A Cat Burglar in the House

An investigation of Douglas T. “Chase” Fonteno, who has made a living stealing seemingly abandoned homes and selling them to the poor:

Adverse possession — commonly known as squatter’s rights — made dozens of his acquisitions possible, though not necessarily legally defensible. It’s based on a century-old law that applies almost exclusively to rural land, mining rights and boundary disputes. Experts can’t point to a single time it has been upheld in court as a means of taking urban houses.

Throughout the last decade — and as recently as last month — Fonteno and his associates saw a way to profit by acquiring what they believed to be abandoned houses for which they paid nothing to the legal owners. Instead they filed claims of adverse possession, then sold these houses at inflated values to clients lured by promises of low mortgage payments and no credit checks, according to official property records and interviews with former Fonteno clients and business associates.

Published: May 18, 2014
Length: 17 minutes (4,407 words)