35-year-old Sarasota man charged with forging leases for homes whose owners had died

County Public Utilities Department staff alerts Sheriff’s Office to incidents

The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office has charged a 35-year-old Sarasota resident with forging three leases after the owners of the property had died.

Christopher Lenard Steen of 5303 Honore Avenue was arrested on Jan. 19 following Economic Crime Unit detectives’ investigation of utility bills involving those residences, a Sheriff’s Office news release explains. At least one tenant paid Steen $2,400 in rent, believing him to own the property, the news release adds.

Steen also has been charged with one felony count of Marijuana Possession with Intent to Sell, the release notes.

He initially was confined to the Sarasota County Jail with bond totaling $60,000 on the forgery counts and $5,000 on the marijuana charge, the Sheriff’s Office’s Corrections Division record for him shows. He was released on bond on Jan. 22, the record says, having worked with After Hours Bail Bonds in Sarasota.

Steen’s arraignment is scheduled for March 3.

The Probable Cause Affidavit in the forgery cases explains that, on Dec. 15, 2022, Stewart Newton, manager of the Sarasota County Public Utilities Department, called the Sheriff’s Office to report suspected fraud. Newton said that department personnel had identified fraud at the dwellings located at 2121 Shawnee Road, 3101 Bispham Road and 4878 Northwood Ave. in Sarasota County.

After county staff members conducted their research into the situation, Newton told Sheriff’s Office personnel, they learned that each of those properties was in foreclosure, and each had belonged to a different owner who had died in 2021.

However, Newton continued, attempts had been made to have the utilities turned on at those addresses. Typically, he told Sheriff’s Office investigators, the Public Utilities staff requests a copy of a lease before turning on water and sewer access to a dwelling. “Newton’s personnel discovered the leases submitted were fraudulent since the owners were deceased and unable to sign, or a business name was used by the landlord, who had no authority over the property,” the affidavit explains.

On Nov. 6, 2022, when a woman named Michelle Ortiz applied to the Utilities staff for service at 2121 Shawnee Road, the affidavit says, she provided the staff with a copy of the lease, which was signed by the property owner, Victoria M. Bird, and by Ortiz as a tenant. The date on the lease was Oct. 26, 2022, the affidavit notes.

County staff learned that Bird died in 2021, the affidavit adds.

Then, on Nov. 28, 2022, the affidavit continues, Ortiz requested water and sewer service at 4878 Northwood Road, providing county staff a copy of a lease showing Christopher Steen as the landlord. That lease also was signed on Oct. 26, 2022, the affidavit adds.

On Jan. 12, the affidavit continues, a detective conducted a sworn audio statement with Ortiz at 4875 Northwood Ave. She told the detective that an acquaintance, Steen, had informed her that he had several properties that he was trying to rent. He added that he “could get her a good deal on a property and would be willing to lease it.”

The affidavit says Steen showed the house at 2121 Shawnee Road to Ortiz “and provided her with a lease agreement already signed by ‘Victoria M. Bird,’ ” which Ortiz believed to be authentic. Therefore, the affidavit adds, she signed as a lessee of the property.

After county staff denied Ortiz the activation of utilities at 2121 Shawnee Road, the affidavit continues, she informed Steen, who then offered her the Northwood Avenue property. Ortiz told the detective she met with Steen at the time he signed the lease, and then she signed below his name as the lessee.

However, the affidavit notes, “Ortiz became aware the property was in foreclosure when a bank employee conducted a property check. Following her interaction with the bank employee,” the affidavit says, she researched the situation and found that the homeowner was deceased.

Ortiz also told the detective that she had paid Steen $2,400 in rent since she had been living at the Northwood Avenue address.

Additionally, she showed the detective Steen’s Facebook page, the affidavit continues, which included an image of Steen that the detective found to be a match with Steen’s Florida driver’s license photo.

In regard to the Bispham Road property: The affidavit explains that county Utilities staff researched Steen and learned that he had had water and sewer connections turned on there. He had provided a copy of a lease to county staff, showing that the tenants were Married to the Game Production LLC and Steen himself, the affidavit says. Detectives subsequently learned that Steen is the registered agent  of Married to the Game Production, the affidavit notes.

A Sarasota News Leader check of Florida Division of Corporations records found that Steen originally established the limited liability company in October 2017.

However, detectives also learned from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office that the Bispham Road residence was owned by Joshua Haley, who died in 2021.

When the Utilities staff recorded a call with Steen about his owing the county $889.22, the affidavit adds, Steen confirmed that he had had the utilities connected at the address.

The detective wrote in the affidavit narrative that he spoke with a person at the law firm handling Haley’s estate and learned that the firm had not authorized any lease of the property. Then the detective drove by the home and found a black Ford Mustang parked in the driveway; it was registered to Steen.

As for the marijuana charge: When Steen was taken into custody on Jan. 19, during a traffic stop involving an arrest warrant related to the alleged forgery cases, an inventory of the vehicle prior to its towing “revealed a backpack on the passenger floorboard,” which was found to contain “four large bags of marijuana and a scale,” that Probable Cause Affidavit notes. The marijuana weighed 1.804 pounds, the affidavit adds.

The arrest occurred on Mayflower Street in Sarasota, the affidavit says. That street is several blocks south of Clark Road; it intersects with South Lockwood Ridge Road, a map shows.

Prior criminal incidents

A News Leader search of records maintained by the Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller’s Office found multiple cases involving Steen, dating to June 2002. A number of them were related to traffic offenses. For example, he was charged twice in 2004 for driving without a license.

Then, in April 2006, he was charged with Battery on a School Board Employee, Battery, and Resisting Arrest with Violence.

In that incident, a Sheriff’s Office detective assigned to Sarasota High School as a school resource officer was advised by a security monitor that a physical altercation might be occurring in the west courtyard of the school, that affidavit says.

When the detective arrived on the scene, the affidavit explains, he saw Steen and several other black males “engaged in a fight.” The security monitor was attempting to separate Steen from the others, the affidavit adds.

Steen “was shouting unknown statements at the other subjects,” attempting to continue the altercation, the affidavit says.

The detective ended up picking up Steen, who was on the ground, and carrying him to a nearby golf cart. As the detective was advising him to calm down, the affidavit continues, “he began to stand up in the cart and shout profanity laced statements at the other subjects. Several of the other subjects were being dealt with by other security monitors when [Steen] started screaming even louder profanity laced statements.”

Even though the detective kept trying to get Steen to calm down, the affidavit adds, Steen refused and continued to scream, using profanity. When the detective placed a hand close to Steen’s mouth “in an attempt to lessen the volume of his voice,” Steen slapped the detective’s arm and said, “’I don’t give a f*** who you are white cracker *itch.”

The detective at that point ordered Steen to place his hands behind his back, but Steen responded that he did not have to listen to the detective, the affidavit continues. The detective then grabbed Steen by his right arm, “at which time [Steen] attempted to get off the golf cart and resist [the] arrest attempts,” the affidavit says.

Finally, the affidavit adds, the detective was able to get Steen into handcuffs.

The security monitor who initially contacted the detective told the detective that Steen had struck another student during the fight and that when she tried to break up the altercation, Steen intentionally struck her in the chest “in an attempt to get her out of his way so he could continue the physical altercation …”

On May 12, 2006, the State Attorney’s Office for the 12th Judicial District filed a form with the court, saying it was declining to pursue prosecution on the count involving battery on a School Board employee and that it was refiling the other two charges as misdemeanors. The paperwork involving those other two offenses was to be transferred to County Court, the form added.

Steen also has been charged in several prior cases for possession of marijuana and other controlled substances, with intent to sell, court records show.

Additionally, in June 2007, Steen was charged with Robbery with a Firearm following a dispute over money paid for gasoline while he was with another person who had asked Steen to drive him to Venice to pick up the other person’s girlfriend.

Steen pulled out a handgun at one point and ordered the other person to get out of the car and to give Steen all of his cash, that affidavit explains. Steen had become upset, the other person told Sheriff’s Office personnel, because it was taking too long to find the girlfriend and the trip was using up too much gas.

On Aug. 20, 2007, an assistant state attorney filed a form with the court in that case, declining to pursue prosecution.