The Real Squatters of OC
*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.
In California, squatters can grab legal possession of someone else’s property in what’s called an “adverse possession” if they take certain steps, such as moving in with furniture, paying outstanding property taxes, putting utilities in their names, and cleaning up the property from overrun grass and weeds. There’s a catch: They have to get away with the scheme for five years to hit the homeowner jackpot.
“It’s certainly a roll of the dice,” says Dennis O’Connell, a veteran Orange County civil attorney in Irvine and an expert in real-estate law. “I’ve never heard of it happening here.”
But O’Connell and other real-estate attorneys say squatters can have less dramatic objectives in mind—like duping other people into paying them rent on the seized property. The most common motive, though, is simply living on a property rent-free for months or years. Even when an owner serves legal notices to vacate, it’s not uncommon for squatters to enjoy the place for three or four months or longer while the case creeps through the justice system.
“People hit hard times, and they are just looking for a place to stay while they figure out what to do next,” says O’Connell.
In past decades, squatters typically targeted homes in middle- or lower-class Orange County neighborhoods. The current deep recession and spate of subsequent foreclosures have extended to upper-income neighborhoods such as Newport Coast, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. Foreclosures translate into at least temporarily vacant properties. It didn’t take long for cash-poor squatters to start aiming at $1 million-plus homes. And why not? Those houses offer better amenities, such as ocean views and pools.
“We didn’t used to have many squatter-type cases,” says Elizabeth Henderson, the prosecutor who heads the Orange County district attorney’s office’s fraud unit. “But we’re seeing more now because there are so many vacant properties, which is a product of the economic crisis we’re in.”
There were 83,261 “notices of default” recorded in California during the three months leading up to Sept. 30, according to San Diego-based MDA DataQuick, a firm that tracks real-estate activity. Slightly fewer than 5,000 of those notices occurred in Orange County. The number is moving in the right direction: During the same quarter in 2009, owners formally defaulted on some 7,500 OC homes, mostly in less affluent areas. Even so, there are plenty of potential targets for people looking to take advantage of vacant houses.
According to Henderson, under the right circumstances, squatters can face trespassing, vandalism, rent-skimming and fraud charges, the latter two of which are felonies. But, she says, most conflicts are handled without the involvement of the DA’s office. If a property owner files a police report and there’s solid evidence of wrongdoing, she says, “we’ll certainly consider looking at it. . . . This is just another con to make money off someone.”
The DA’s biggest pending related case is against Blair Hanlon, an Anaheim massage-club owner who allegedly took control over at least a dozen homes he didn’t own, got tenants, collected rents and filed false real-estate documents to mask the scam, according to a 14-count indictment. If convicted of all charges, Hanlon—who is free on bail before a likely 2011 trial—faces a maximum punishment of 21 years in prison.
“Some of these guys [involved in Southern California real-estate scams] think they are Teflon,” says Henderson. “They are really brazen.”
* * *
I’m standing in what a mortgage-less Christopher Duncan proudly calls his back yard. It’s not large, but he said he dreams of “cool” parties once he “fixes” the outdoor barbecue and bar station to accommodate his wishes for a larger grill. He points to three nearby black garbage bags containing weeds; he says they prove he has satisfied at least one component of claiming the property legally: He’s treating the house as his own by doing yard work. We end up facing south, gazing at the Pacific Ocean. On a clear day, you can see Catalina Island.
“Pretty nice, huh?” he asks.
There’s plenty to like about living in Newport Coast, one of Orange County’s most exclusive areas. Real-estate brochures for homes here use such words as “masterpiece,” “elegant” and “state-of-the-art” without any exaggeration. Except for birds and the whisper of the ocean breeze, there’s often silence here. Everything appears ideal.
“It’s really peaceful,” says Christopher. “That’s one of the reasons I like it here.”
The main public road that slices through the project is one of California’s most breathtaking, as it takes you through the San Joaquin Hills to Pacific Coast Highway and beachfront Crystal Cove State Park. One real-estate agent describes Newport Coast as “the Ritz-Carlton” of residential neighborhoods. Others call it the “California Riviera,” a place where you can see uniformed maids walking to bus stops for their slow voyages back to grittier neighborhoods in Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana.
It’s no surprise that the palm-tree-loaded development is home to privacy-hungry celebrities such as Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant and horror author Dean Koontz. Don Haidl, the used-government-car salesman who illegally funded Mike Carona’s election to sheriff in 1998 and who became an assistant sheriff before federal agents busted him, lives in an $8 million estate here.
“You gotta have money to live here, and I got money,” Christopher says, not mentioning what government records show. His driving privileges in California have been revoked. If other Newport Coast residents are driving cars worth $125,000 or more, Christopher’s mode of transportation is less ostentatious: a silver-colored Vespa scooter. (Neighbors report that he waits until late at night, hops on his scooter and exits the neighborhood through an unguarded side gate for trips to a Pavilions grocery store.)
Yet, deserved or not, this affluent neighborhood is home to the Duncans for now. They refused to talk about their pasts or even reveal if they have jobs, but the Weekly nonetheless traced them to their prior homes: bland-to-crummy apartments in the counties of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino. Occupying 10 Hidden Pass and its 3,500 square feet of living space is certainly a major step up in lifestyle. Its garage is larger than some of their prior dwellings.
Christopher is similarly cagey about his dental issues: His front teeth are missing, though he just turned 42 years old. I hadn’t asked him to explain this, but at different times during the interview, he volunteers two stories: he lost his teeth during a Rollerblading accident, and they’d become infected and were pulled out.
Wives sometimes correct their husband’s gaffes. But the attractive, fit, 36-year-old Robin simply nods and smiles throughout his conflicting injury stories. Those who know her say she is smart and more cautious than her partner. Ask Christopher a yes-or-no-type question, and you might get a colorful, five-minute stream-of-consciousness response. Ask Robin simple questions, and she’ll pause for four or five seconds to craft brief, guarded answers. When I inquire where she was born, she names the wrong state, according to later-checked government records.
Perhaps the Duncans are just nervous. Their biggest problem, as they see it, is that about three-quarters of a mile up a steep, winding coastal mountain road (near elaborate $10 million mansions) sits a 24-hour manned guard house holding specific orders regarding the couple.
“I live here, but I can’t leave,” Christopher explains. “Well, I can, but they won’t let me back in if I do.”
If the Duncans were to be locked out, that would be just fine with Suong T. Le—who, Christopher admits, is the actual owner of the property.
Le said she was “very, very angry” that someone she’d never met had simply moved into her house on Sept. 19. She bought the property four years ago with her sister as an investment and leased it to tenants. The housing crash hit her hard, and she wants to sell the place. Unfortunately for her, the house has the Duncans in it.
For Le, the issue is disturbingly simple. “I went to my house, and these people wouldn’t let me in,” she says. “I want them out.”
For their part, the Duncans are no fans of Le, whom Christopher calls “the Asian lady.” They say Le has annoyed them by not treating them with respect.
“She is so belligerent,” says Christopher. “She won’t negotiate.”
But before they got locked in, they had to get in. How did that happen? “We got in because I showed the guard my lease,” he tells me.
That four-page document, obtained by the Weekly (not from the Duncans), looks official. There are 24 provisions and signatures at the end. The terms call for a $2,500 deposit and $2,950 in monthly rent, both of which, according to real-estate agents, are exceptionally low figures for a $2 million home.
Kelly S. Johnson, a lawyer working for the Duncans, says he can’t comment in detail on the situation “because this is subject to potential legal proceedings.” Johnson does say that his clients are contemplating suing for damages, but he won’t elaborate. When asked about the neighbors’ belief that the Duncans are squatters, he says, “There’s a difference of opinion about what’s going on. They have a signed, written lease.”
But, once again, the situation goes weird. Le has never heard of Shelter Us, the company that claimed to be “authorized” to lease 10 Hidden Pass to tenants. The business is registered 340 miles away in a San Jose building that rents tiny offices to a variety of small businesses. The man whose signature appears on the lease on the company’s behalf, Victor L. Lucchesi, lives in Minnesota; the number with the 949 area code Lucchesi listed on the lease is disconnected. Lucchesi did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
I ask Christopher for evidence he’s paid Shelter Us any money.
“That lease is legit,” he responds.
Asked the same question again, he says. “I can’t go into that right now.”
The Duncans used to have an electronic gate pass. But in mid-October, the neighborhood homeowners’ association revoked the pass and ordered the community’s entrance guards to keep the main gate closed if the Duncans leave and try to re-enter. The “HOA lady,” as the Duncans dismissively call Diane Romick, has repeatedly demanded an explanation for their presence. Their offer to pay HOA dues was rejected. On a regular basis, according to the Duncans, Newport Beach police officers, accompanied by a visibly unamused Romick, a neuroscientist by trade, have knocked on the front door and asked them when they will leave.
The couple responded by taping forcefully worded “no trespassing” messages in the house’s windows and have mounted a large surveillance camera in a window facing the front yard.
The Duncans, who call themselves “totally reasonable people,” insist they are being “treated unreasonably” and “we don’t know why.”
“We’re getting disturbed,” Robin says. “I can’t sleep at night.”
“It’s really stressful,” Christopher sighs.
* * *
This isn’t the first time the Duncans have lived with this kind of stress. Last year, they slipped into a vacant $330,000 Ladera Ranch condo. After hiring lawyers, the owner served the couple notice to leave in May and didn’t get his place back until mid-October, according to court records. Superior Court Judge Corey S. Cramin allowed part of the delay after Robin Duncan, who claimed ignorance of real-estate law, declared it would cause the couple “substantial hardship” to vacate the property any earlier.
Two ironies emerged from that case. It’s doubtful Robin Duncan is ignorant of such matters. California Department of Real Estate records show that, though her license is currently inactive, she has worked for years in OC as a real-estate agent.
But there was also this: The Duncans might have occupied the condo longer if the owner hadn’t agreed to the couple’s handwritten list of demands. How bold were they? They chose the departure date they wanted and required their credit histories not reflect the mess. They also told the owner that if they left any trash behind, he could dispose of it himself.
And if things don’t work out for the Duncans in Newport Coast, one acquaintance’s account suggests they’re always on the lookout for new . . . opportunities.
“One day earlier this year, I’m serving a legal notice at a property in Quail Hill in Irvine,” says a private investigator who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity. “This guy drives up in a Mercedes, rolls down his window and asks, ‘Did you just leave that house?’
“I said, ‘Yes,’ and this guy says, ‘What were you doing?’ I said, ‘What’s it to you?’ and he said, ‘My name is Chris, and I buy properties all over the place.’ Then his wife, Robin, steps out of the car, introduces herself and shakes my hand. It was weird. She is very good-looking, and he is, well, he’s odd—very hyperactive. I remember thinking, ‘What is she doing with this guy?’ Anyway, he asked for my business card and told me that he might share an opportunity to make lots of money.”
A “couple of months later—about three weeks ago,” recalls the PI, “Chris calls and tells me to come over to his home in Newport Coast. When I get there, he basically tells me that he seizes houses under adverse conditions. He quoted some law I don’t remember and said, ‘It’s totally legal.’ So, he gave me a big list of homes and asked me to go see if they were vacant.”
The PI says he checked “a couple of homes in Ladera Ranch” for him but grew leery. “Chris promised a big pay-off but was always vague and evasive about what he was doing,” he says. According to the PI, he decided to abruptly end contact.
“He said he has access to lots of money,” the PI recalls. “He said he’s friends with Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, members of Van Halen and Madonna’s guitarist, who, he says, is now touring with Adam Lambert. . . . I could kick myself for even listening to him. I just walked away when I realized he’s a schemer, a loser and a big talker. I don’t believe anything he says.”
When I returned to the house some time later to ask the Duncans about this PI’s account, among other things, no one answered the door.
* * *
For Matthew Rasouli, 10 Hidden Pass has been a nightmare for two years—and most of the time, the Duncans were not the problem. The CPA and his wife live next door in a gorgeous, well-kept home, and say they have had to endure “loud-partying, pot-smoking” tenants put there by an “irresponsible owner”—Suong Le, whom, he says, allowed the yard to become a continual eyesore from tall grass and overgrown weeds.
“It was a mess,” Rasouli says. “I paid my own gardener to clean it up. Why? Because I had people coming to my house, and it was embarrassing.”
One day, Rasouli heard people talking in the back yard at the vacant house and asked the people to identify themselves. “He said, ‘I’m Chris. I am working with the property’s trustee to take this place and clean it up.’”
Believing Christopher’s assertion, Rasouli says he felt relief that someone was finally taking responsibility for the place.
“Are they quiet?” he asks. “Yes. Are they partying? No.”
But relief turned into more frustration.
“Then I find out they are squatters,” he says. “I was shocked. . . . Now, I have to ask myself, ‘Am I safe?’ I can’t sleep at night. The police are always here. Private investigators come here. I’m not safe.”
In Rasouli’s view, the presence of the Duncans is illustrative of a larger issue.
“Although they are squatting, the main source of the problem is the HOA and property-management company,” he says. “If I move a bush in my yard, I will get a letter from the HOA within 24 hours. But they [the Duncans] can move in and squat without anyone stopping them?”
Romick, the HOA president, declined to comment for this story.
“I cannot easily get my own children through that [security] gate,” Rasouli continues. “They want pictures and ask lots of personal questions, but the HOA let them [the Duncans] come and go whenever they want for so long? How in the world did that happen?”
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