I-Team: Squatters bring crime wave to Oakland Hills

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- A nice neighborhood in the Oakland Hills is under siege by a group of squatters who refuse to leave. They've brought a crime wave to the area that has lasted for months. The neighbors are grateful for the work of the Oakland Police Department and other law enforcement agencies that have responded to crimes at the house, but the police are powerless to force the squatters to leave the property.

Sequoyah Hills/Oak Knoll is a tightly-knit community, the kind of place where neighbors work together to build a park, with a monument to police officers killed in the line of duty. But something has changed.

"With what's happening now, everybody literally is petrified. They don't want to leave their homes," said resident Don Mitchell.

Squatters took over a house on Oak Hill Road in December, and crime has soared in the neighborhood: gunfire at night, drug use, and even a dog mauling. A surveillance camera captured a pit bull from the house attacking neighbor Tim Nichols and his dog, Billie, a little over a month ago.

"I was terrified for my life and I assumed my dog was dead," said Nichols. "That's what was going through my head. How can I prevent my dog from getting killed?"

Beyond the scrapes and puncture wounds, Nichols' arm was broken in two places. By the time authorities arrived, the dog and its owner were gone. Records show police have come to the squatters' house more than a dozen times since the start of the year. The Alameda County Regional Auto Theft Task Force (ACRATT) has recovered seven stolen cars and made four arrests.

"One of the individuals that we arrested a couple weeks ago is still under investigation by one of our investigators for a bunch of identity theft," CHP Investigator Marc Hinch told the I-Team. Police are cracking down on crime at the house, but it's not their job to get the squatters to leave for good. "We clear it out every time we're here," Hinch added. "Who boards it up, it's not really our responsibility."

The woman who owned this house had a reverse mortgage, and after her husband passed away, she moved into a nursing home. The property is going through foreclosure now, which is how the squatters got their opening to move in. The I-Team's Dan Noyes tried to speak with the squatters during one police raid, but they wouldn't talk.

Noyes: "Hello?"
Squatter: "Yes?"
Noyes: "I'm with Channel 7. Will you talk to me?"
Squatter: "Uh, no."
Noyes: "Why not?"

On another day, Noyes was able to catch up to a squatter identifying herself as Ny'Airee, checking her mail at the house.

Ny'Airee: "Don't put me on camera."
Noyes: "You are on camera."
Ny'Airee: "I'm going to hit the camera."

Ny'Airee said she paid rent to her sister, who was in charge of the squatters' house before she got arrested. "She says she was paying somebody, she has papers, for one. Two, I know I helped clean up. So, I do have a reason to be here because I put my time, money and work, and sweat up in this house. So, I'm not leaving until I get paid," Ny'Airee said.

Police told the I-Team that the squatters had provided documents showing that they purchased the four-bedroom house for $5,000. Officers knew the papers were phony, but couldn't take action because it's a civil matter. Real estate attorney Michael McLaughlin told Noyes that getting the squatters out will be up to the new owner.

Noyes: "How long does that process take?"
McLaughlin: "Oh, it can take years. The law requires that the landlord actually goes to court and prove his title or right to possession."

In the meantime, the neighbors along Oak Hill Road are living in fear. One woman didn't want to show her face because of what the squatters might do. She said, "I'm very careful coming and going. Before I leave the house, I make sure there's nobody out there. I start my car in the garage and don't open the garage door until I'm all ready to really back out."

In a tougher section of Oakland, just down the block from a place nicknamed "murder corner," one squatter is improving the neighborhood by taking over an abandoned house in bad shape. Steven DeCaprio moved into the property eight years ago.

"There were trees growing into the house and there were trees growing in towards the neighbors' houses and so when we occupied it, we then took charge of maintaining it," DeCaprio said. He hopes to legally own the home soon, under a process known as adverse possession. It's state law that a person can claim title to a property if the land has been occupied and claimed for the period of five years continuously and if they have paid all the taxes.

"It goes way back to the founding of the U.S. when people would lay stakes to land and then they would do whatever," said DeCaprio. "They would mine, or they would farm, or they would ranch on the land and they would be presumed to be the owners." DeCaprio did his homework: researched the area and found a home where the owner passed away and has no surviving heirs.

There's a lesson from both of the cases. If you own a house or apartment, especially something like a rental property out of state, you really have to stay on top of it to make sure squatters don't take over.
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