FORT WORTH - David Cooper said he tried to follow the law on adverse possession. But he will spend three months in jail, pay a $10,000 fine and try not to get tripped up in a thicket of probation conditions for the next ten years.
A jury sentenced the North Texas man Thursday after finding him guilty Wednesday on theft and burglary charges for taking over a home in Arlington. Cooper, 26, faced a penalty ranging from probation to life in prison. The jury took around one hour to sentence Cooper.
As a condition of his probation, the judge ordered Cooper to serve 90 days in the Tarrant County jail.
While his wife, 23-year-old Jasmine Williams Cooper, was found not guilty, she was arrested by deputies Thursday morning on traffic warrants.
Cooper moved into the $400,000 home, located on Forestwood Drive in Arlington, citing a Texas law from the 1800s on adverse possession. He testified he honestly believed the law entitled him to the home.
The house was vacant for several months while the owners were out of town for medical treatment. The property was overgrown.
Defense attorney Deborah Goodall told jurors Cooper does not belong in prison.
"I'm asking you, really, beseeching you to give him a chance," Goodall pleaded in her final statement to the jury.
Back in November, Cooper posted "No Trespassing" signs outside the home and filed an affidavit with the county clerk.
When we first found the 26-year-old lawn care worker and entrepreneur, he scoffed at the threat of prosecution.
"I won't get another call [from police] because this house was abandoned," he told News 8 as he emerged from the Arlington home.
After nearly two hours of deliberations, jurors found Cooper guilty of burglary of a habitation and theft over $200,000.
Goodall was relieved that the jury granted probation, but insisted this should never have been a criminal case to start with.
"They can't turn something into a crime that's in the statutes as being legal," she said. "Despite the jury's verdict, that is still true."
The Tarrant County district attorney began charging so-called squatters to stop a surge of at least 60 adverse possession filings.
"This will get the attention of others in the community who might be thinking about this crime," said prosecutor David Lobingier. "Ten years is a long time to be on probation."
The trial ended with the former homeowner telling David Cooper he's nothing more than a con-man.
"You thought you could get away with this," Ray Dell said in his victim's impact statement. "You thought you were smarter than the system."
Cooper does not have an extensive criminal history and will be eligible for probation.
This is the first of about a half-dozen adverse possession trials slated in Tarrant County. In some cases, entire families were evicted from homes they claimed to legally possess after paying a $16 fee to file an affidavit.