FORT WORTH, Texas – While county officials were asleep at the wheel, Tarrant County became a magnet this year for an odd assortment of squatters claiming other people’s houses all over the area.

The cast of characters includes a homeowner who scooped up a dead neighbor’s house; a woman who came to Fort Worth from Memphis to lay claim to a $2.7 million mansion; people who cited Bible verses as legal justification for taking properties; and career criminals who grabbed homes to lease to tenants.

All told, county records show that squatters and their associates claimed more than $8 million worth of properties, from Grand Prairie, Mansfield and Arlington to Fort Worth, Haslet and Keller, according to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram examination of county documents. Some of the squatters’ elaborate schemes have stumped law enforcement officials. One Tarrant constable has even asked the Texas attorney general’s office for help in straightening out the mess.

“Everybody is just trying to learn what in the world is going on,” said Mansfield Constable Clint Burgess. “It’s the craziest thing how anyone could be so brazen to just break into a home and start living in it.”

The schemes are hard to unravel because of a loophole in a state law that allows people to suddenly claim supposedly abandoned sections of property if no owner is on the spot to challenge such a claim. The law’s intent was to help ranchers and others who had tended vacant land for years so they could eventually gain legal ownership of the property. That’s done by filing a document called an adverse possession affidavit with the county clerk.

But the law doesn’t distinguish between a claim on a $27 section of sod and one on a $2.7 million mansion with an elevator, three master bedrooms, a five-car garage and a pond with fish in the backyard. File the proper paperwork, pay a $16 filing fee, keep up with the property taxes and live in the house three years or more and even the courts may not be able to evict you.

Properties vulnerable to squatters include those whose owners died. Other properties belong to people absent from their homes because of work or illness. They can return to find their houses trashed, their belongings gone and their privacy violated — all while the neighbors watched in shock.

“This is the worst thing that I’ve been through,” said Joe Bruner, a certified public accountant in Arlington whose neighbor’s home was seized by two squatters in October. “It’s not healthy for anybody, for the neighborhood, for the county. It’s just not healthy for humanity.

“You don’t come in and steal somebody’s home.”

Squatters moved into his neighbor’s furnished $405,000 house in late October. Bruner and another neighbor told the Star-Telegram that squatters had pushed a commercial Dumpster into the driveway and filled it with the home’s belongings.

Police records report that tens of thousands of dollars in valuables were removed, including a $10,000 stamp collection, the electric wheelchair of the homeowner’s elderly mother, bottles of Chanel perfume, Judith Leiber crystal purses and a hand-carved ivory armoire.

At the time, the homeowner was in Houston undergoing chemotherapy.

Other Tarrant homes have become spoils of the housing crisis — foreclosed properties whose ownership is difficult to track. Some banks that service loans after foreclosure don’t make sure the properties are secure.

Some financial institutions contacted by the Star-Telegram were not aware that squatters had claimed homes for which they were servicing the loans.

That was the case with the Fort Worth mansion seized over the summer by a 28-year-old former Tennessee insurance agent. The home — among Tarrant County’s priciest dwellings — had been vacant for about two years, neighbors said.

Neighbors said it was foreclosed on in January and a Sotheby’s Realtor had been trying to sell it. But in August, Samantha Carter showed up and tried to claim the property. She called police and told them they had no authority to tell her to leave because she had adverse possession.

Later that month, Carter pulled the “for sale” signs from the ground and busted the chain from the mammoth gates that lead to the property’s three-acre gardens, neighbors said. Police were called and she was apprehended, along with a man who had a set of chain cutters, according to the police report.

“These people are romanticizing the idea that they could get a house for nothing,” said retired physician Ben Termini, who called the police on the pair. “It’s morally and legally wrong.”

The foreclosure was serviced by Chase Bank, but spokesman Thomas Kelly said it doesn’t have the power to evict squatters. The owner, Bank of America, does. It has had to stop marketing the house until it can get Carter’s affidavit dismissed, Kelly said.

A good share of the blame, some angry neighbors and homeowners say, should go to the Tarrant County clerk’s office for not policing the process and, instead, apparently accepting adverse possession affidavits from anyone who wanted to file one. Some of the affidavits are filled with legal mumbo jumbo; in some cases, people filed affidavits on more than one house, claiming that they were domiciled in each; in other cases, squatters copyrighted their own names. The Tarrant office also accepted affidavits on properties in Dallas County.

Legitimate or not, the affidavits create a real estate nightmare, muddying up the title of homes and making them impossible to sell.

“The county clerk’s office should have standards and procedures in place (for a squatter) to prove that the house is abandoned and that you can pay taxes and will be maintaining the property,” Termini said.

“They should make people prove the property is meeting the standard for adverse possession.”

Red flags like copyright names and biblical verses would stop the Denton County clerk’s office in its tracks, said County Clerk Cynthia Mitchell. Though she can’t “police” the filings, she said, her office has requested legal reviews when it has received affidavits with such red flags.

“The (clerks) that record these documents every day are very experienced in filing real estate documents,” Mitchell said. “It’s easy for them to spot something that looks way out of the ordinary.”

When news about squatters became public, the Tarrant County clerk’s office said it had a duty to accept the affidavits, not take a “legal dive” into the situation.

Now it says the office acted swiftly to ask for legal advice and stop any threats of fraud.

With thousands of documents being filed, it’s virtually impossible to flag affidavits that could be fraudulent, Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Garcia said. “But as soon as these bad actors came to our attention, we did do our due diligence,” she said.

However, records show that the affidavits began streaming into the office in June and continued until Nov. 7, when Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon advised Garcia that the affidavits were likely illegal. He stepped in after news reports of a high-profile squatter case.

Garcia said her office has followed up by sending notices to property owners about adverse possession affidavits filed on their property.

“We, in the Tarrant County office, researched and reached out to these property owners,” she said.