GUADALUPE, Calif. - Imagine if you owned a home, kept up the mortgage, taxes, insurance and maintenance only to find someone else is the legal owner of property.
It happened to a woman in Guadalupe and her case helped uncover a statewide housing scheme that relied on one of the oldest laws on the books.
When Nancy Zelepsky's boyfriend passed away in 2003 he left an old, adobe- style home in Guadalupe to her in his will.
In 2010, Zelepsky applied for a home equity loan on the property she owned and lived-in.
As part of her loan application the lender did a title search on the property and discovered the name on the title was not Nancy Zelepsky.
The deed holder's name was Sandra Barton, one of five people now locked up in Fresno County Jail accused of fraud involving at least 23 properties in nine California counties.
The five suspects, two of them attorneys, allegedly used the California Adverse Possession of Real Property law to file fraudulent court documents seeking transfer of title.
"I have never seen in this county an Adverse Possession case that was a legitimate adverse possession", says Jennifer Glimp, investigator with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office in Lompoc, "Adverse Possession is when you take over possession of a property that you don't really own."
"Every state has a section that allows for that to happen through their Civil Code sections technically and in California its 321", Glimp says, "If you take over a property, you live in it conspicuously and consistently, you pay the taxes on it, you make improvements on it after five years the property can basically be deeded over to you through court action."
Glimp investigated the case involving Nancy Zelepsky and helped the State Attorney General's Office in its investigation to uncover the illegal housing scheme.
"Typically what happens people go around and they look for foreclosed or abandoned looking homes and then they move into them and they take them over, they take over the properties and pay the taxes because you have to do that for five years in order to have it given to you eventually", Glimp says, "it's a law that came about hundreds of years ago when land was laying fallow and people were hungry, so they allowed people to move onto those lands and farm it so they could feed the populations and then over the generations its just remained on the books."
The State Attorney General says after gaining title to a property, the homes would be fixed up and either sold or rented, and sometimes the suspects demanded payment from the rightful property owners.
When Nancy Zelepsky discovered what happened to her she got legal help and got her ownership restored in court.
"That property had not been abandoned, she was actually living in the property", Glimp points out, "so all of the documents that were filed with the court were falsified because she was there, she actually lived there at the time they said they had possession of it."
Glimp says its a good idea for property owners to get to know their neighbors.
"It really behooves people to talk to their neighbors, know who their neighbors are", Glimp says, "so if something like this does start to go down, you have somebody on your side that's gonna pick up the phone and say hey someone is living at your property."
If you or someone you know has had something like this happen to them... contact your local law enforcement or your local district attorney's office.
Investigator Jennifer Glimp at the Lompoc Office of the Santa Barbara County District Attorney can be reached at (805) 737-7871 or you can find help at the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara at (805) 963-6754.