LAKELAND - For Cynthia Westley, her corner house in the Tierra Vista neighborhood south of Lakeland was the place she and her husband always wanted. But after 12 years, she had to return it to the bank when her husband went on disability and they could no longer afford the payments.
"This was my dream home, and, you know, to lose it, it broke my heart," Westley said.
When Westley discovered that someone had moved into the house unbeknownst to her or the bank, she was outraged. A neighbor tipped her off that lights were on in the vacant home at night, and a moving truck unloaded furniture into the house on Saturday.
"Oh, I was very angry," Westley said. "My first thought was, oh no, if I can't live in this thing for free, you're certainly not going to live in it."
Westley called the Polk County Sheriff's Office, and investigators contacted property appraisers, who said the house was in foreclosure and should still be in Westley's name.
Deputies showed up at 6383 Tierra Vista Circle and arrested Stacey Fuchs, 31, and charged her with burglary, trespassing, and grand theft of property valued over $100,000.
It's suspected that Fuchs was able to use a locksmith to access the home.
"I cannot understand how anybody can just call a locksmith, have them change the locks, and they're in your home," Westley said.
The neighborhood consists of 29 homes, and many of the residents knew Westley and her situation. The house also sits at the entrance of the circle, so every resident passed it on the way to their homes, making it unlikely a new resident would go unnoticed.
"I don't know if audacity is the right word," said Becka Engle, a neighbor who lives across the street from the house. She said it was troublesome to know a stranger had managed to access the house without the neighborhood association knowing about it.
"They moved in during the night and it's kind of scary to know that you could do that," Engle said.
Sheriff's investigators said Fuchs told them she was taking advantage of Florida's "adverse possession" law, which allows someone to take possession of abandoned property under certain conditions.
Sheriff Grady Judd doesn't believe Fuchs is anything more than a burglar and a thief.
"You can't just move into someone else's legally owned property," said Judd. "There is no such thing as a free lunch."
Judd urged homeowners in the foreclosure process to monitor their property to make sure no one is squatting in their homes.
The sheriff said his deputies are investigating 20 other squatting cases, with arrests expected in at least seven.
"It's going to be a problem for them, because they're going to squat in the county jail after we arrest them," Judd said.