An Apache woman, Niko Black speaks proudly of the hero of her people: Geronimo, the iconic warrior who battled both the Mexican and American governments as they encroached on his tribe's lands at the end of the 19th century. His only regret, delivered on his deathbed as an elderly prisoner of war in 1909, was that he ultimately surrendered in the fierce fight for his people's land to which he would never return.
More than a century later, Black can see her own deathbed in the horizon, as she's in the final stages of a rare, especially malignant form of breast cancer that has left her largely confined to a wheelchair. But in her dying days, Black shows no signs of surrendering in her struggle to return to the place she has called home for decades, a modest house with cobblestone sidings and cactus plants in an otherwise-quiet residential neighborhood in Garden Grove that became the scene of a full-scale invasion on the morning of Oct. 10.
On that day, Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) deputies converged on her home, ordered to carry out an eviction. Legal counsel for Wells Fargo was present to advise the process, as the bank was the trustee on the mortgage. Alone and ill, Black saw on the surveillance cameras in her home that her property was about to be stormed.
She crawled down the hallway to lift herself into a wheelchair and refused the deputies' demand to open the front door. She felt she had every right to do so, thanks to the notice taped to her door: a federal court order from United States bankruptcy Judge Theodor C. Albert denying Wells Fargo's motion for relief from an automatic stay after its representatives failed to appear at a hearing this summer.
The deputies didn't care; they unhinged the door and barged in.
"I'm sitting there in my wheelchair," Black recalls. "I'm about 100 pounds of shriveled-up cancer and a threat to no one. Sergeant Bob Sima puts a gun to my face, finger on the trigger, no safety, and walks around me."
(Sima appeared on the The David Cruz Show on KTLK-AM 1150 following an appearance by Black, discounting that any gun was pointed at her but claiming it was standard protocol to have weapons drawn to clear the premises.)
"I walked down the street to see what was going on," recalls Black's neighbor Joyce Minson. "By the time I got out, an ambulance got there. A gurney was rolled toward the front of the house and took Niko out. They had a sheet over her and what looked like oxygen on her. She looked like a little rag doll with her head turned toward her shoulder."
The story galvanized nationwide sympathy and outrage. A change.org petition demanding she be returned to the home gathered more than 135,000 signatures. Fort Hernandez, a barricaded Van Nuys home that's serving as a sort of Zuccotti Park in Southern California's foreclosure wars, held a solidarity action for Black. The Southern California branch of the American Indian Movement gathered for a similar protest outside a Wells Fargo branch in Irvine.
Pro bono help for Black came in the form of Stephen R. Golden, head of a Pasadena-based firm that touts itself as "a progressive and aggressive Professional Law Corporation." It was definitely more firepower than Black had had on her side before, even as she tried her best at acting pro per at times in federal court.
After negotiations between her legal team and attorneys for Wells Fargo broke down, a four-hour window was hastily granted for Black to return home under the monitoring of a guard. Upon arriving, she saw a window boarded up and an Atlantic & Pacific Real Estate sign once planted on the lawn now gone. But nothing prepared Black for what she saw inside.
"They trashed my room and everything so bad," she said, describing the scene as a ransacking, claiming missing possessions. "Who does that?"
Eventually, Wells Fargo offered a settlement prior to the Nov. 13 court date: They would let her move back in provided Black drop all of her lawsuits, give up all of her rights, and vacate the premises within 48 hours if she lost her case in federal court. Black refused.
Leading up to the pivotal hearing Judge Albert wrote, "It appears to the court that there may have been a violation of the stay."
Attorneys for Wells Fargo countered in motions that Black had filed two Chapter 7 bankruptcies this year and that "at the time of the lockout, no automatic stay was in place" noting the expiration date as June 21, 2012. They characterized the legal battle stemming since the foreclosure sale in December 2011 as "knock-down-drag-out litigation" in Black's "game of legal whack-a-mole" and even mocked her medical struggles as "alleged health problems."
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Wells Fargo addressed its failure to appear at an earlier court date by stating the motion was a moot point, but as Nov. 13 arrived, so did they.
Golden was also at the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana, where Wells Fargo and OCSD tried to convince Judge Albert that sanctions for storming Black's home were unwarranted. A tentative ruling written beforehand was favorable to the core arguments of the bank. "I denied the motion," Albert said of his July 31 decision. "I did not resurrect the stay." It was a refrain he would return to again and again. The eviction, he decided, was not illegal and merited no sanctions.
Toward the close of the hearing, Golden declared, "This loan is one that she did not sign! . . . [Wells Fargo] did not show up [to the earlier hearing] to avoid showing any proof!" Black claims the whole mess began with "fraudulent paperwork," claiming a 2006 refinance loan that she defaulted on three years later is predatory. (Golden has since filed a civil lawsuit.)
Black's legal team wanted her to be able to retrieve medical equipment or, better yet, fully return to the residence in the interim. She removed her facemask and spoke to the judge. "I'm dying, your honor; I'm dying," she pleaded. Claiming sympathy, the judge wanted Wells Fargo to work something out with Black, wherein she could retrieve more of her medical equipment promptly from the property. Despite that request, Black has yet to return.