Could America’s squatting crisis spill over into bloody violence? Cases surge by A THIRD in worst hit cities as homeowners turn to vigilantes to turf out armed occupiers

Photo of author
Written By Maya Cantina
com com com com com com com
  • The legal system is failing beleaguered landlords facing months-long court battles to rid their homes of illegal occupants, who get away scot free
  • Incidents have surged as online listings and virtual estate agents make it easier for squatters to identify and enter unoccupied properties unchallenged
  • Left with little alternative, desperate families are now enlisting vigilante ‘squatter hunters’, but experts are warning these tactics could spark bloodshed 

America’s squatting crisis is at boiling point.

Each week, shocking tales emerge of helpless families booted out of their homes by scrounging crooks.

Entire communities in Los Angeles and Atlanta have been ravaged by criminals turning homes into strip clubs and hosting all night raves, while residents of Texas and Colorado are being tormented by a serial squatter who is running rings around the police.

Emboldened by weak law enforcement, their unruly behavior becomes more brazen by the day.

Throw in a housing crisis, a Covid court backlog and a broken legal system and the result is a surge in unwelcome, aggressive, machine-gun toting guests whom property owners are powerless to evict.

Left with no alternative, desperate families are turning to vigilantes who pledge to confront the squatters head on.

Handyman turned ‘Squatter Hunter’ Flash Shelton gets rid of unlawful occupants of clients’ homes by moving into the property and forcing out the squatters by making their lives a misery

'Serial squatter' Heather Schwab is now on the run again despite having been arrested twice since being released from a five-year long jail sentence for squatting-related offenses

‘Serial squatter’ Heather Schwab is now on the run again despite having been arrested twice since being released from a five-year long jail sentence for squatting-related offenses

Sheree Bailey is accused of being one of the squatters who invaded a vacant Atlanta rental home of a man caring for his sick wife. She tilts her head and squints down the sights of a gun in a photo posted to her Instagram

Sheree Bailey is accused of being one of the squatters who invaded a vacant Atlanta rental home of a man caring for his sick wife. She tilts her head and squints down the sights of a gun in a photo posted to her Instagram

Now experts are warning the crisis is about to turn ugly.

One eviction lawyer with a burgeoning caseload told DailyMail.com that it is just a matter of time before disputes turned violent – and potentially fatal.

So how has a country – founded on the belief that private property is the foundation not only of prosperity but freedom itself – ended up in such a mess?

Guns, strip clubs and all-night raves

Atlanta attorney David Metzger says he has seen an ‘explosion’ of squatting cases in the last year.

The Georgia city is at the epicenter of the crisis, with 1,200 homes currently illegally occupied, according to data from the National Rental Home Council.

The situation has become so dire that some homeowners offer to pay off squatters to get them out of their homes – rather than risk losing months of rent.

One squat in the Georgia city was even being run as an illegal secret strip club and had to be cleared out by an entire FBI swat team.

Unlawful occupants have reportedly brandished weapons and threatened neighbors, including children.

But Atlanta is by no means alone.

Orange County, Florida, currently has 125 squatting cases on its hands, according to the NHRC, which added that larger homes are increasingly being targeted.

The most commonly captured properties have three to four bedrooms and two bathrooms, as squatters begin to realize there is nothing stopping them living in luxury on the landlord’s dime.

Most recently, an elderly couple in Queens, New York, were left unable to move into their $2million home after a caretaker for the previous owner claimed rights to the property.

Male model Brett Flores, 32, reportedly wormed his way into the life of gay, dementia-stricken watch executive Bernard Fernandez before he died aged 83 last year.

Male model Brett Flores, seen here alongside his wife Elena Crociani, is accused of illegally occupying a $2million home in New York that was bought by an elderly couple following the death of the previous owner

Male model Brett Flores, seen here alongside his wife Elena Crociani, is accused of illegally occupying a $2million home in New York that was bought by an elderly couple following the death of the previous owner 

Flores, who worked as a caretaker for the property's former owner, has filed for bankruptcy and claims the mansion was bequeathed to him

Flores, who worked as a caretaker for the property’s former owner, has filed for bankruptcy and claims the mansion was bequeathed to him 

The

The Queens property used to belong to watch executive Bernard Fernandez

Joseph Landa says he bought the home on the quiet residential street for his wife and his disabled son

Susana Landa has been in and out of landlord tenant court trying to get Flores out of the home

Joseph Landa (left) says he bought the home on the quiet residential street for his wife, Susana (right), and his disabled son 

Flores then allegedly forced others out of the home claiming Fernandez had left him the property, leaving Susana and Josepha Landa unable to move in, despite the couple purchasing the house.

Unsurprisingly, Los Angeles has also become a high-end squatter hotspot, with a glut of recent multimillion dollar takeovers.

Most notably, one squatter took over a Hollywood Hills seven-bedroom property in January and created fake leases to rent out rooms to OnlyFans models who trashed the property.

The same month, a dramatic police raid descended on a $4.3million mansion in Beverly Hills where squatters had been tormenting their celebrity neighbors with nightly raves.

They had been charging $75 cover fees just yards away from LeBron James’ home.

Laughing in the face of the law

Dallas is the second biggest hotspot, with an estimated 475 homes taken over by squatters. 

Local attorney Craig Novak says he has seen cases surge by around a third in the last year, driven by a rise in what he calls ‘professional tenants’ – those who ‘make their living off landlords’.

‘These are people that know the property code, as well as some attorneys, and they know how to play the game,’ he told DailyMail.com.

No one has proved more adept at this than Heather Schwab, a serial squatter who DailyMail.com can reveal is now on the run again despite being arrested twice last year.

Schwab is a convicted fraudster who was sentenced in 2018 in Colorado for felony identity theft in connection to serial squatting.

She was released after serving 16 months behind bars. Recently, she has been back to her old tricks.

In October last year, Schwab was charged with fraudulent securing of a document execution after renting a Rowlett, Texas, house under a fake name and squatting in it – paying no rent and leaving ‘feces and urine’ and ‘rotten food everywhere’.

Rowlett Police told DailyMail.com that the 48-year-old was arrested on November 17 in Hays County, Texas, before posting bond.

Shortly afterwards, she was again arrested by police in Colorado on two separate charges, but her current whereabouts is again unknown.

Heather Schwab was arrested and imprisoned in 2018 for a string of scams on landlords

Heather Schwab was arrested and imprisoned in 2018 for a string of scams on landlords

Schwab is running rings around the law – and she is not the only one.

Online listings and virtual estate agents are making it easier for squatters to find vacant addresses and gain access by booking fake appointments.

But that’s the straightforward part. Schemes to avoid getting kicked out have grown more sophisticated. 

Metzger says squatters are increasingly forging fake lease agreements to stave off the police.

‘They’re not really worried about proving it [is real],’ he adds. ‘If it looks real enough for the police officer, then they will say it is a civil matter they cannot do anything.

‘Police have just been trained not to get involved if there is a lease – and this is being exploited.’

Metzger says landlords then face the prospect of taking the matter to court, where it can take up to ten months for a judgment.

All the while, squatters continue to live rent free in pricey dwellings. 

They then disappear without a forwarding address before the matter is settled, thus escaping any backdated payments worth tens of thousands of dollars, and never face criminal charges for theft or trespassing.

The rise of the vigilantes

It’s no surprise, then, that law-abiding citizens are taking matters into their own hands.

Flash Shelton, from San Fernando Valley, California, has seen a huge rise in demand for his services as a ‘squatter hunter’, which include offers to remove illegal tenants personally.

Flash, whose day job is as a handyman, first took on a squatter in 2019 when he needed to remove a woman who broke into his late mother’s home.

Since then, his snappy YouTube videos, in which he films himself ‘out-squatting’ the squatters, have garnered millions of views.

In the last year, he has carried out hundreds of Zoom consultations, where he talks homeowners through potential strategies to rid themselves of their unwanted guests.

If they want him to do the job himself, the minimum cost is around $5,000. 

A trifling sum compared to the months of lost rent, legal fees, and property damage that clients would otherwise face.

In the last few months, Flash has carried out about ten assignments in California and Nevada. They can take hours or weeks to complete.

His preferred method is a ‘lock out’. This involves getting the landlord to draw up a lease making him the tenant, allowing him to enter their property legally.

He then stakes out the home for several days, learning the habits of the squatter through surveillance and interviews with neighbors.

When their guard is down, or if they have temporarily left the property, he takes his chance, bundling inside and changing the locks.

He says this works in around 90 per cent of cases.

The LAPD descended on the $4.3 million Beverly Hills party mansion in January following reports of a home invasion

The LAPD descended on the $4.3 million Beverly Hills party mansion in January following reports of a home invasion 

The occupants of the $4.3million mansion claimed to be valid tenants, but the homeowner and property agent deny any rental agreements exist

The occupants of the $4.3million mansion claimed to be valid tenants, but the homeowner and property agent deny any rental agreements exist

Pictured: Attendees loitering outside the property

Party goers seen heading to the home

A private investigator probing the house claimed he had witnessed the raucous antics from the street

But sometimes the squatter never gives an inch. They get their supplies through online deliveries, or work in a group so that someone is always on duty.

In these scenarios, Flash goes toe-to-toe with his targets. He becomes their housemate, roommate, worst-nightmare, and starts to out-squat the squatters.

He or his team begin by telling the police of their plan in anticipation of a potentially hostile confrontation.

Flash then researches everything he can about his targets, from names and ages to criminal histories.

Armed with their identities, he enters the home and installs Ring cameras throughout the property to record his every interaction with the squatter.

After a day or two, he has usually spooked them sufficiently to force them out.

Faced with the option of leaving anonymously or public exposure on his YouTube channel, they tend to choose the former. 

But sometimes the squatters dig in. Now Flash ramps up his tactics, making their lives a misery by eating their food, pinching their spot on the couch and blasting loud music.

It can get tense. It’s a battle of wills, but one Flash says he hasn’t lost yet.

A squatter with a lengthy-criminal history was evicted from a $500,000 Atlanta-area home after he moved in while the home's owner, an Army officer, was away on active duty

A squatter with a lengthy-criminal history was evicted from a $500,000 Atlanta-area home after he moved in while the home’s owner, an Army officer, was away on active duty

Exclusive photos show the property at 4951 Wewatta Street in South Fulton, Atlanta - where four squatters were said to have run an illegal strip club

Exclusive photos show the property at 4951 Wewatta Street in South Fulton, Atlanta – where four squatters were said to have run an illegal strip club

A SWAT team arrested the four squatters after neighbors complained of the stench of marijuana, gunshots - and live horses on the premises

A SWAT team arrested the four squatters after neighbors complained of the stench of marijuana, gunshots – and live horses on the premises

DeAnthony Maddox

Jeremy Wheat

DeAnthony Maddox (left) and Jeremy Wheat (right) were arrested on the premises

It is not the only method of last resort desperate landlords are turning to.

Cash-buyer estate agents are offering to buy homes with squatters inside at a discount for those unable to get rid of them.

Property owners have to accept tens of thousands of dollars off the market value, but are spared the stress of evicting the squatter and the cost of repairing the damage to their homes.

But all this comes with a health warning.

Legal experts have advised against using ‘squatter hunters’, claiming it ‘sets a stage for violence’ – although Flash says he has de-escalation training from his days as a bouncer.

Meanwhile, ‘we buy any home’ type schemes often come with punishing terms for the landlord as some unscrupulous firms seek to cash in on distressed sales.

Ultimately, what Flash wants is a change in the law.

As a father-of-five, he cannot go on squatter hunting forever.

He doesn’t profit from consultations, but requests a $150 donation towards a campaign for new legislation that would bolster powers to evict squatters and make it easier for landlords to obtain restitution.

So far, he has raised almost $9,000.

ᴀʀᴛɪᴄʟᴇ ꜱᴏᴜʀᴄᴇ

Leave a Comment