I-Team: Hijacked Home

ABC7 I-Team Investigation
CHICAGO (WLS) -- A homeowner's fight to get strangers out after a fraudulent landlord rented out her townhome.

Joanne Simmons is the rightful owner of a townhome on the city's South Side, but her key won't open the door.

"It's horrible. I am back and forth to the city. It is stressful," Simmons said.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said Ralph Schrader broke into Simmons' home last September when it was unoccupied. Schrader changed the locks and then "falsely posed as a landlord."

"And he took it over and he rented it out and actually took money from the renters," Alvarez said.

In January, Schrader was sentenced to two years of probation after pleading guilty to a charge of theft by deception.

"This was my house for 20 years. I raised two kids here and eventually I was renting it out. It was vacant for a while. I was, you know, fixing it up and a guy broke into the house. He fixed it up somewhat, changed the carpet (and) then he rented it out to two people," Simmons said.

She said she's never seen a dime from those two tenants, who still live in the home and refuse to leave. The home is now in foreclosure.

"Now she has people in there who do not belong there. She did not rent to them and now they refuse to go, so she is being victimized again," Alvarez said.

Tattered, handwritten receipts show the deposit of $850 was handed over to Schrader. Prosecutors said the tenants also gave him two months of rent for the Simmons' home.

Schrader, who lives in a boarded-up home on the city's Far South Side, slammed the door on the ABC7 I-Team.

Alvarez and police said they legally can't remove the tenants. Simmons tried to evict the tenants in civil court, but a judge recently said that Simmons' is in foreclosure, the bank now owns the property, and the bank would need to remove the tenants. One of the tenants, Kevin Ross, said he is "not at the moment" paying rent to live in the home.

"We have to let the courts decide that. So we will take it from there," Ross said. Ross denied he was squatting and said he believes they deserve to be there "until the court says otherwise."

How can someone take over a home?

"We are seeing it happen because many homes are vacant and in foreclosure," Alvarez said. She recommends renters verify their landlord is the property owner with the Recorder of Deeds office or get a no-cost realtor who makes money off the commission to rent through a legitimate landlord.

Property owners should secure empty homes with extra locks and ask neighbors to watch for suspicious activity, she said.

"So it really is a rotten thing to do, to take somebody's property, to rent it out and it is a big hardship for me," Simmons said.

Schrader's attorney said when his client was initially confronted by Simmons he gave her some of the deposit money back, which she passed along to the tenants. The attorney also said Schrader will pay his scheduled restitution of $5,000 to Simmons and $425 to the tenants.

However, Simmons said she lost her home to foreclosure because of this incident.

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