Colo. Family Tries to Regain Home From Occupiers

A Colorado family is in a battle to have squatters removed from their home.

July 17, 2012— -- Dayna Donovan was in for a surprise when she learned two strangers had been living in her Littleton, Colo., home for eight months. They still haven't moved out despite a judge's ruling they had to be out by the weekend.

On Thursday, a judge in Arapahoe County ruled that Veronica Fernandez-Beleta and Jose Rafael Leyva-Caraveo, the two people who were living in the home, had to move out by Saturday morning. But as of Monday evening, Donovan, 43, said the two were still there.

Her husband, Troy, 45, filed for a forced eviction with the Arapahoe County Sheriff's office on Monday morning, and the actual eviction could take place anywhere from two to four weeks from the date of filing.

"With any luck, the occupants will just move out and not damage the home," Dayna Donovan said. "I would rather not have to incur any more expenses and also risk them trying to accuse us of damaging or stealing any of their belongings during the eviction."

In the meantime, the Donovans and their two young daughters are staying in the basement of a relative's house in Greeley, about 65 miles away. They say they can't afford an attorney and have struggled to come up with $500 in court filing fees and gas for driving to the clerk's office throughout the legal process.

It all started last August when the Donovans moved to Indiana with their two children. Both were unemployed at the time and two months behind on their mortgage payments. They decided to relocate because Troy had a temporary job with a race team. Donovan said she left their home of more than 13 years locked and ready for the cold Colorado winter.

Fernandez-Beleta and Levya-Caraveo could not be reached for comment. Their attorney, Douglas Romero, of the Colorado Christian Defense Counsel, declined to comment on their behalf.

In March, Donovan said she had a "premonition" something was wrong with the home. She and her husband called a neighbor and learned someone had been living there since the winter.

When the couple called the police to check up on the home, the two occupiers showed paperwork from the Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder with an affidavit of "adverse possession," their names and the Donovan's address written on it. The two said they bought the home from a real estate agent for $5,000.

"I am sad and confused and distressed," Fernandez-Beleta told Denver station CBS4 in Spanish.

The law of adverse possession varies from state to state. In Colorado, adverse possessors who stake their claim to a piece of land for 18 years without dispute may be able to become owners of it, according to Willis Carpenter, a real estate attorney in Denver who is not involved in the case.

Since the recession, reports of squatters staking their claim to a foreclosed or abandoned home flooded headlines, and instructional guides popped up online about how to file paperwork for adverse possessions.

Carpenter said the police won't usually get involved because it's a civil, not a criminal matter. However, Donovan and her husband were ordered to stay 100 yards away from their home after Fernandez-Beleta and Levya-Caraveo requested temporary restraining orders. The orders were issued on July 3.

Carpenter said the real estate agent who sold the home for $5,000 defrauded the buyers.

"Anybody that told Fernandez-Beleta and Levya-Caraveo they could have that home for $5,000 by adverse possession, that's obviously fraud," he said.

The minimum amount of time for an adverse possessor to have legal ownership of a home can be shortened to seven years, if the occupier has a deed to the property and has been paying property taxes.

Most states have at least a five-year requirement for adverse possession, said Carpenter.

"Many states require 20 years or somewhere in between," Carpenter said, adding that most people use the law to claim a strip of land or a field, say, in dispute with a neighbor.

"It sounds like none of this comes close to that," Geoffrey Anderson, a real estate attorney in Denver not involved in the case, said of the people occupying the Donovan's home.

Donovan said she suspects a real estate agent targeted her home because it was briefly on the market last year.

On Monday, she applied for legal help from Colorado Legal Services.

Donovan starts a temporary job near her home in Littleton next week and said she hopes she can move back into her home by then to cut commute time and costs. She and her husband have struggled to find jobs in the small town where they are staying temporarily. They are also dealing with their mortgage company, because they are about $20,000 behind on their house payments, the last of which was made in June 2011.

"People who are even on an extended vacation need to be aware of this situation because once someone illegally occupies your home, you can't just have the cops arrest them," because they need to be caught in the act of breaking in and entering, Donovan said.

"It's just been a nightmare," she said. "We just want to get settled and try to get on with our life."