A disgraced police officer has become the first female member of the force to be jailed in Victoria after she was caught using obscure laws to effectively steal houses to boost her bogus property portfolio.
Rosa Rossi, 57, was sentenced to four years and six months in jail over the elaborate scam, which she orchestrated using manuals she found on the internet.
As part of the ruse, Rossi would pick out empty homes and claim them under the laws of adverse possession, a legal principle which is sometimes described as squatters’ rights.
She would then change the locks and take control of the properties.
On Wednesday, Victoria’s County Court heard that Rossi, a former Victoria Police sergeant, had been suicidal since being charged and held serious fears for her safety in prison.
Judge Martine Marich said her behaviour challenged the “very heart of property ownership”.
“This is grave offending aggravated by your status as a serving, sworn and senior police officer,” the judge said.
“Your conduct involved planning and foresight.
“These were the owner’s private properties. They were worth significant sums. You violated the sanctity of those properties with your brazen acts.”
Judge Marich said Rossi “cloaked” her criminal conduct under the guise of legitimacy, which ultimately destroyed her distinguished policing career.
“Your fall from grace has been dramatic, profound, public and gravely embarrassing to you,” she said.
Between 2016 and 2017, Rossi claimed six vacant properties – three in the rural town of Willaura, near Ararat, and three in Melbourne – which together were conservatively valued at more than $2.6 million.
Scam targeted owners who were interstate or overseas
Her scam often followed a loose but distinctive pattern. The 57-year-old would find a home that had been empty for some time and change the locks on the property, never explicitly telling the locksmith that she was not the owner.
She would then contact the local council and submit a change of address form, redirecting any correspondence for the real owner to herself and at times even posing as them.
Her scam would target homeowners who were interstate or out of the country, including a woman who had moved to Queensland to take care of her sick son, and a man living in South Africa who inherited a house after his father died.
She rented out two of the properties – in Chadstone in Melbourne’s south-east, and Brooklyn in Melbourne’s west – earning about $13,000 in rent.
On two other occasions, neighbours became suspicious and contacted the owners. One returned to find new deadlocks on the doors and their possessions missing.
Rossi visited council in uniform to demand homeowner’s name
Over time, Rossi’s scam became more brazen. In 2017, Rossi went to Hobsons Bay City Council wearing her police uniform and demanded the name of someone who owned a house in Brooklyn.
Court documents reveal that when a council officer told her that the information would be emailed, she said she was already in the local area and asked for it to be given to her on the spot.
She then contacted the owner, who was working in Macau, and claimed that she had been called to the house in her role as a police officer because there had been reports of squatters.
Rossi then brazenly told the man that she had secured the house and was maintaining it for him.
The disgraced sergeant pleaded guilty to obtaining property by deception and perjury offences, after an Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission investigation.
The court heard that Rossi, a devout Catholic, had a turbulent and abusive childhood where she was beaten and forced to eat rotten meat.
“You have lived a life characterised by endemic feelings of powerlessness, shame and fear,” Judge Marich said.
She said Rossi had been experiencing a “mood disturbance” when she committed her crimes.
The court received several references vouching for Rossi’s character, including from a priest and former Victoria Police inspector David Manly, who himself was convicted of perjury as a result of the same IBAC investigation.
Rossi will have to serve two years and four months before she is eligible for parole.