NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The FOX 8 Defenders learn the group of people police removed from a Bywater home this week are part of a larger group claiming other nearby homes. It's a situation that's not isolated to just Orleans Parish.
"We've seen it in rural areas, and we are now beginning to see it in urban populations here in New Orleans," NOPD Supt. Michael Harrison said. He said officers arrested four people for criminal trespassing after they occupied Frederick Hines' North Rampart Street home, claiming it was their own.
Police removed bank cards, a book titled "How to Hustle and Win," and even a mattress, which was all taken in for evidence.
"It seems unfair that a property owner would have to go through something like this with someone who has no right to it," Hines said.
Hines lives in California, and his New Orleans home is up for sale. The three men and one woman arrested Tuesday not only changed his locks right before Mardi Gras, they removed his for sale sign and posted their own signs which read "no trespassing - Washitah Mu'ur - federal offense to ignore."
Before police raided the place, we met with Hines - who shared his recent $5,000 property tax receipt - and a group of fired up neighbors who were looking for answers.
I tried knocking on the front door to talk to the group, but got no answer.
"The message is clear. No one should be able to move in someone else's house and take it over," Harrison said. But neighbors say it's happening and is going on right now a few blocks away on Independence and Marais. "They been over almost three years," explained a Bywater resident.
The corner home at 1200 Independence is one of the places. Neighbors say the real homeowner passed away, and someone else moved in. We noticed the "no trespassing" sign, but in the window we also spotted a familiar sign that reads "property claimed by Mu'ur Nation." It's the same name the group in Hines' North Rampart Street home used.
A block away in the window of a narrow yellow shot gun on Marais, we found another similar sign that reads 'property claimed by Washitaw Mu'ur.' We watched a couple, a man and a woman, leave out of there on bikes.
A man who didn't want to be identified says people claiming to be a part of this same group complicated the sale of a property he purchased recently in the area. After he bought it, he says one man had been using his home for storage and refused to move out.
"We got information from Homeland Security and FBI. We know that they are claiming to be part of a sovereign citizen society where they have no regard or respect for any local, state or federal laws," Harrison said.
In Jefferson Parish, Kyron Hunter is awaiting trial on theft charges after he advertised and rented out properties he didn't own in neighborhoods from Gretna to Harvey over the summer.
"I paid $1,050 a month rent to him, and now I gotta move?" Gelender Harrison said. "I already told him he was wrong for taking advantage of a senior citizen."
Before his arrest, Hunter became the subject of a series of reports in our FOX 8 Defenders rental scam investigation. In addition to Harrison, who is a retired school teacher, two other families say they were victims of the same man and the same scam. We spoke with Lakitha Bailey, a single mother of four, and Catina Carter, a wife and mother.
Carter's family was hit with an eviction notice, giving her 72-hours to move out. "I contacted the deputy sheriff, and he told me that no one is supposed to be living in the house. The bank repossessed it, and it's supposed to be vacant," Carter said.
The people who believed Hunter was the owner say he had keys to the properties, leases that looked legitimate and repair crews available at anytime. "You can't simply say because I've been in possession, because I have mowed the lawn, because I've made some fixes, I am now the owner. Our law requires that you be in possession, but you be in possession for 30 years," Tulane Property Law professor Sally Brown Richardson said.
Like the group arrested this week in New Orleans, authorities in Jefferson Parish say Hunter claimed to be a sovereign citizen and filed questionable documents into the public record, trying to prove ownership. "We are looking at this on the national level as to what various jurisdictions in the state can do is to perhaps craft some kind of legislation, which would allow us to refuse these documents," said Jon Gegenheimer, Jefferson Parish clerk of court.
While the charges in both cases may seem minor, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has monitored similar sovereign citizen groups, says not all are dangerous or engaging in illegal activity, but some have records of being criminally dangerous.
Kyron Hunter pleaded not guilty to several theft charges. His trial date is set for April. Defense attorney Joe Marino says Hunter didn't intend to harm any of the people he rented to, and he'll work to make sure no one renting from him is without any money.
If you've got a consumer concern, call the FOX 8 Defenders staffed with volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women at 1-877-670-6397 or fill out an online complaint form.