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Updated: Thursday, 18 Nov 2010, 11:25 PM EST
Published : Thursday, 18 Nov 2010, 9:59 PM EST
GRANT, Mich. (WOOD) - When Patrice Greene visited her 19th Century country school house near Grant on Memorial weekend she discovered that "everything was gone." Greene lived in the old school house for years and moved to Grand Rapids when she got married. She kept the property and left some of her stuff behind.
The first thing she noticed was that a lot of the antiques she collected over the last 20 years and put in her yard had vanished. Antique fencing she had bought in Missouri, an antique metal gate from an old bank building, and more modern stuff such as a metal sculpture, galvanized flower pots and planters, a gas grill and even her 1964 Bambi Airstream trailer .
Inside, decorative items such as a stainless steel counter, a stained glass window, mirrors and other items were gone, too, as was her 54 inch TV set.
She also found a sticker on her door that said the place had been secured by LPS Field Services .
Greene soon discovered LPS Field Services was hired by her mortgage servicer, Home Eq , to secure the property because she missed two mortgage payments.
But they did more than secure the place.
"Initially, I thought I had been robbed," she told Target 8 Investigators.
She was the victim of another wrongful trash-out.
There have been complaints and lawsuits resulting from lenders and the companies they hire going too far, too soon. It's another byproduct of the foreclosure explosion which has given rise to a growing trash-out industry which secures and cleans out foreclosed properties.
Sometimes they go farther than the law allows, fueled by lenders desire to move the property and a double-profit motive. Trash-out crews get paid by the lender to do the job and they get to keep or sell stuff the home owner leaves behind.
"When trash-out crews enter a house there's a barely contained rush through the door, as if they are contestants on a shopping-spree game show" wrote New York Times reporter Steven Kurtz in a 2009 piece on foreclosure trash-outs.
That's where the trouble seems to lie.
The law limits what they can take and when. Grand Rapids real estate attorney Tim Orlebeke said the "standard always comes back to protecting the value of the property." It is, after all, the mortgage company's collateral. It's the only thing the lender has to recover the money if a borrower stops paying.
Orelebeke told Target 8 lenders have to go through the whole foreclosure process, which includes a redemption period and an eviction proceeding to legally get posession of a property before it can remove personal property.
The only exception, he said, is protection of the house.
"Things that jeopardize the value, the condition of the property, that's the most they could ever remove" before completing the foreclosure process, Orlebeke said. "If there's simply personal property sitting on the premises, no, they can't take that in the name of securing the property."
That suggests the companies involved in removing Greene's stuff jumped the gun.
"The property wasn't in foreclosure," Greene said. Newaygo County property records show no attempt to even begin foreclosure.
So how did securing the place become more?
According to a Michigan State Police investigation report, the company the lending servicer hired, LPS, said it found a door open when it first checked the house, some damage from a broken water pipe and considered the house "abandoned."
Attorney Orlebeke says abandonment can only accelerate the foreclosure process, not replace it.
Still, according to what the LPS agent told the investigator and what the head of the trash-out crew told Target 8, LPS ordered an outside cleanup of the property. The job went from LPS to a Detroit-area firm, Etc Default Services , to a small Stanton company which actually did the work, T. Russell Property Services.
Its owner, Donna Russell, said they spent about a day cleaning "junk" from the yard. Her brother, Rodney Sooy, eventually took the Airstream trailer and Greene's big-screen TV from inside, even though they had no inside cleanup order.
State police recovered the TV from Sooy's home in Gowen. Greene plastered the area with posters and eventually found the people who bought her trailer from Sooy. He gave the buyer their money back and Greene got her trailer back.
In October, Sooy pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge for taking Greene's stuff. "I'm sorry this happened," he told the Newaygo County District Judge. "There was a mistake made in what I did. There was no criminal intent."
He had told a state police investigator he took the stuff before someone else did and thought the owner wasn't coming back.
Judge Kevin Drake said, "You went beyond the scope of your authority by taking some of Ms Greene's items and disposing of them do you agree to that?"
"Yes, more than we were supposed to," Sooy replied.
Sooy and his sister say they didn't remove any other items from inside the house but Greene has some indoor stuff on her list of
50 things she is still looking for.
"It's very disheartening," she said tearfully. "It's your whole life of what you worked to get and some of the things are not replaceable things and it's the blatant disregard for someone to come in and do what they've done."
Sooy told State Police that they "salvaged" some of the outdoor items and tossed the rest in a dumpster.
"So there are these companies who come in too early and do too much," said attorney Orlebeke. "I don't think that's the norm, but I think they're out there."
And nobody is watching them.
The trashout game is booming and anybody can play. Rodney Sooy, for example, had a previous criminal history including a larceny conviction. There are no rules. No licenses needed.
"I think that goes back to the need on a bigger scope some type of regulation," Greene said.