As claustrophobic as it can feel to be cooped up during the coronavirus pandemic, a Rogers Park couple faced something worse:
Being just a wall away from an illegal squatter destroying his unit — prying apart electrical wiring, hacking into water pipes, arming himself with homemade weapons and finally using a claw hammer to smash through their bedroom wall.
The North Side couple’s nightmare was compounded by the Illinois moratorium on evictions during the pandemic. They were told repeatedly that the squatter next door, though staying there rent-free and terrorizing them, could not be kicked out.
“It was a wild ride,” Ashley Holmes says of the situation that’s finally been resolved after a long court battle.
Holmes’ partner Dave Papish owns their third-floor condo unit in a brick building in the 1500 block of West Farwell Avenue. The unit next door is owned by Greenspire Capital, a Winnetka real estate company.
Court records show Greenspire’s tenant invited a 38-year-old man with apparently serious mental health issues to live with him. And then the tenant, the one whose name was on the lease, moved out — leaving the squatter behind in the unit alone.
At first, neighbors complained of loud noises and an “odd person” who “talks to Hitler,” according to emails reviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Last April, Greenspire filed to evict the man. But, by then, the pandemic had hit, bringing a statewide moratorium on evictions and the temporary shutdown of most Cook County civil court operations.
“We were in COVID madness with the moratorium in place,” says John Dragic, the Winnetka real estate company’s managing principal.
The situation only got worse, according to a lawsuit filed by the condo board against Greenspire. The squatter would bang on the walls in the middle of the night and yell about “death stalkers” or “the 5G apocalypse.” The police were called there repeatedly.
Then, on the night of Aug. 29, Holmes and Papish say they heard more pounding. And this time it was followed by a claw hammer suddenly bashing through their bedroom wall.
They say the squatter appeared at their door — wearing a plastic cape, with wire under his clothing and foil lining his shirt collar, threatening the couple.
Holmes and Papish called the police. Numerous officers responded. The man, who can be seen on video trying to bite one of the cops, was taken to a hospital for a psychological evaluation.
After he left, other condo owners entered the unit where he’d been squatting and encountered a shocking scene. A video recorded then shows the apartment appearing to have been ransacked, with drywall ripped out, a water pipe taken apart, plastic sheeting covering walls, outlets blocked with electrical tape and appliances dismantled.
The neighbors also found a pole with kitchen knives attached like a medieval bardiche — one of several homemade weapons.
With the squatter temporarily gone, the condo board changed the lock on the building’s common entry.
But, after 72 hours, he returned, demanding a key. The police called it an illegal lockout and said he had to be allowed in.
“It was a frustrating sort of theater of the absurd,” Dragic says.
Worried that someone could get hurt, Holmes says the couple pleaded with government officials and the police to get the man into whatever kind of treatment he needed. They say everyone sympathized, but no one could help.
“I felt like they had their hands tied and couldn’t do anything,” Papish says of the police.
A police spokeswoman says department policy is to “de-escalate” situations in which someone is having a mental health crisis, possibly transporting the person to a mental health facility, which is what happened.
A Cook County sheriff’s spokesman says that agency, which normally handles evictions, would have evicted the man if the landlord obtained an emergency order from a judge declaring there was a threat to health and safety.
“We would enforce and have enforced emergency orders,” he says.
Holmes says she went on anti-anxiety medication because of the stress and started sleeping in the living room after the claw hammer incident. And the couple rearranged their furniture to better block the bedroom wall that had had the hole knocked through it.
They got a temporary no-contact order on Sept. 1. But that still allowed the man to remain in the building.
In late September, the condo board sued Greenspire. The entire matter — the original eviction action and the board’s lawsuit — ended up in court, where, after some legal wrangling, the man agreed to move out in late November — if Greenspire paid him $1,400. Which it did.
The condo will cost more than $35,000 to repair. Greenspire also owes money for the condo association’s legal fees and for damage to other units. That’s expected to get settled soon.
Holmes says a sheriff’s representative recently called, asking if she knew where the man was, to try to get him help, but he’s long gone.
Papish says this was no run-of-the-mill eviction dispute: “This was more of a psychotic person who needed help and was increasingly going insane.”