Soldier Michael Sharkey was deployed to Afghanistan two years ago and asked a friend to watch over his house in New Port Richey, Florida. Sharkey never thought that he would have to fight a battle to save his home from ex-convict squatters.
As reported by WFLA News Channel 8, strangers broke into the home Sharkey shared with his wife Danielle, changed the locks, then moved in. The squatters, Julio Ortiz and his girlfriend Fatima Cardoso, then refused to leave. Ortiz claims that there was a verbal ‘contract’ made with Sharkey’s friend who was watching the home. Mr. Ortiz said the agreement was that he would live there rent-free while he renovated the house, then later a rental agreement would be worked out. However, Sharkey and Lisa Pettus, Sharkey’s friend, say there was no such agreement.
Pettus said she met Ortiz through a friend and the only agreement was that he would fix up the house while the Sharkeys were away. When Pettus drove by the house two months after the renovation was completed, she found the squatters living in the home.
"I want the people out. They're criminals living in my house," Michael Sharkey told WFLA. “I have never spoke to these people in my life.” Specialist Sharkey called the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office from Afghanistan to deal with the situation and his wife flew to Florida from Hawaii, where Sharkey is currently stationed. Ms. Sharkey went to the house and had a sheriff’s deputy with her but was unsuccessful in removing the two squatters. Instead, after Ortiz told the deputy that there was a verbal agreement, the deputy told Danielle that it was a civil matter and he could do nothing.
Ken Doll, Pasco County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson told the station that the squatters have established residency in the home. The sheriff’s office could not force the couple to leave without a court ordered formal eviction. That wasn’t satisfactory to Mr. Sharkey who questioned, “Basically what you’re telling me is just because they’re in the house and they took up residence, they can live there. Okay, so I can go down the street and find an empty house and just kick in the door and start living there and that’s my residence. I don’t think that would work.” He added, "I don't think I should have to pay hundreds of dollars and go through that aggravation…I work hard, long hours, and these people never had permission to live in my home. They should be thrown out." The Sharkeys are also concerned that if they do get the formal eviction, the squatters will damage their home.
The two have both spent time in prison. Ortiz was released in 2011 after serving time for robbery, car jacking and selling drugs on school property. Cardoso was released in 2006 after serving more than two years for drug charges. Both have since been arrested in Pasco County on drug charges.
The squatters know that the family wants them out of the house, but say they won’t leave until they want to. That may be sooner than Ortiz lets on because the two have been using buckets for water, unable to get the utility company to turn it on without a lease.
Support has streamed in for the Sharkeys since the station originally aired their story. Many have offered the military family help and agree with Sharkey’s outrage. "They are criminals,” said the soldier. “I am serving my country, and they have more rights to my home than I do."
UPDATE April 24, 2014 9:22 AM PDT:
WFLA reports that the squatters appeared to be moving out of Sharkey’s home on Wednesday evening. A mini-van and car were seen in the driveway being packed.
The station noted that veterans groups stepped up offering the Sharkeys help in removing the squatters. Lauren Price of one of the groups, Veterans Warriors, told WFLA, "I don't think [Ortiz is] a squatter. I think he's a criminal and what he did is breaking and entering." The station reports that Price’s group and another veterans advocacy group “found an attorney to handle the eviction process for free,” and they will be watching over the home to make sure the squatters do not vandalize it.
WFLA also notes that more supporters in Tampa Bay had planned a Sunday motorcycle ride to Sharkey’s house to “peacefully make the squatters uncomfortable,” if they hadn’t moved.
UPDATE April 24, 2014 3:18 PM PDT:
WFLA reports that by Thursday morning most of the troublesome squatters’ belongings were gone and the couple had vacated Army Specialist Michael Sharkey’s house. WFLA was on the scene while the squatters packed up their belongings and the station captured video of some bizarre behavior by Ortiz during the move. You can watch that footage here.
Only a few items remained in the front yard and two dogs were left at the house. After Animal Control captured the animals, Julio Ortiz’s friends arrived to retrieve them. Reportedly Duke Energy also arrived at the house to investigate how the squatters managed to get electricity at the home.
Dozens of veterans and neighbors in the area have offered to help at the Veteran Warriors’ planned cleanup and remodel of the home.