Squatter takes over other people's properties, claims as own

HOUSTON – Denise Eckford deals in real estate — other people's real estate.

KPRC Channel 2 News first met Eckford last May while checking a report that squatters had taken over a vacant building on Griggs Road.

She and her boyfriend, Darryl Griffin, moved into the building in March, according to neighbors.

The couple claimed they were turning it into a restaurant. That was news to the building's owner, Dr. Canaan Harris.

"I'm paying all these taxes," he said. "I'm paying the note on this property and someone comes and tells me that they own this property now? And they moved in my building while I'm paying all the bills?"

But Eckford and Griffin didn't stay long after that. The next day, they allegedly roughed up a neighbor.

"I was actually assaulted by both of them," Mark Schatz said. "A little rough housing, pushing, shoving, knocking down. The lady tried to back over me with her car, so not a pleasant thing."

Both were charged with assault. Griffin was on parole for murder, and now he may be headed back to prison to finish out his 99-year sentence.

But Eckford is free on bond, and it turns out the house on Griggs Road isn't the first one she's simply taken over and claimed as her own.

Last December, she moved into a house after the former owners, Joann and Oscar Guiterrez, passed away.

"She told me she had bought the house," James Ballard-Woodforest, of the neighborhood's homeowner association, said. "She produced some papers that she had. It was under HCAD that she had purchased it, and I think the paper said on that day that it was given to her by the Guiterrez."

Eckford filed an affidavit of heirship, claiming she was personal friends with Joanne Guiterrez and that Guiterrez left no heirs. Neither claim was true.

But it took six months to force Eckford to leave because of problems with the property's title.

A resident who asked not to be identified said in that time, Eckford and people who stayed at the home ransacked the property and even threatened neighbors.

"The property (was) left in disarray," a neighbor said. "Trash has been piled up in the backyard, refrigerator left -- it's been a nightmare for the neighborhood."

Still, Eckford won't go wanting for a place to stay because she has at least half a dozen other vacant homes to choose from.

In each case, Eckford claimed ownership of the properties by filing what's called an affidavit of adverse possession. It's a legal means of allowing individuals to claim abandoned property.

But attorney Himesh Gandi said the law was never meant to allow anyone to simply seize vacant property.

"That's a clear trespass," Gandi said. "What they're trying to do (is) interrupt that process and find some way of taking advantage that the house is not for use in that short period of time, and they're filing affidavits that typically will cause a title issue to pop up."

KPRC Channel 2 News found that Eckford has filed a total of eight affidavits for eight separate homes or businesses in Harris County. Those include the two properties she's been kicked out of. One she agreed to leave; five others she still claims as her property.

But she's not talking about it. She remained tight-lipped when we caught up with her at the county courthouse.

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