The gold-colored doorknob was a lifeless giveaway.
Rick Bernier observed it instantly on the morning of Sept. 11 when he pulled into the driveway of the yellow, four-bedroom rental home he manages within the 22000 block of Ladeene Avenue, a quiet neighborhood on Torrance’s west aspect.
The knob on the backdoor didn’t match the silver ones Bernier had put in on the opposite doorways. That was odd, Bernier thought. So he parked his SUV and warily went to verify issues out.
The home was purported to be vacant however, as Bernier peered by way of a kitchen window, he noticed one thing curious — a number of bins and a boogie board.
Later that day, Bernier returned to the home and had a Goldilocks second. He was surprised to seek out three obvious squatters dwelling there.
“It’s hard to comprehend how people could do that,” he stated.
Thus far, this story — replete with a mysterious intermediary, an unseen and probably nonexistent lease and one squatter’s suspicious declare of being a Navy SEAL — hasn’t had a fairy story ending.
Torrance police are unable to drive the trio depart as a result of the dispute is a civil matter, which suggests home-owner Cindy Oye-Marquez, 61, should provoke an arduous and costly eviction course of.
And there’s one other wrinkle.
The squatters could also be subletting rooms to different unsuspecting tenants. “I want a loving family to live in that home,” stated Oye-Marquez, who lives outdoors of California. “But I have scam artists.”
Eviction legal guidelines shield squatters
California’s complicated eviction legal guidelines are stacked towards landlords and in favor of tenants and even squatters, stated Rikka Fountain, a Palmdale actual property lawyer.
“Legislators don’t want to be perceived as kicking widows and orphans into the streets and making them homeless,” Fountain stated. “Evictions are portrayed as an abuse of the poor, rather than the result of tenants breaking their contracts by not paying their rent. So the issue is painted as fat-cat landlord versus the oppressed little guy.”
Landlords filed 306,537 eviction instances from 2014 by means of 2016 in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties, in line with a Might report by the San Francisco-based tenants rights group Tenants Collectively.
In Southern California, the typical eviction fee yearly was three.1 filings for each 100 renter households, in response to the Judicial Council of California. Statewide, the typical annual eviction fee was 2.eight filings per 100 renter households.
Each charges are low in contrast with different elements of the nation.
In California, squatters can declare authorized title to another person’s property by way of an arcane authorized process referred to as “adverse possession.”
The law, enacted in 1872, initially was meant for deserted rural properties that had gone fallow. In trendy occasions, it’s principally cited when there’s a dispute over property strains. Nevertheless, squatters can use it to realize possession of an empty home or vacant parcel by paying property taxes on time for 5 years and improving the property.
Most squatters, nevertheless, hand over or are uncovered earlier than finishing the hostile possession course of, stated Jason Burris, a Santa Ana actual property lawyer. “It’s so hard to get to that finish line and do it the right way,” he added.
Opportunistic squatters typically scour public data for foreclosures and different indicators that a property is distressed. “They check to see if people have passed away and didn’t pay their property taxes,” Burris added. “That’s when they strike.”
Moreover, quite a few web sites present ideas to assist would-be squatters keep away from detection.
Torrance home atypical goal
Oye-Marquez’s home, which rents for $four,000 a month and has been vacant since her final tenant moved out July 31, doesn’t look like a spot squatters would goal.
It’s well-maintained, situated in a thriving neighborhood and the property taxes are present.
However for now, the two-story dwelling is home to 3 individuals whom Oye-Marquez has by no means communicated with. Bernier has recognized them via passports and driver’s licenses as Sean Michael Cullen, 37, his 67-year-old mom, Loanda Cullen, and Elena Maria Diaz, 34.
Oye-Marquez had beforehand listed the Ladeene Avenue home for lease on Craigslist and Flats.com and believes that’s how the suspected squatters found it was vacant.
Occupant claims he paid lease
Sean Cullen claims he paid $7,000 to a person named Westin Kramer, whom he met by way of Craigslist, to cowl a safety deposit and the primary month’s lease, however has refused to offer a replica of the lease, Bernier stated.
It’s unclear if Kramer truly exists. Repeated calls from Oye-Marquez to Kramer’s telephone quantity, offered by Sean Cullen, have gone unanswered. A reporter for the Southern California News Group additionally phoned the quantity, however the name went to voicemail.
Throughout a quick interview on the home Friday, Loanda Cullen stated Kramer represented himself because the proprietor, although she by no means met him personally.
Kramer reportedly offered a key to the again door and was purported to ship the remaining keys on Sept 7, however did not return telephone calls. That was the final time they heard from him, Loanda Cullen stated, including they moved in Sept. 9
“He was just a genuine scam artist and unfortunately there are a lot of them around,” she stated.
Sean Cullen, who has facial piercings and quite a few tattoos, declined to remark, saying he was late for an appointment.
Making an attempt to do the correct factor
In the meantime, his mom stated they’re making an attempt to do the correct factor and pay the precise proprietor to lease the home.
“We’re waiting for an attorney to contact us,” Loanda Cullen stated. “I think we have to just start all over again and give her a fresh deposit. We just lost that money is all.”
In response to a Torrance Police Division report, officers went to Oye-Marquez’s home 3 times on Sept. 11 and informed the trio they must depart as a result of the lease was fraudulent. Nevertheless, Oye-Marquez allowed them to spend the night time as a result of that they had nowhere else to go, however stipulated they must transfer out the subsequent day.
Bernier stated when he returned to the home on the morning of Sept. 12 to vary the door locks, Loanda Cullen was adamant the $7,000 lease was legitimate, including she had a proper to be within the residence and that police can be unable to take away her from the property.
Oye-Marquez acknowledges it was an enormous mistake to permit them to spend the night time in her home. “I was scammed,” she added.
Since then, Oye-Marquez’s frustration has solely elevated. She has tried to influence the trio to fill out a rental software to allow them to legally stay in the home and has even provided to knock $500 off the lease for the primary two months.
“I’m disappointed that you were unable to keep your word on getting back to us in completing the applications,” she wrote in a textual content message to Loanda Cullen. “We have no other choice but to move forward with the eviction process.”
Loanda Cullen replied she has no intention of filling out an software. “I cannot do your paper requests and won’t,” she stated in a terse textual content message to Oye-Marquez. “I do not give out my financial information.”
In one other textual content, Sean Cullen complained that Oye-Marquez’s calls for have been interfering with his new profession as a Navy SEAL.
“You’ll be causing me to leave Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training which the first couple of months is overseas,” he informed her. “That’s just gonna be a big waste of time and money for you.”
There isn’t a document of Sean Cullen serving within the Navy, based on army officers. As well as, candidates for the SEAL program have to be 17 to 28 years previous, although waivers can be found for extremely certified candidates ages 29 and 30.
Squatters making an attempt to sublet rooms
Though the attainable squatters have balked at filling out a rental software, they’ve provided to assist Oye-Marquez by turning her home right into a boarding home.
“I cannot provide you with things I don’t have, but I can find people who can,” Sean Cullen wrote Oye-Marquez in a textual content message. “I’ve already found two, possibly three tenants with great credit and financials. That is the best I can do.”
In one other textual content message to Oye-Marquez, Loanda Cullen gushed she was making headway find roommates.
“Good news!” she stated. “I found an amazing house sharer — a dean at El Camino College, with his 9-year-old daughter. We got paid also, though not all the money yet so all my hard work is paying off!”
Oye-Marquez stated Sean Cullen hasn’t paid her a dime and “has an excuse for every little thing.” In the meantime, police concluded of their report the squatters have created an “elaborate ruse” to realize possession of Marquez’s home.
Authorized treatment pursued
A treatment to the property dispute could also be on the horizon.
Kevin Gordon, a Torrance lawyer employed by Oye-Marquez, has filed a forcible detainer in Los Angeles County Superior Courtroom towards the squatters, alleging they’re dwelling within the home with out permission.
“They have got to move out,” he stated, estimating it might take three months to evict them in the event that they struggle the detainer. “The law is pretty clear who the actual owner is.”
The worst-case state of affairs is that a squatter will get a free lawyer, both by way of authorized assist or on contingency, Fountain stated.
“That free attorney will demand depositions, written discovery, jury trial — all the expensive mechanisms of litigation,” she stated. “There are not any such assets for property house owners — they need to pay their attorneys, often between $300 and $400 an hour. So, it’s straightforward for the squatter to pressure them to waive a cash judgment and provides them tons of free time within the place in trade for ultimately leaving, as a result of it’s nonetheless far cheaper than paying for litigation.
“Many people think this sounds like extortion, but it’s legal.”
In the meantime, Oye-Marquez already is out no less than $12,000 because of misplaced lease and safety deposit alongside with different bills. Nevertheless, she would fairly have peace of thoughts than cash. “The most disturbing part is not having control of my own property and knowing that the law doesn’t protect property owners,” Oye-Marquez stated.
Employees Author David Rosenfeld contributed to this report.