Jurors are scheduled to hear opening statements Monday in an unusual trial in Cook County criminal court. The defendant is charged with theft of more than a million dollars — in the form of houses, many in Chicago’s Morgan Park and Beverly neighborhoods.
Even more unusual: The defendant doesn’t dispute he took the homes, but he denies it was a crime.
His project was part protest, part Robin Hood, and part hustle. Its roots go back more than a decade.
In 2005, Chase Home Finance filed foreclosure papers on the condo where Torrez Moore lived. He fought eviction for years, acting as his own attorney. He had read up on the law and developed some do-it-yourself legal theories.
By September 2012, he was gone from the condo, but he had also developed a new legal theory, one he thought could get him a free place to live, and other benefits.
To test that theory, he picked a house at 10929 S. Esmond St. It was foreclosed, bank-owned, and vacant.
Moore moved himself into that house, and filed paperwork with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds, claiming the house as his own under a legal doctrine called adverse possession, which is like squatters’ rights.
“Adverse possession is a way to obtain property in an unconventional way, without paying,” Moore said.
Lawyers said Moore misconstrued the way adverse possession works, but it does exist.
“We wouldn’t have attempted anything like that, unless we had first seen it in the books of law first,” Moore said. “That’s where we got it from.”
After Moore took up residence on Esmond Street, someone called the police, which helped Moore put his theory to the test.
“When the policeman came out, we showed him the paperwork that had been filed with the recorder of deeds,” Moore said. “And when he looked at it, he said, ‘It looks like they have a valid claim here.’ ”
As far as Moore was concerned, the officer had validated his theory. And opened the door to a bigger project.
“Right there, that was the birth of it,” Moore said.
The effects of the foreclosure crisis were still raging, with lots of vacant houses, and lots of people without homes.
Moore said he saw big possibilities: “Could this develop into a business?. Not only a business that was profitable, but could also help a lot of people?”
He brought in a partner, whose legal name is David Farr, but who goes by Fahim Ali, Sekou Ali and most recently Javani Ali.
The two had tried an earlier venture together in 2009 involving an attempt to scam about $400,000 in classic cars, but that plan fizzled right away.
This one went on for years.
Before it was done, county records show, they laid claim to as many as 65 vacant homes.
They put people in them. In at least some cases, they made improvements.
And they collected fees. Moore didn’t call it rent.
“We never said that we charged them rent,” he said. “We charged them improvement fees.”
However, Moore confirmed that the payments were collected every month.
He didn’t name a figure, but 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea — whose ward includes Beverly and Morgan Park, where a number of these houses were — said it was $500 a month.
In August 2014, Moore’s partner filed a claim — under the name Fahim Ali — to a brick, three-bedroom house at 98th Street and Damen Avenue in the prosperous, tight-knit Beverly neighborhood.
According to O’Shea, a mother and daughter moved in.
Some people on the block figured out the new neighbors hadn’t acquired the house through normal channels and called O’Shea.
The alderman remembers going with the local police commander to take a look. At first glance, everything looked normal.
“There’s children’s gym shoes on the porch,” he said in a 2015 interview. “Like my house might be — like, if I came in from the park, and my daughter had mud on her gym shoes, you might leave them out on the porch.”
O’Shea said whoever took over the house had torn out overgrown bushes and planted flowers. They kept the grass cut. Later, when winter came, they shoveled the walk, the alderman said.
None of the maintenance appeased the neighbors. They wanted O’Shea to call in the law to get rid of the squatters.
As O’Shea drove through the neighborhood, he spotted one constituent who gave him an especially hard time.
“He wanted me to be able to — like on TV — the police come in, SWAT, and they evict?” O’Shea said. “I was like, ‘Doesn’t work that way.’ They would have been back the next day.”
O’Shea said he worked closely with the police department as they built a case that would stick. It took months. The FBI eventually got involved.
“We didn’t want misdemeanors,” O’Shea said. “We didn’t want slaps on the wrist, go on your way, do some community service. We wanted felony charges.”
By June 30, 2015, they had them.
Javani Ali recalled the morning they got busted. “BOOM! ‘Hey, search warrant!’” he said. “And they’re coming in the house.”
Before he knew it, police and FBI agents were in his bedroom.
“Guns loaded. Pointing them in my face, my children’s faces. When I came down, they still had guns pointed at children, as if they were criminals,” Ali said.
Moore said he believes the neighborhood was upset because they believe there was an invasion of squatters.
“But even squatters have rights,” he said.
Moore said he had no regrets.
“I believe the wisdom that is given to me is through prayer,” he said. “And it gives you courage to know that what you’re doing is right. And that’s where my boldness comes from.”
Moore and Ali have been representing themselves, based on their self-taught legal theories. They’ve filed a lot of motions — hand-written, from jail — without much success.
Over the next few weeks, both are scheduled to stand trial in Cook County. Opening statements in Ali’s trial are set for Monday. Moore’s trial is scheduled for Oct. 13th.
Dan Weissmann is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @danweissmann.