Using the language of the antigovernment 'Patriot' movement, some Californians have been squatting in houses they don't own
If earthquakes, wildfires and foreclosures weren't enough, a new threat to California real estate has emerged in recent months: squatters who invoke the tactics of a radical antigovernment movement to occupy vacant homes. Describing their brazen takeovers as "home adoptions," groups in Sacramento, San Diego and Riverside counties have filed bogus deeds to claim ownership of luxury homes, justifying their actions with a mix of "common-law" theory, so-called sovereign immunity and references to the Old Testament.
Vacant homes have always appealed to squatters in dire economic times, but these groups rationalize their takeovers with tactics lifted from the "sovereign citizens" movement, a far-right antigovernment ideology that embraces the idea — usually wrapped in rambling, mystical legal terminology — that people can declare themselves beyond the reach of police and the courts.
"I was in tears," insurance executive Christina Suggett told a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune last November. She had just purchased a new $800,000 home in Chula Vista only to find the locks changed and a sham deed posted in the window accompanied by a sign that read "Spiritual Sanctuary" and "No Trespass." Police said the two men behind the takeover signed their names to the deed as Maurice Simmons, 32, and King Solomon II, otherwise known as Terry Lee Herron, 43, who has a felony conviction for auto theft. The men said they constituted a religious order called Solomon Brothers Archbishop Corporation Sole — which, they claimed, was immune to prosecution. "I can do this under common law," Simmons told reporters. "Sovereign Solomon Brothers operates under common law, not judicial law."
The "common law" cited by Simmons and thousands of people in the larger antigovernment "Patriot" movement refers to a fictitious body of law under which the government supposedly cannot impose regulations on "sovereign citizens." Scams involving common-law documents, none of them with any real legal meaning, were prevalent in the militia movement of the 1990s.
Authorities said Simmons and Herron used similar methods to take over five other properties late last year. In a pretrial hearing on May 21, San Diego District Attorney investigator James Motz said Simmons insisted at his arrest that his actions were legal, arguing that "if these were fraudulent documents I filed, the county would have returned them." Neither Simmons nor Herron replied to messages left by the Intelligence Report. They were arraigned June 4 on counts of conspiracy, filing false documents and forging documents; Simmons faces additional extortion charges.
In Sacramento, 500 miles to the north, another group operated with a similar ideology but didn't bother with phony deeds. The squatters simply moved into unoccupied properties, posting notices that declared the seized houses to be a sovereign republic and threatening violence against anyone who entered. In the gated neighborhood of West Natomas, home to the owner of the Sacramento Kings basketball team and some of the city's civic and business leaders, a middle-aged couple moved in early February into a vacant 3,361-square-foot home. The house, which had sold for $850,000 in 2006, had four bedrooms, four baths, a swimming pool and a hot tub. The new occupants turned the lights on and posted a sign in the window that said, "Private Property of sovereign Woman of republic and California" and "Do Not Disturb Individuals who have possession of the property!" The sign also said any federal and state employees attempting to visit would be seen as trespassers and face the wrath of the occupants and their right to "Self-Preservation — Right To Repel Force By Force — Self Defense — Justifiable Homicide."
When Sacramento Detective Mike Wood showed up to interview the tenants on Feb. 3, they pulled out a contract showing how they were paying $1,500 a month for the house, less than half the going rental rate. The name on the contract was Sacramento real estate agent Phillis Powers, who operates the Midian Group. On its MySpace page, the Midian group describes itself as a "home adoption program" and as a nonprofit corporation "committed to delivering unequaled value to homeowners and local communities."
According to real estate records, the house had actually been purchased at auction on Jan. 29 by Aurora Loan services, whose representative told The Sacramento Bee that they did not know real estate agent Powers and did not realize that anyone was living in the building. Powers, 54, and the couple found in the house were arraigned on March 19 on charges of criminal trespass. Messages left at Powers' home and business were not returned. Detective Wood told reporters he was familiar with Powers from another case in Elk Grove, a Sacramento suburb, where she is also under investigation for renting a home to someone without having any legal connection to the property. Wood has questioned Powers before in a previous case and said she interpreted property law on her own whims. "She doesn't recognize the Constitution," Wood said. "She has her own constitution."