By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
*Read R. Scott Moxley's update to this story here.*
It takes Christopher Wayne Duncan seven minutes to answer the doorbell, walking out onto the second-floor balcony of the Mediterranean-style home at 10 Hidden Pass in Newport Coast. He looks disheveled this Sunday morning, as though he hasn’t slept for days; his wife, Robin Ann Duncan, similarly tired-looking, also emerges.
I’ve heard the pair has a tendency to greet visitors while holding a camcorder and barking angry statements about trespassers. But Christopher is merely curious; he asks me what I want. I identify myself and tell them I’ve heard that they are having a hard time.
Robin bursts into tears and declares, “They won’t let us leave!”
Christopher adds, “It’s crazy. We have been trapped now for five days. We don’t have any food. This is nuts. I’d love to talk to you, but can you come back in 30 minutes, after we shower?”
I ask them if I could bring them back food. A misty-eyed Robin says, “Yes.” I’m expecting a burger-and-fries order when she says, “We need cat food. They like Fancy Feast brand, turkey and chicken flavor.”
When I return, Christopher opens the door and lets me in. I hand him a bag with 10 cans of cat food. He shows me his large refrigerator—empty except for a carton of milk. I ask him if he is sure he doesn’t need any food. He says he is okay because a neighbor gave him “a bunch of hot dogs” and he’s been eating “lots of Cap’n Crunch.”
“We also have some lunch meat,” adds Robin, “but nothing for dinners.”
They open a can of cat food and place it on a bowl. The jumbo-sized cat (they have two) isn’t interested.
Except for an old television on a cheap, fake-wood TV stand, two opened DVD boxes of 24 episodes scattered nearby on the floor, an L-shaped orange sofa, a coffee table and an occupied, three-story, carpeted cat house next to French doors that open to a Pacific Ocean view, the Newport Coast home, worth $2.6 million when it was built five years ago, is oddly empty. The kitchen has no table. There are no plants, paintings, rugs, bookshelves, floor lamps, chairs, desks or knickknacks that normally indicate a house is occupied.
Placed at the center of the den’s fireplace mantel is one item that does give a personal touch: a decade-old, framed 3-by-5-inch photograph of a married couple. In it, Christopher and Robin Duncan look young and confident. Their beautiful faces could have put them in fashion magazines. Indeed, the people in the picture look like they belong in this impressive house, with its high-end, ornate detail that Orange County’s richest man, billionaire real-estate developer Don Bren, mandates in his internationally renowned residential projects such as Pacific Ridge.
But time has not been kind to Christopher, whose hand visibly shakes when he brings a small glass of water to his lips at the outset of our late-October interview. A shoulder-blade-length ponytail has replaced his stylish haircut. His once-handsome face has severely shrunken. His skin is blotchy. He twitches periodically, and he absent-mindedly repeats already-asked small-talk questions.
He doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would own, or even rent, a multimillion-dollar home in one of Orange County’s most exclusive neighborhoods. He does, however, look like the kind of guy who might pull a moving truck up to a vacant home in one of Orange County’s most exclusive neighborhoods, move in uninvited, change the locks and declare himself a permanent resident.
Which is exactly what he and Robin did on Sept. 19, much to the chagrin of the house’s actual owner. And the neighbors. And the president of the homeowners’ association, who keeps coming by the property in the company of the Newport Beach police, asking the Duncans when they’re going to get the hell out.
Christopher isn’t big on specifics, but he does suggest a headline for his and Robin’s tale: “Prisoners In Their Own Home: A Newport Coast Story.”
But, I ask him, how exactly did they even come to consider someone else’s three-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath pad their “own home”? He stares at me. Then he gives a toothless smile, shakes his head and says, “I’m not allowed to talk about that . . . but we are not squatters.”
* * *
The term “squatting” means to find a seemingly abandoned piece of property—land, a commercial structure or a home—and move in without the knowledge or permission of the owner. You would think taking over property that doesn’t belong to you and occupying it without paying compensation would be flat-out illegal. The first crimes that come to mind (after trespassing) might be burglary or fraud.
But in California, as in every other state, squatters can have legal rights that shield them for an extended time from police action and irate property owners. The legal concept dates back about 600 years in agrarian European culture, when it was believed it was better to have someone take over a property and make it a home than have it sit unoccupied and become an unproductive eyesore. Though controversial, the notion was handed down to our own legal system at the creation of our country, and it remains largely intact. Some locales around the nation have strengthened squatter rights by treating them as legal tenants after just 30 days.