ELGIN, Texas (KXAN) – Frank Vickers was sitting on his couch watching "Jeopardy!" when he heard a knock at the door one evening in late September. Before he could stand up, a Bastrop County Sheriff’s deputy was standing in his living room.
Vickers said the deputy told him to gather his belongings and get out of the house. The property was sold to a new owner.
Vickers was stunned. He had been renting the home from a friend for 19 years.
“Nothing adds up here,” Vickers said. “I’m an innocent victim sitting in my underwear watching TV when a police officer rips down a curtain over my backdoor — no warning whatsoever, no paperwork, nothing.”
Vickers was stunned again the next morning when he got a voicemail about the property from one of the most powerful elected officials in the county.
At that point, Vickers had no idea the voicemail and home seizure would lead him and his landlord to file a lawsuit alleging the property was taken illegally and a Bastrop County Commissioner had abused his power to benefit his daughter.
'Make it easy on both of us'
Before Sept. 21, Vickers said he’d never heard of Bastrop County Commissioner Gary "Bubba" Snowden. But, one day after the deputy visited Vickers in his home, Snowden called him.
“Frank Vickers, this is Bubba Snowden the county commissioner. I’d like to talk to you about this 418 Taylor Road,” Snowden said in voicemail KXAN obtained. “Called several times, been over there several times, bringing a sign over there today to notify you. So, give me a call and talk to me. Make it easy on both of us. Thank you.”
Vickers said there was no court order or documentation of the eviction, but he was alarmed. He packed up his belongings and drove 100 miles away to his mother’s home.
“I left out of an abundance of caution and because I was intimidated by law enforcement and county officials. And, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know any different,” Vickers said.
Snowden had a sign planted in front of Vickers’ Elgin home, warning him to stay off the property and that it was under new ownership. The sign listed the new owner as “Ortiz.”
Ortiz turned out to be Tracy Ortiz, commissioner Snowden’s daughter. The home had been sold in an auction on the courthouse steps.
How did this happen? Vickers and his landlord, Francine Lankford, started asking Bastrop County.
“There’s no lien, no unpaid taxes," Vickers said. "There is no reason whatsoever to foreclose on this property, and there is definitely nothing for a law enforcement officer to come to my home — break into my home — and order me out of my home.”
Lankford said she was never notified of any judgment before losing the home.
KXAN accompanied Vickers as he visited numerous Bastrop County offices searching for records that would show why he was kicked out and the home was sold.
Between Sept. 21 and Oct. 1, we contacted the Bastrop County Central Appraisal District, Bastrop County Justice of the Peace, Bastrop County Clerk’s Office and the Bastrop County Tax Assessor-Collector looking for evidence Snowden’s daughter bought the property. None of those offices found any records showing a property sale for the property located at 418 Taylor Road.
Then, on Oct. 2 — the day after we visited those offices — a sheriff’s deed was filed in the Bastrop County Clerk’s Office. The deed showed Bastrop County Constable Precinct 4 Salvador Abreo auctioned off the Taylor Road home on Sept. 4.
The deed showed Ortiz purchased the property for $20,000.
'Fraudulent' court record
With the records raising more questions than answers, Vickers and his landlord met with Austin real estate attorney Bill Gammon.
Vickers, at that point, was still out of the home. Vickers' landlord, Francine Lankford, had been living two hours away with her elderly mother in the months leading up to Vickers' eviction.
Gammon took the case that day and started investigating.
"I've been doing this for 30 years and I approach every case with a healthy degree of skepticism. But I will be candid with you and tell you that this one stretched the limits of my credulity," Gammon said.
Gammon found Lankford had a $20,000 home equity loan on the property, which meant there was an existing lien on the property when Abreo auctioned it off in September. Gammon also found a homestead exemption inside the loan records.
That homestead exemption meant the property couldn’t be auctioned off, Gammon said.
The sheriff’s deed filed on Oct. 1 showed the auction was the result of a civil case in another county between Lankford and Pacheco’s Fencing Company. That case ended in a $6,325 judgment against Lankford for work done on a property she owns in Lee County, which borders Bastrop County on the northeast.
The judgment states that Lankford and her attorney failed to answer the Pacheco lawsuit, and Lankford lost the case.
Lankford said her attorney never told her she needed to file an answer.
County records show Lankford’s attorney in that case was Rosanna Abreo, the wife of Bastrop County Constable Salvador Abreo.
Rosanna Abreo defended Lankford in the Pacheco Fencing case in 2017, when it was filed in Bastrop County. That Bastrop case was dismissed. Pacheco Fencing later refiled it in Lee County court, which rendered a default judgment against Lankford.
Rosanna Abreo is married to Salvador Abreo, the constable that oversaw the foreclosure and auctioning of Lankford's property. Salvador Abreo was appointed to the constable post after the previous constable resigned, and Snowden was one of the officials on the selection committee that helped appoint him, according to media reports.
In a written statement to KXAN, Rosanna Abreo said Lankford wrote and filed an answer herself, without an attorney, in the Lee County case. However, the Lee County Clerk said no such answer existed. You can read Rosanna Abreo's full statement here.
Before Abreo could obtain a sheriff’s deed on the property, the law requires him to have served Lankford with a document known as a writ of execution. The writ serves as formal notice to a person that the government is taking property to sell to pay toward a debt.
We obtained those documents from the Lee County Clerk’s Office. But, our investigation found major discrepancies in the dates on the documents. In the writ of execution Constable Abreo used to auction Lankford’s property off, Abreo wrote he received it on Feb. 20 — more than two months before the document was even created.
"If you read it on its face, it's fraudulent,” Gammon said.
As soon as Lankford found out about the judgment stemming from our investigation, she took the writ of execution to Lee County Sheriff Rodney Meyer on Sept. 24 to pay the $6,325 debt to the fence company. Meyer wouldn’t accept the money, Lankford said, because “something wasn’t right about the dates” on the document. KXAN spoke with Meyer, and he repeated that he was suspicious of the dates.
Gammon took the document before Lee County District Court Judge Carson Campbell. In a hearing on Nov. 13, Campbell signed an order, calling the writ of execution used to take Lankford and Vickers’ home “fraudulent.”
Gammon said that ruling could be critical for Lankford and Vickers, if they hoped to get the house back.
LAWSUIT: Snowden, sheriff’s deputy ‘relied on intimidation’
Lankford and Vickers are suing Snowden’s daughter, Tracy Ortiz. The lawsuit is trying to have the sheriff’s deed — used to take the property — thrown out. The pair is also asking for damages and attorney’s fees to be paid for illegally evicting Vickers.
We went with Vickers on Oct. 1 to the office of Justice of the Peace Precinct 4 in Elgin to find out if Snowden, Ortiz or Constable Abreo ever filed an eviction notice to remove Vickers from the home. The clerk handling evictions said she did not have a record of one for his address.
Ortiz “did not take any of the legally required steps to evict,” according to the lawsuit, “and instead relied on intimidation, supplied by County Commissioner Gary Snowden … and Bastrop County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Joey Dzienowski, a friend of Defendant’s father, to invade Plaintiff Lankford’s homestead and terrify Plaintiff Frank Vickers into vacating.”
Bastrop County dispatch records show Deputy Dzienowski, who entered Vickers’ home in September, was not dispatched to the home by the county’s 911 center. Instead, Ortiz told KXAN she called the deputy and asked him to go there.
The dispatch report showed “assist complainant” as the reason for his visit, which lasted 37 minutes. Dzienowski did not file a report detailing who called him, what happened during the visit or why law enforcement was needed there in the first place.
During his visit, Dzienowski called in Vickers’ driver’s license number and date of birth for a warrant check, according to a recording KXAN obtained. The county deleted sections of the recordings it claimed contained personal information before providing them through an open records request.
Dzienowski and Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook did not return requests for comment.
“We didn’t do anything illegal,” Ortiz told KXAN by phone. “It’s my house. I own it.”
KXAN also contacted Ortiz by email for comment on the lawsuit. Ortiz did not provide a statement to be included. In her legal answer to Lankford and Vickers’ lawsuit, Ortiz denied every allegation against her in the lawsuit and demanded proof.
Salvador Abreo would not agree to an interview for this investigation. By phone Salvador Abreo said, “everything that was done was done above board.”
Salvador Abreo said he sent Lankford all the necessary paperwork, but she didn’t pick up her mail, respond or fix the problem.
“If she didn’t respond to any of the mail, I can’t do anything about that,” Salvador Abreo said by phone. “And it’s already too late for her to be raising all these questions. She should have taken care of her business beforehand.”
"This is the very thing we left England to get away from."
Gammon, however, said he’s been surprised by the number of inconsistencies and missteps in the case.
"I don't understand how it is that so many people can get so many things wrong in one case, but they've done it here,” Gammon said. "I think that the person who allegedly bought the property had inside connections that she is using in order to gain unfair advantage and game the system."
"This is the very thing we left England to get away from," Gammon added.
'That's not your house'
Vickers pursuit for answers ultimately led him to confront Snowden at an October meeting at the county courthouse.
“I was wondering if I could talk to you for one second, please,” Vickers asked Snowden at the public meeting. “I was going to ask you about that sign I have out there in front of my house at 418 Taylor Road.”
“Your house? That’s not your house,” Snowden responded.
Vickers showed Snowden the title search performed weeks after the Sept. 4 auction, which showed no evidence of a sheriff’s sale or any other transfer of ownership on the property.
“It was bought by Tracy Ortiz,” Snowden told him.
Vickers threatened to take the sign down and move back into the home.
“No, you’re not going to go get that sign, I promise you,” Snowden told Vickers.
Snowden declined an on-camera interview but agreed to speak with KXAN at his office with audio recording.
Snowden said he saw Lankford’s house was coming up for auction, “and I told my daughter about it and she bought it,” he told KXAN. “She paid $20,000 for it.”
Snowden initially denied calling Vickers on Sept. 21 and leaving that voicemail telling Vickers he was “bringing a sign over there.” During the interview, Snowden reversed his story on the call.
“I might have called him one time, but I don’t remember what the conversation was about,” Snowden said.
Snowden also admitted he got interested in the Taylor Road property because he thought it might make a good rental property.
During the interview, as he discussed costs to repair the home, Snowden indicated he might have plans to end up owning it himself.
“Go over and look at how he [Vickers] lives and you can tell how he is. Trash thrown from one end of that place to the other. It will be a major deal," Snowden said. "Whoever buys that house, if I don’t wind up with it, is going to spend $30,000 to $50,000 just to get that house back livable."
KXAN asked Snowden how he could wind up with the home if his daughter bought it for herself.
“If I was to buy it from my daughter, I guess. My daughter is going to rent it. She’s going to use it as a piece of rental property,” Snowden explained. “I shouldn’t have used that word.”
The lawsuit against Ortiz is still pending in Bastrop County's civil court. Dates for hearings have not been set. The latest filing in the case shows Ortiz has not hired an attorney and is representing herself in the case.