Two alleged squatters ran businesses and a website to lure troubled homeowners and take away their property using a little-known law, then taught others how to follow in their footsteps, according to Colorado Springs police.
Business partners Bryan Jensen, 31, and Ethan Eaton, 34, were identified by police as the masterminds behind a scheme to use the "adverse possession" statute to allegedly criminally trespass onto people's properties and then squat, hopefully long enough to take ownership of their homes.
Colorado law requires squatters to be at a property for at least 18 years to accomplish ownership.
The pair co-own American Home Ventures LLC, Austin Home Ventures LLC and hopefor yourhome.com, a website that confirmed their business partnership and outlined their ventures.
On their website, Eaton and Jensen promised free consultations to anyone facing foreclosure, offering to give potential clients a quick solution to their problems.
"With your property and our vision, ideally we should partner up on the property, split the proceeds amongst ourselves, all while attempting to prevent it from going into foreclosure," the website stated.
According to police, Eaton and Jensen were squatting in homes on Homestead Ridge Heights and Rockville Drive, both along North Powers Boulevard, and had filed adverse possession affidavits with the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder's Office for the properties.
Adverse possession is a process by which property can change ownership when used for an established period of time without paying for it, or squatting. Squatters' rights are a specific form of adverse possession: acquiring another's real property without compensation and holding it in a manner that conflicts with the true owner's rights, said Robert Schultz, a Greenwood Village attorney.
If you think such an ownership transfer could never happen, think again.
In a somewhat celebrated case in 2007, the former mayor of Boulder and a former judge won title to a piece of a neighbor's property by arguing in court that they had used the property nearly every day for 25 years.
How did they use it? By crossing it to reach the garden and deck of their home.
When they won the case, they obtained about a third of the neighboring lot, preventing that neighbor from building a retirement home.
Around the country, adverse possession cases have been prevalent in areas where there are many foreclosures. It has become common enough that there is a website - end adversepossession.blogspot.com - devoted to putting an end to adverse possession laws.
In Colorado, adverse possession is regulated by CRS 38-41-101 and mandates that properties have to be possessed and used for at least 18 years. The District Attorney's Office reviewed the case and charged both men with first-degree criminal trespass, a class five felony, police said.
"There's a huge difference whether the district attorney will choose to indict these people for the crime of conspiracy," Schultz said. "They're walking a fine line between exercising rights to the land and telling other people to go out and commit criminal trespass."
According to police, Eaton and Jensen have assisted several people to trespass on vacant properties in Colorado Springs via adverse possession but did not release their identities.
"There is a solution that we can implement to save your house from a foreclosure and also generate you thousands of dollars in the meantime," the website stated. "This program is unprecedented and new to the real estate community, and our internal plan that has been called 'ingenious' by real estate professionals and business professors at accredited universities. We are reluctant to reveal the details on our website as competitors may steal our idea."
Police said Eaton and Jensen set up utilities in the homes under their own names, making it possible to establish the dates of the alleged trespassing. Court records showed the offense could be tracked to July.
Colorado Springs Utilities spokesman Steve Berry said Utilities does not require customers to present a title or a lease agreement to set up service in a residence, only proof of identity and employment.
"We have controls to avoid situations like this, but if someone is intent in manipulating the system, sometimes they succeed," Berry said. "If we find in the accounts that there were nonpayment problems, we'll certainly go after the parties that incurred those charges, not the owners of the properties, because they weren't even there."
The affected property owners live in Massachusetts and Japan, police said. Real estate agents helped detectives contact them.
Court records showed Jensen was booked into the El Paso County jail Oct. 20 and released the same day after he posted $2,000 bail. Eaton was booked and held on a $5,000 bond, which he posted Oct. 21.
Both men will be advised of their charges Wednesday at the El Paso County courthouse, and their first appearance is scheduled at 8:30 a.m. Nov. 7, court records show.