“The gold-colored doorknob was a dead giveaway. Rick Bernier noticed it immediately on the morning of Sept. 11 when he pulled into the driveway of the yellow, four-bedroom rental home he manages in the 22000 block of Ladeene Avenue, a quiet neighborhood on Torrance’s west side.
The knob on the backdoor didn’t match the silver ones Bernier had installed on the other doors. That was odd, Bernier thought. So he parked his SUV and warily went to check things out.
The house was supposed to be vacant but, as Bernier peered through a kitchen window, he spotted something curious — several boxes and a boogie board.
Later that day, Bernier returned to the home and had a Goldilocks moment. He was stunned to find three apparent squatters living there.
“It’s hard to comprehend how people could do that,” he said.
So far, this tale — replete with a mysterious middleman, an unseen and possibly nonexistent lease and one squatter’s suspicious claim of being a Navy SEAL — hasn’t had a fairy tale ending.
Torrance police are unable to force the trio leave because the dispute is a civil matter, which means homeowner Cindy Oye-Marquez, 61, must initiate an arduous and expensive eviction process.
And there’s another wrinkle.
The squatters may be subletting rooms to other unsuspecting tenants. “I want a loving family to live in that home,” said Oye-Marquez, who lives outside of California. “But I have scam artists.”
Eviction laws protect squatters
California’s complex eviction laws are stacked against landlords and in favor of tenants and even squatters, said Rikka Fountain, a Palmdale real estate attorney.
“Legislators don’t want to be perceived as kicking widows and orphans into the streets and making them homeless,” Fountain said. “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 cases from 2014 through 2016 in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties, according to a May report by the San Francisco-based tenants rights group Tenants Together.
In Southern California, the average eviction rate annually was 3.1 filings for every 100 renter households, according to the Judicial Council of California. Statewide, the average annual eviction rate was 2.8 filings per 100 renter households.
Both rates are low compared with other parts of the country.
In California, squatters can claim legal title to someone else’s property through an arcane legal procedure known as “adverse possession.”
The law, enacted in 1872, originally was meant for abandoned rural properties that had gone fallow. In modern times, it’s mostly cited when there is a dispute over property lines. However, squatters can use it to gain possession of an empty home or vacant parcel by paying property taxes on time for five years and making improvements to the property.
Most squatters, however, give up or are exposed before completing the adverse possession process, said Jason Burris, a Santa Ana real estate attorney. “It’s so hard to get to that finish line and do it the right way,” he added.
Opportunistic squatters often scour public records for foreclosures and other signs 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.”
Additionally, numerous websites provide tips to help would-be squatters avoid detection.
Torrance home atypical target
Oye-Marquez’s home, which rents for $4,000 a month and has been vacant since her last tenant moved out July 31, doesn’t seem like a place squatters would target.
It’s well-maintained, located in a thriving neighborhood and the property taxes are current.
But for now, the two-story dwelling is home to three people whom Oye-Marquez has never communicated with. Bernier has identified them through passports and driver’s licenses as Sean Michael Cullen, 37, his 67-year-old mother, Loanda Cullen, and Elena Maria Diaz, 34.
Oye-Marquez had previously listed the Ladeene Avenue home for rent on Craigslist and Apartments.com and believes that’s how the suspected squatters discovered it was vacant.
Occupant claims he paid rent
Sean Cullen claims he paid $7,000 to a man named Westin Kramer, whom he met through Craigslist, to cover a security deposit and the first month’s rent, but has refused to provide a copy of the lease, Bernier said.
It’s unclear if Kramer actually exists. Repeated calls from Oye-Marquez to Kramer’s phone number, provided by Sean Cullen, have gone unanswered. A reporter for the Southern California News Group also phoned the number, but the call went to voicemail.
During a brief interview at the home Friday, Loanda Cullen said Kramer represented himself as the owner, though she never met him personally.
Kramer reportedly provided a key to the back door and was supposed to deliver the remaining keys on Sept 7, but failed to return phone calls. That was the last time they heard from him, Loanda Cullen said, adding they moved in Sept. 9
“He was just a genuine scam artist and unfortunately there are a lot of them around,” she said.
Sean Cullen, who has facial piercings and numerous tattoos, declined to comment, saying he was late for an appointment.
Trying to do the right thing
Meanwhile, his mother said they are trying to do the right thing and pay the actual owner to rent the home.
“We’re waiting for an attorney to contact us,” Loanda Cullen said. “I think we have to just start all over again and give her a fresh deposit. We just lost that money is all.”
According to a Torrance Police Department report, officers went to Oye-Marquez’s home three times on Sept. 11 and told the trio they would have to leave because the lease was fraudulent. However, Oye-Marquez allowed them to spend the night because they had nowhere else to go, but stipulated they would have to move out the next day.
Bernier said when he returned to the home on the morning of Sept. 12 to change the door locks, Loanda Cullen was adamant the $7,000 lease was valid, adding she had a right to be in the residence and that police would be unable to remove her from the property.
Oye-Marquez acknowledges it was a big mistake to allow them to spend the night in her home. “I was scammed,” she added.
Since then, Oye-Marquez’s frustration has only increased. She has tried to persuade the trio to fill out a rental application so they can legally remain in the house and has even offered to knock $500 off the rent for the first 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 text 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 application. “I cannot do your paper requests and won’t,” she said in a terse text message to Oye-Marquez. “I do not give out my financial information.”
In another text, Sean Cullen complained that Oye-Marquez’s demands were interfering with his new career 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 told her. “That’s just gonna be a big waste of time and money for you.”
There is no record of Sean Cullen serving in the Navy, according to military officials. In addition, applicants for the SEAL program must be 17 to 28 years old, though waivers are available for highly qualified candidates ages 29 and 30.
Squatters trying to sublet rooms
Although the possible squatters have balked at filling out a rental application, they have offered to help Oye-Marquez by turning her home into a boarding house.
“I cannot provide you with things I don’t have, but I can find people who can,” Sean Cullen wrote Oye-Marquez in a text message. “I’ve already found two, possibly three tenants with great credit and financials. That is the best I can do.”
In another text message to Oye-Marquez, Loanda Cullen gushed she was making headway in finding roommates.
“Good news!” she said. “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 said Sean Cullen hasn’t paid her a dime and “has an excuse for every little thing.” Meanwhile, police concluded in their report the squatters have created an “elaborate ruse” to gain possession of Marquez’s home.
Legal remedy pursued
A remedy to the property dispute may be on the horizon.
Kevin Gordon, a Torrance attorney hired by Oye-Marquez, has filed a forcible detainer in Los Angeles County Superior Court against the squatters, alleging they’re living in the home without permission.
“They have got to move out,” he said, estimating it could take three months to evict them if they fight the detainer. “The law is pretty clear who the actual owner is.”
The worst-case scenario is that a squatter gets a free attorney, either through legal aid or on contingency, Fountain said.
“That free attorney will demand depositions, written discovery, jury trial — all the expensive mechanisms of litigation,” she said. “There are no such resources for property owners — they have to pay their attorneys, usually between $300 and $400 an hour. So, it’s easy for the squatter to force them to waive a money judgment and give them lots of free time in the place in exchange for eventually leaving, because it’s still far cheaper than paying for litigation.”