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The State

Squatter Scam Targets the Elderly

Husband-and-wife real estate professionals are accused of taking over and renting out houses whose owners are absent or hospitalized.

October 19, 2006|Andrew Blankstein and David Pierson | Times Staff Writers

Richard Dee was recovering from an abdominal illness at a nursing home in 2004 when neighbors noticed an unfamiliar white van parked outside his El Sereno home at odd hours.

Within weeks, a chain-link fence had gone up around the 78-year-old retiree's home. His 1967 Ford Mustang was towed away. Workmen showed up, filling a trash bin with his furniture, photo albums, paintings and other cherished family possessions.

Construction workers razed a section of the roof and began reconstructing other parts of the O'Sullivan Drive home near Cal State Los Angeles that Dee had inherited from his mother.

"I couldn't collect my own mail from my box because it was inside the fence and there were workers tearing my roof off," Dee recalled. "They took the stove, an antique bathtub and a stamp collection I had had since I was 10 years old and my car."

Prosecutors with the state attorney general's office said Wednesday that Dee was one of as many as 100 elderly victims of an elaborate and long-running "squatter scam."

For the last five years, authorities allege that Jesus Duran Aguayo and his wife, Sofia, -- both real estate professionals based in Monterey Park -- illegally seized and rented out real estate across Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Prosecutors said the Aguayos scoured tax rolls looking for homes whose owners who had fallen behind on property taxes. They watched the homes to determine which were unoccupied, then paid the back taxes on them, prosecutors charged.

The couple were arrested Wednesday in connection with seven cases, including Dee's. Another case involved a World War II veteran suffering from Alzheimer's disease whose home the Aguayos allegedly rented out while he was in a nursing home.

But based on evidence seized in four searches, state prosecutors said the couple may have attempted to seize as many as 100 homes, and officials are encouraging anyone who may have been victimized to come forward.

The Aguayos each face up to 20 years in state prison if convicted on all charges, including grand theft, residential burglary, forgery, vandalism, trespassing, filing false documents and elder abuse.

Neither could be reached for comment Wednesday.

To make the transactions appear legitimate, the Aguayos allegedly filed quit claim deeds in which Jesus Duran Aguayos transferred ownership of a property he didn't own to his wife, muddling the actual ownership.

By filing the deeds, the couple were attempting to establish that they might hold some claim over the property, said Deputy Atty. Gen. Diana Callaghan.

Authorities said the couple took advantage of a weakness in the system: The clerks who record quit claim deeds do not check to see if the person filing the deeds owns the property.

"It seems there should be a system in place to check whether the deeds are actually coming from the owner," Callaghan said.

Dee, a retired title insurance company employee who lived alone, said he realized that something was wrong in summer 2004 when he was recovering from surgery.

His El Sereno neighbors had noticed people appearing to watch the home at various times during the day and night.

"He got real sick and went into hospital for a few months," said Roger Privett, 66, who has known Dee for 35 years. "When he was gone, a couple of people moved in. They set up a Dumpster outside and started throwing out all his stuff. His books, his old pictures, his furniture. Just cleaned it out."

Privett said he asked the couple -- he's not sure if they were the Aguayos -- what they were up to.

"They told me they bought the place for a reasonable price," he said.

He said he was skeptical because he knew how much Dee loved books, and they had thrown them away. "I'd always see him walking to the bus stop on Valley [Boulevard] holding a book," he said.

When the fence went up, one alarmed neighbor went to the nursing home, put Dee in a car and took him home.

What Dee saw horrified him: His beloved car was gone, his house appeared stripped of valuables and he was not allowed to go inside.

"I had a sinking feeling, 'What will I do now? What will I do now?' " he recalled.

Prosecutors said the Aguayos had found a way to take advantage of homeowners such as Dee who were not living in their properties and had fallen behind in their taxes.

In some cases, the homeowners didn't know the quit claims had been filed because they were not getting their mail.

But even when homeowners challenged the quit claims, the tactics created confusion about who actually owned the property, requiring an expensive and lengthy court challenge to establish clear title of the home, Callaghan said.

That delay would allow the Aguayos to continue drawing rent from a property they had illegally taken control of, officials said.

If no one challenged the claims, the Aguayos could ask a court to allow them to assume ownership of the property within five years under a little-known section of the law dating back 140 years, Callaghan said.

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