

Onofri estimates that in the past two years, around 100 properties have been affected.

In some cases, neighbors complained to authorities about the activity in the abandoned houses.

John Stemler, chief of the Ewing Township police, said some residents called because houses that were for sale one day seemed to be occupied the next, with no signs. It seemed that someone had moved in over night. “It just seemed odd, so some residents questioned it,” Stemler said. He said that since the arrests, the number of complaints has died down, although there are still abandoned and foreclosed properties in Ewing.

While police can evict illegal squatters, unoccupied homes are always at the risk of being used for illicit purposes. The usual way of solving this is to have a homeowner move in. One of the properties in the case, the foreclosed 661 Lawrenceville Road, adjacent to Jasna Polana golf club, is listed on Princeton’s 2018 tax rolls as being owned by Huntington Savings Bank. It was foreclosed on in April 2017 and is currently for sale through Suburban Realty Professionals at what an ad describes as “well below assessed value” for $1,509,000.

James Barger, the real estate agent selling the house, says he thinks it is common for squatters to target homes for sale because photos of it online show if they are unoccupied. He said another house he was selling on Darrah Lane was also targeted by the ring broken up by the Mercer County investigators.

The squatting scam may not be an isolated criminal case, but potentially points to a larger problem with housing.

There may be something about the New Jersey that allows the kind of operation described by Cook and Onofri to flourish. Ten years after the housing crisis, the state still has the highest foreclosure rate in the nation. In 2017, New Jersey had 70,000 foreclosures. In Mercer County, there were 2,415 foreclosures, or one out of every 60 houses, according to an article on NJ.com. New Jersey is also one of the least affordable places to live in the country – only 10 states are more expensive to live in.

These factors combine to create a deeply dysfunctional housing market. There is a demand for housing, yet many houses are vacant because they are abandoned or under foreclosure, with lower income earners being priced out of the market.

Anthony Campisi, spokesman for the affordable housing advocacy group Fair Share Housing Center, said squatting is a symptom of larger policy problems.

“This is what happens if you have any building sitting around for long enough. Something like this will happen,” he says. “We have these homes … zombie foreclosures … that are just sort of sitting around. They also hurt the entire state housing market by just sort of being inventory that sits there and lowers neighboring property values and become locuses for crime.”