Terry Smith gunned his late-model Chevy down the Ronald Reagan Turnpike toward a house that wasn't his, racing to move his family and all his possessions.
Minutes earlier, he had been driving a tractor-trailer in Fort Pierce when he noticed four missed calls on his cell phone from his son Tavares. Terry pulled over and called back.
"What's going on, son?" he asked on the phone.
"Dad, they're kicking us out of the house," said 19-year-old Tavares.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean they're throwing us out, right now." Tavares handed the phone to a sheriff's deputy, who confirmed the news from the doorstep of their home in North Lauderdale.
Terry maneuvered a U-turn and headed back to the office. It was late morning on January 12, and a chilly wind blew down the coast. "I have to go," he told his boss.
Meanwhile, Terry's wife, Melesia Dubose, had been doing volunteer nursing work at Primenet Medical Center, where she used to work. At about 11:45, a deputy told her over the phone that her family's eviction was to begin at noon. She drove home wearing her patterned scrubs and met her father, who had been on his way to a radiation appointment to treat his throat cancer. In a faltering voice, he begged the sheriff's deputy to let the family have a few more hours to move out. The deputy agreed, and said she'd be back at 7 p.m.
Melesia explained to anyone who would listen that she and Terry didn't think the eviction letters were meant for them, because they bore the names of the previous owner. But the time for clarifications had passed. By 1:30, their 21-year-old son Jerome had rented an extra-large U-Haul truck and pulled it up on the lawn. Melesia had imagined this day, this nightmare scene. She watched her full-grown son haul a mattress just slightly larger than himself up a ramp, into the truck. The family had been through this before, been told to leave their previous home by another deputy with another piece of paper in his hands. This time was supposed to be different.
While the boys moved the furniture out the front door, all she could do was wait and think of her children: her two younger girls, ages 12 and 10, still in their school uniforms; the boys who were dismantling the house in a hurry; her 24-year-old daughter Martina who kept her company doing volunteer work at the hospital. Jerome's 3-year-old daughter, Samairah, serenely pushed a toy stroller across the doorstep. How could she explain this to the children?
"There are good people and bad people," she told them that afternoon. "Unfortunately, when we paid money to move into this house, we gave it to a bad person."
By 2 p.m., the living room was nearly bare. A couple of pieces of fabric hung over the wall where the TV cabinet used to be. Scraps of packing material and splinters of furniture covered the floor. Inside the garage, Melesia's son Tavares pulled an electric drill down from a high shelf still cluttered with belongings.
He blamed all of this on a man named Mark Guerette.
Throughout his troubled life, Mark sold drugs and rip-off Corningware and mortgages and credit scores, and finally the fantastical notion that empty houses shouldn't be empty as long as there are people who need them. With a firm handshake, a pious demeanor, and an official-looking lease, Mark had offered Terry Smith a chance to make a home for his family. But in the course of a few months, Mark's plan had gone terribly wrong.
"He's a crook," said Tavares. "And I hope I can tell him that to his face."
Like most salesmen, Mark Guerette has a story. The story he told about his long and varied career was a story about finding God, in which Mark censored the curse words he said as a teenager and broke into blue-collar grammar only when recalling the most difficult parts of his past. Now 47, with a pale, youthful face and short brown hair, he spoke with a constant hint of a smile, like a schoolboy who's done something bad and wants to be caught.
"I tried taking my life for the first time at the age of 16," he said, "because I just couldn't take my parents anymore." In fact, they weren't really his parents at all, just some people who made him miserable. He said these people abused him, screamed at him, and put duct tape all around his shoes when any other kid in Nashua, New Hampshire, would have gotten a new pair.
After renouncing his adoptive parents' care as well as their religion, Mark got a job as a prep cook at the Chart House in Nashua and discovered the healing trifecta of LSD, pot, and alcohol. His drug habits would follow him well into his 30s — until he decided to give them up for God.
As an adult, Mark was prone to less conventional ways of making money: first dealing drugs in Massachusetts in his 20s, then, going door-to-door selling 30-piece sets of glass cookware when his girlfriend, Angie, ended up pregnant with their first daughter in 1990. After the cookware company "made some bad investments," he and Angie packed up a U-Haul van and drove to Florida. Ending up in Hollywood, he took a string of odd jobs and spent every night drinking a case of beers and fishing on a catwalk over the Intracoastal.
Mark found a new accomplice one night out on the docks. Mark said Terry Backs told him they could make good money collecting wooden shipping pallets and selling them back to pallet yards for two or three bucks apiece. Another friend, Willie Lofton, told them about a place where there were hundreds of pallets just waiting to be hauled away. One night in April 1994, behind Central American Produce in Pompano Beach, they backed their truck up to the loading dock. On their second trip around, they got busted by the cops and arrested on charges of grand theft — later reduced to petty theft. Broward County Circuit Judge Bernard Bober sentenced Mark to community service and six months of probation.
"I had to make a living for my family," said Mark. "If it hurt someone, I really didn't care."
The arrest record, the constant drinking, and a stupid job making telemarketing calls pushed him into a self-indulgent hole. Angie moved out in 1996 and took their two young children with her. Mark had drunk and fought and sold his way into his mid-30s. He took a bunch of pills in his squalid apartment on Young Circle, closed his eyes, and waited for the end.
When he woke up under the harsh lights of the inpatient ward, Mark says he decided it was time to look for God. He said he found Him a few weeks later at the altar of a Spanish-language church in Hialeah, and it felt like wind was blowing through his hair.
Now Mark needed a respectable job and a good woman. He found both at the American Express debt collection offices on Oakland Park Boulevard. In 1997 he got a job making calls there, and when one customer named Marlene paid her bill, Mark called back and asked her out on a date. They went to see Titanic. One-hundred-and-ninety-four minutes later, they knew they would be together.
After he moved in with Marlene in February 1998, Mark set his sights on real estate. His internet research led him to start a credit-improvement consulting service, and he worked part-time from home until a friend with a mortgage-lending business let him set up shop at an empty desk. By 2004, Mark was ready to open a mortgage business of his own in Coral Springs, called Mortgages for America. Finally, in 2006, Mark sent away for the "Real Estate Investor's Success Packet" from the website cashflowinstitute.com. There, buried among the lessons on refinancing and survey markers, was a strange concept: adverse possession.
The law has been in the Florida statutes since 1869, mixed up with other remnants of frontier litigation that are mere trivia in the modern world of subdivisions and mortgage fraud. It says that if you take over somebody else's land, let the county know, and pay the taxes, it's yours to keep after seven years. If the rightful owner comes to kick you off the property before the seven years are up, you'll be forced to leave.
In 2008, when Mark read about adverse possession, the South Florida dream of accessible luxury had ripened in the sun for half a century. Almost overnight, South Florida was filled with foreclosures and overbuilt, empty developments. Mark realized there might be a way he could put people in foreclosed houses, sidestepping the banks, and it would all be legal. He could even charge rent, and make enough money to support himself, Marlene, and their two children. He would call the business Saving Florida Homes.
He remembered the doctrine of biblical tithing: Ten percent of one's income should go back to the Lord. Mark said he made a promise: "Lord, for every ten houses that I get, I'm going to take one house and give it to someone you need to be there." He prayed.
"It's one of the hardest things I've done in real estate, and the biggest part is, it's uncharted territory," he said later. "Adverse possession has been on the books since time, but no one has looked at it the way I happened to look at it, and do with it what I did."
Ed and Shelly Nichols had nowhere to go.
They had three kids between them, and Shelly was pregnant with a new baby. Ed lost his job in construction, and Shelly's complicated pregnancy forced her to leave her job at Royal Caribbean. With no other option but homelessness, the couple put their things in storage and moved into their mothers' houses.
The living arrangement, her hormones, and his bruised ego threatened to split them for good. Sometimes they would all pile onto the couch at Ed's mom's house to watch cartoons on the big TV, but they could never relax there.
One night during the week before Thanksgiving in 2009, Ed and Shelly went down the street to visit their friends, Fabian Ferguson and Juslaine Charles. This couple was also on the dark verge of homelessness: They were being forced out of their home at the end of the week. After talking with Shelly, Juslaine called a pastor she had met in church once, who said to call if she was ever in financial trouble. Pastor Jerry said he knew a man who might be able to help.
On Wednesday, Shelly got a phone call from Mark, who said he could get her a house. Not an apartment, not a duplex. A house, for a price they could afford. On Friday, the two young couples drove to meet him.
At a strip-mall office on Kimberly Boulevard in North Lauderdale, they met Mark Guerette and his business partner, a bald-headed, olive-skinned man named Mark Laird. "Come on, I'll show you some houses," said Mark Guerette. He got into his white Hummer and they all followed him in Shelly's truck, driving around North Lauderdale. They stopped at a few houses. They stepped inside, walked around on the carpeting, and heard their voices echo in the hallways and bedrooms.
Juslaine and Fabian got first choice, because they were the ones who had found Mark. Then Shelly and Ed picked their house, a two-bedroom on a quiet street just across from City Hall. It had a big fenced yard in the back where their dog could play. They followed Mark back to his office, trying to contain their joy.
Mark explained that the houses were foreclosures, owned by the banks. He said he had teamed up with the city to let families live in the houses. They would have to agree to take care of them, mow the lawns, and pay the utility bills and taxes. "And if anyone ever comes and says that they're the owner," he said, "call me directly."
He handed them some leases to sign. The rent was under $300 a month. There was an addendum at the back of the lease, and Mark explained that it said someone from the banks might come to kick them out. "Call me," he repeated, "and we'll just move you right into another house."
It was almost too easy. But here was a kind, earnest-sounding man, giving them an affordable lease on a home. When they were done signing, Mark gave each couple the code to the lock box on their door, and shook their hands again and sent them out into the sunlight. They weren't homeless anymore.
A week later, Shelly made Thanksgiving dinner for her whole family in the first house she and Ed had ever shared. She cooked a turkey in the oven, bending over her baby to reach the counter. The young couple spread out blankets on the floor and ate the turkey picnic-style with their kids and their parents. Shelly had never been happier.
There's a tendency not to want to ask questions when you get a great deal. Having a house, and the promise of a new one if somebody took this one away, was enough for Shelly and Ed.
Mark had just rented out the first two houses he didn't own, and he was planning to rent more. They weren't all going to be so cheap.
Terry Smith and Melesia Dubose signed their lease two days before Christmas in 2009. Over the course of a few weeks, Mark had streamlined his process, filing batches of adverse possession claims with the county and renting out properties through a few complicit real estate agents.
Terry and Melesia met their agent at the house, she opened a lock box on the door, handed over the keys, and turned to leave. She didn't even wait until they had opened the door.
Terry estimated that they put $10,000 in renovations into the house since they rented it on an "as-is" basis. They didn't pay any mind to the letters that started coming from Deutsche Bank, topped with a bright-red sticker from the sheriff's department saying "Notice of Eviction." The letters weren't addressed to them, but to the previous owner. In fact, their names weren't on anything except the lease and the electric bill.
The possibility that the whole deal could fall apart was too much for Terry to contemplate. He waited for somebody to call him about the bank notices, to say, "Terry Smith, this is what's going on. Here's what's going to happen."
He did get a call from Mark in February. "I'm having some legal trouble," said Mark, who explained that he would send a notarized letter authorizing Terry to stop paying rent. Terry could live there for free, for the foreseeable future. Mark continued: "Someone from the State Attorney's Office will be coming to see you. When he comes, you can talk to him, or you can tell him to take a hike."
After sunset on March 5, 2010, a man pulled up to Terry and Melesia's house. He introduced himself as an investigator for the state attorney. They welcomed him into the living room, which was warm and dark, dominated by a television cabinet. Cloudy glass cabinets held a few religious trinkets. He set down a tape recorder.
Joe Roubicek was a compact, gray-haired man who wouldn't look out of place on any of the Law & Order franchises. He retired from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department Economic Crimes Unit and went on to work in the State Attorney's Office. In his free time, he self-published true-crime accounts of the cases he worked. Now, tasked with building a case against Mark, he was looking for victims.
Terry told Joe that he had met Mark before moving in, briefly.
"So what did he tell you?" the detective asked.
"Well, Mark told me that the way this thing works is that there are hundreds of houses out there that were just abandoned, and the banks have them," said Terry. "He said he works with the bank. He rents the properties out, gets them fixed up, and he says he's going to have them for seven years."
"And after seven years, you know, we'll be able to buy it from him."
Joe explained that Mark didn't own the property, and that all he had done was send a notice to the county, pay the water bill, and walk through the door. Terry and Melesia began to understand what "adverse possession" really meant. Joe finished the interview after 13 minutes. He handed Terry a business card emblazoned with the Great Seal of the State of Florida. In God We Trust.
Terry had a bad feeling, like he was close to a truth he couldn't stand to face. His voice filled with uncertainty, he asked the detective, "Does the bank know that we're in this house?"
Joe said he was just gathering information and didn't know the answer. He said he had a feeling that something criminal could be going on. He recommended that Terry get a lawyer. Then he drove off, feeling vaguely sorry for these people who didn't have a clue what was happening to them.
"Oh my God," Melesia said to Terry behind the closed door. "We're living in somebody else's fucking house."
While Terry and Melesia were being evicted this January, Mark was a few blocks away in North Lauderdale, explaining the process he used to find foreclosed homes to rent. He stood on the lawn outside a small, tidy house. There were no curtains on the windows. You could see into the empty living room. There was a hallway in the back that led to a kitchen full of dormant appliances, ready to be turned on. The walls held no pictures and the floors were broom-clean. In fact, there was only one sign that the house wasn't ready for occupancy right away, and it was taped to the inside of the windowpane. "No trespassing," it said.
"And that," said Mark, "is our only problem."
The white Hummer, paid for by the now-defunct mortgage company that Mark said earned him $30,000 a month before the housing crash, idled in the driveway. He crunched across the thick grass to survey the rest of the house. "This is definitely a house I'd look at if I were still doing adverse possession," he said. "If only that sign weren't there."
He got back in the air-conditioned Hummer and pulled into the street, retracing the path he took in late 2009 when he decided to make North Lauderdale his own personal Monopoly board. Armed with a list of recent foreclosures, he explained, he and his partner, Mark Laird, cased every block in the city. He said they were looking for bright orange placards stuck to doors and windows: notices from the city declaring abandoned buildings a public nuisance. An orange sign on a house meant nobody had lived there for a while. Real estate and "no trespassing" signs were dealbreakers: They meant somebody still had interest in the house.
"I developed an eye for this," said Mark, peering though the windshield. Indeed, upon closer observation, the orange signs are a common sight: here a small cottage, marooned in untrimmed grass; there a fanciful stucco facade pocked by boarded-up windows. Foreclosures ravaged all classes of Florida neighborhoods, but the modest single-family homes — the first rung of comfortable home ownership — saw the most cleanly broken dreams.
Mark filed over a hundred notices of adverse possession in Broward County, but most of the homes he rented were here in North Lauderdale. At the peak of his business, Mark said, he was renting 17 houses for varying amounts of rent. Most of his tenants paid him about $1,200 per month, plus a $200 deposit for the water bill.
Mark said that much of the rent money went toward maintenance and business costs. Still, in the eyes of the state, he seemed to be profiting on others' misfortune. A Coral Springs police detective noticed Mark checking out some houses, and in late 2009, he notified the State Attorney's Office. Alesh Guttmann and T. Don Tenbrook, two professorial economic-crimes prosecutors, took on the case. They sent Joe Roubicek to gather information. Over a period of two months, the detective visited six homes and got six taped statements. All of them would be used as evidence against Mark in court.
Later that year, Mark sat down twice with the prosecutors, once with his lawyer and once without. Mark handed over all the information they requested, including copies of leases and the addendum his tenants signed, stating that they were aware that the properties were under adverse possession.
"If I'm breaking a law, tell me which one," he remembers asking the prosecutors.
The state never arrested or charged Mark for trespassing. But they did argue that he had "no legal interest" in the properties. "When it got illegal," said Guttmann, "is when he started charging rent."
Mark pleaded "no contest" in November 2010 to organized fraud, a felony. His lawyer was willing to fight the charges, but Mark said he didn't want to risk ending up in jail and leaving his wife and kids stranded without a husband and father. Circuit Judge Matthew Destry sentenced him to two years of probation and 100 community service hours. One of the stipulations of his probation was that he could not file any more claims of adverse possession. None of his former tenants came forward to collect restitution.
By this time, Mark's story was of national interest. On November 8, 2010, the New York Times published a story about his adventures in adverse possession, with the headline "At Legal Fringe, Empty Houses Go to the Needy." Fabian Ferguson and Juslaine Charles, who moved to another one of Mark's houses after being kicked out of the one they found with Ed and Shelly, were the center of the story. In the days after its publication, TV stations, reporters, and photographers appeared at their doorstep. Fabian refers to it as the "New York Times incident."
By now, the tenants were on their own to face the banks. When Mark heard about Terry Smith's eviction in January, he expressed little sympathy for Terry's family. "They were living rent-free for more than six months," he said. "They shouldn't really be complaining."
It's true that the family saved thousands since Mark's lawyer advised him to stop collecting rent. But in Terry's mind, his rent-free months were a small atonement for being conned into thinking the house was within his reach.
And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work...
Once again, Ed and Shelly Nichols had nowhere to go. They stopped paying rent at Mark's request in April 2010. Later, a man from the bank came and offered them a check for a thousand dollars to hand over the keys and leave the house. This is a trifling nicety offered by banks to give the appearance of a transaction, so that evictions will go smoothly. Ed and Shelly swept the house broom-clean and moved back in with Ed's mom. They piled back onto the couch one evening to watch Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, and toward the end, Ed felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck with a jolt of recognition. The man who had given them a check to leave their home was on the screen, doing the same thing with a family in Miami. The man from the bank had a neutral expression, his tone patient but unyielding.
After the movie ended, Michael Moore was not there to bring light to Ed and Shelly's problems. He could not highlight some grave injustice that had robbed them of a home. Once again, they were simply another family without enough money.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to New Times Broward-Palm Beach's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling South Florida's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
He has the power to restore, the power to forgive, the power to cleanse you of all your sins!
"Yes!" Mark says, now as clean-shaven as he'll ever be. He stands up in church: his vestments wool slacks and an ironed shirt, a golden-ringed hand raised toward the ceiling of Grace Family Worship Center in Coral Springs. His other arm is around his wife, who holds out her palms, opening the life before her like a book. And now they're singing, praising, saying Jesus, and there's an eight-piece band and somebody in the back row wails, just straight-up wails, until the priest comes over to hold her, and everybody sways, hands are clapping, and Yes, Jesus, and they feel him here in the room...
Mark's story doesn't end in a victory: no great wealth, no accolades, no more houses for the needy. It's not a tragedy or a comedy — and it's certainly not part of the endless upward trajectory that people associate with the American dream. He avoided jail, and he tries to stave off his own foreclosure day by day. He says that after paying for his legal defense, Saving Florida Homes actually lost him money. But nobody has ever told him that adverse possession is illegal, and not all of his former tenants think of themselves as victims. A few of them have been able to work out temporary rental agreements with the banks.
Mark thinks about the future, and what his role in it will be. He has a new project that he's not ready to discuss yet. "I've never done things conventionally," he says. "Whenever my pastor talks about risk, he looks at me."