PINELLAS PARK, Fla.— A dozen families have been left victims of a crime and some are homeless right before Thanksgiving. Pinellas Park Police Department has arrested a leasing agent for stealing deposits from families and promising apartments that weren’t available.
It’s tiny but the shelter offered by the St. Pete Free Clinic is the only thing keeping Sabrina Long, her fiance and her four-month-old daughter from being homeless.
“No, not a lot of room," she said showing us the shelter. "But you know it’s better than sleeping on a cot or sleeping in my truck.”
This isn’t how Long imagined spending Thanksgiving and she says it’s all because of one woman: Tonya Johnson.
Pinellas Park Police charged Johnson with scheme to defraud.
“She actually acted like she was becoming one of my best friends. She even has pictures of my daughter," said Long.
Long says she met Johnson while looking for an apartment at Parkside Commons in Pinellas Park. Johnson was the legitimate property manager according to arrest records.
“'Oh, you’re in luck. We have openings right now,'" she recounts Johnson telling her.
Long gave Johnson money for her application fees and a security deposit. Then she signed a lease. But move-in day came and went and Long says Johnson had nothing but excuses.
$1,995 is how much Long says she's out today.
"She did the right thing and she still got scammed," said Chris Brown, an attorney.
In a statement Brown said:
"We have reached out to Cambridge Management and have not heard back. I represent multiple families who are now homeless because of the fraudulent conduct of CMI’s former employee, Tonya Johnson. Some of my clients are living in shelters with infant children. They now do not have any money and no hope in sight. I truly hope CMI does the right thing and that we can get these families into proper housing arrangements as soon as possible."
Investigators say Johnson was stealing the money while offering apartments that weren’t available. It was her employer, CMI, who contacted Pinellas Park Police after realizing she may be behind some criminal activity.
In these cases, there was one blaring, red flag. Johnson told the future tenants to pay their fees with blank money orders. Investigators say between the two properties she managed there are now 12 victims and they suspect more will come forward.
What's more, Johnson also has a warrant out for her arrest from Kentucky. It's for a violation of parole for a previous fraud case.
“Six, seven years ago I was in a position where I was in a shelter and I worked so hard to get out of that and now I have a child involved and I’m back in a shelter," said Long.
Long says she's keeping her head up and is celebrating every accomplishment. Today, she's heading to two job interviews.
We reached out to Cambridge Management, Inc. to ask for their side of the story and whether they conducted any background checks into Johnson before hiring her. They sent us the following statement:
"The owners and management of Parkside Commons and Garden Trail were grieved to learn Thursday that a CMI employee is alleged to have taken money, under false pretenses, from families seeking housing in our communities and then converted it to personal use. We immediately contacted the proper authorities and are taking the appropriate actions with the employee. We are attempting to work with these families to find available housing in Parkside Commons, Garden Trail or another CMI community. We would also like to strongly caution any applicant of an apartment to make sure to fill out the payee section of a money order to the apartment community for which they are applying. No CMI employee should ever request that a money order payee line be left blank for any reason. We will continue to cooperate with the authorities as the investigation into this matter progresses.
We are still looking into this matter, however, there are many restrictions about what information CMI is able to legally consider when reviewing the background checks that are performed for each new hire. It is our understanding that any records which could be related to this incident were not available for our consideration."