TRENTON — Twelve people were charged in a scam to take over vacant or foreclosed homes by squatting.

Officials say the squatters targeted homes that were vacant due to foreclosure, sale or abandonment and they simply moved in.

The squatters would change the locks, illegally turn on utilities, create fake lease documents and then move in or rent out the property, according to Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo J. Onofri. They would be discovered by property managers who stopped by to check on the home or to show them to potential buyers.

Instead of going through the expensive and lengthy eviction process, real estate agencies and banks would instead pay off the squatters to vacate the home, according to Onofri.

“These are brazen criminals who educated themselves on squatters’ rights and took advantage of the civil court process,” Onofri said. “This created a challenge for local police who were being called out to the homes. Occupants were providing legal looking leases and cash receipts for rent, and there would be conflicting versions of who had the right to be there.”

Hamilton Police Chief James W. Collins said his township had 50 incidents in a 14-month period.

"Our township officials, law enforcement and our law abiding residents are closely watching,"  Mayor Kelly Yaede said. "Through our Neighborhood Improvement Program, our Abandoned Property Registry and other anti-squatter efforts, we have tools to helps us catch criminals – and we are willing to use these tools.”

A Trenton resident told told New Jersey 101.5 that the same day she closed on her townhouse she found squatters inside. The people living in her home even had a fake lease, she said.

"The city did not help me to get them out immediately," she said, adding that an attorney told her it could take six months to a year to evict the squatters through the courts.

 

The 12 arrested and charged with burglary, theft of services, failure to make lawful disposition and criminal mischief:

  • Barbara Brooks, 48, Trenton, alleged ring leader
  • Michael Wilmore, 44, Florence, and a Trenton Water Works employee
  • Latasha Love, 32, Ewing. She faces similar charges in Yardley, Pennsylvania
  • Rasheeda Harris, 32, Hamilton
  • Endiya Thompson, 21, Sicklerville
  • Jamar Hill, 37, Hamilton
  • Shea Lightfoot, 38, Willingboro
  • Dominique Morgan, 31, Hamilton
  • Tarrik Boles, 36, Hamilton
  • Shauntee Stokes, 40, Trenton
  • Sandra Freeman, 49, Hamilton
  • Eddie Thompson, 45, Trenton

Onofri said Wilmore would help get the water turned back on in some of the homes.

Police from Ewing, Hamilton, Lawrence, Princeton and Trenton were part of the Fraudulent Housing Occupancy Task Force as well as the U.S. Marshals Service NY/NJ Regional Fugitive Task Force.

Also on New Jersey 101.5:

 

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ