A Victorian police officer claimed squatters’ rights on at least five properties to expand her investment portfolio and used her position and police uniform to help in the scam, a Melbourne court has heard.
Rosa Catherine Rossi, 57, has pleaded guilty to nine charges including five counts of obtaining property by deception, unlawfully accessing police records and perjury.
Prosecutors told the County Court of Victoria she identified vacant or neglected properties in Melbourne and country Victoria, had the locks changed and then contacted councils and utility companies to transfer documents into her name.
Prosecutor Peter Pickering told the court Rossi had researched the legalities of “adverse possession” — otherwise known as squatters’ rights — where if a person acts as if the property is theirs for 15 years it becomes theirs.
“It is an oblique area of the law, hardly known, hardly traversed,” Mr Pickering told the court.
“Ms Rossi was using dishonest means in what she saw was a legitimate end.”
The charges relate to her activities between April 2016 to June 2017, where she targeted six properties.
Three were in the Melbourne suburbs of Chadstone, Brooklyn and Malvern and the others were in the town of Willaura, south of Ararat.
The court heard her offending started out small and involved inexpensive properties in Willaura worth $50,000 and $108,500.
But then she targeted properties that were worth considerably more, including a Malvern house worth almost $1 million.
Judge Martine Marich noted there was a “significant escalation of the value of the properties and the level of energy and vigour [Rossi] pursued”.
Ms Rossi lied to tenants and councils
The court heard Ms Rossi did property searches to find out who owned the properties.
She set up a company called Sweet Georgia Pty Ltd, which was used to advertise for tenants, and engaged a property management company.
The court heard police were called to one of the properties after neighbours reported suspicious activity.
Ms Rossi told the officers not to worry because she was a police sergeant.
“It shows a certain ruthlessness that when confronted by police this was the kind of ruthlessness she was prepared to use,” Mr Pickering told the court.
On one occasion Ms Rossi unlawfully accessed the police LEAP database to get a property owner’s details.
The court was told Ms Rossi falsely filled out statutory declarations claiming she acted for the real owners in changing addresses with water and power companies and local councils.
On one occasion she visited the Hobson’s Bay Council dressed in her police uniform, seeking details of a property owner.
She also went to Australia Post to seek mail redirections, so the real owners would not twig to the scam.
Ms Rossi told one of her tenants to lie to Centrelink about her living arrangements with her partner, in order to pay Ms Rossi rent on one of the scammed properties.
Tenants in the Chadstone property were told the original owners of the house they rented had been deported from the country and the assets seized.
Victims says private property ‘invaded’
In a victim impact statement, property owner Christopher Habel spoke of a phone call in the middle of the night from his neighbours in Willaura.
He was living in South Africa and had inherited the house from his father.
“I was anxious and worried when there was a strange car and people at my property,” he said in a statement read to the court.
The court heard he spoke to Ms Rossi, “who came across as charming … and apologetic” and offered to buy the house.
But after months of communication between lawyers on different continents the deal fell through when a deposit cheque bounced.
Mr Habel said Ms Rossi had “invaded my private property and had access to my personal possessions”.
“She did not have the right to do that,” he said
“Because she was a sergeant of police … I thought her word would be good.”
Ms Rossi’s defence lawyers said she was suffering depression and had a maladaptive personality disorder at the time.
They will expand on their case at hearing in June.