Mystery on Micheltorena
The tenants of 210 West Micheltorena Street are in a nerve-wracking battle with their management company, St. George and Associates. Residents of the six-unit apartment complex have reported, since September, nine break-ins: seven successful robberies and two attempted robberies. The theft repeatedly occurs on Thursdays and Fridays. Tenants claim that the management company has done little to nothing to alleviate the situation, and four of the six will be moving out by month’s end.
According to tenant Julie Masin, when her neighbor in the complex was first robbed in September, the management company failed to report the incident to fellow tenants. Within a week, Masin came home to a locked door—yet discovered the apartment she shared with her boyfriend had been burglarized, the door apparently relocked. Despite no signs of a break-in, Masin and her boyfriend, Conor Scotland, realized that a laptop and iPod had been taken.
Even before the break-in, Masin and Scotland were at their wits’ end with St. George and Associates’ poor maintenance of their apartment, she said: The couple had been complaining of mold problems and had seen no improvement in the situation. They gave 30-days notice that they would be moving. Then, on the same day that they gave their notice, Masin and Scotland fell victim to yet another break-in, despite their locks having been changed by St. George and Associates. This time, a digital camera was stolen. Another tenant was also burglarized on this day.
According to Masin, the responding forensic analyst stated that there were no signs of break-ins at either apartment, though according to a statement from St. George and Associates some of the cases did clearly indicate forced entry. The reason that’s significant is that Masin and Scotland blame the management company for the break-ins.
Masin said she and Scotland were shocked when, to top it all off, St. George and Associates did not return their damage deposit. Masin wrote a letter to St. George and Associates which read, in part, “The fact that your company did not return our $1,600 deposit is infuriating after what we’ve experienced. Especially since we were living in an unhealthy environment with mold, the mismanagement of keys by St. George and Associates directly led to the loss of over $1,600 in personal property … ” The couple is now requesting that St. George and Associates reimburse them for their losses.
According to property owner Edward St. George, the request for compensation is unmerited since the lease requires that all tenants have renters’ insurance. Scotland rejoined that renters’ insurance would not have covered it since the deductible is $1,000.
Following in the footsteps of Masin and Scotland, Jonathan Civitella and his wife gave their 30-day notice after experiencing, he said, two burglaries and one attempted burglary. Among the stolen items were jewelry and two laptops. Civitella, too, was already irritated with the company, he said, having complained countless times of leaks and other maintenance problems. Since he feels compelled, by the burglaries, to move out as quickly as possible, Civitella doesn’t think he should pay for the remainder of the 30 days in the typical 30-day notice. “I understand that technically we are inside 30 days but I am kindly asking that we simply part ways and that we are not charged any penalty considering the circumstances,” Civitella wrote in an email to the management.
Edward St. George, meanwhile, said he took the appropriate measures to protect the tenants’ safety. St. George ordered that all 280 of his property locks be changed. “I don’t know what else I can do as a landlord,” he said. “We’re not the police.” St. George said that the population of Santa Barbara in general is being victimized by theft. “It’s very difficult for me to have sympathy,” he said. “We all live in the same city, we are all getting ripped off.”
According to Masin and Civitella, changing the locks did not help. Masin said that she first volunteered to change the locks herself, but that management threatened to charge her upward of $200 if she went outside the management company, which “assured me that there would only be two keys to our place circulating between the management office and maintenance.” Yet despite the changed locks and guarantee of the proper management of the keys, Masin’s apartment was hit again.
After the management had changed the locks twice, Civitella took it upon himself to replace his locks. Noticing that two of his neighbors—the only two who had not been burglarized—had Kwikset locks while the remainder of the locks were Schlage locks, John purchased his own Kwikset at Home Depot. Since installing the lock, he has not experienced any more break-ins.
Civitella’s decision to take matters into his own hands by changing the locks himself was a result, he said, of the management’s failure to be proactive in improving the situation. He said that he and his wife had met with Carrie Gould, who is charge of tenant relations, and were assured that measures would be taken to prevent future crimes and that cost was not an issue. Civitella made many suggestions to improve security, ranging from video surveillance and motion sensor lights to signs to deter burglars and even fake video cameras, which he researched online. However, St. George (who also claimed that the suggestion of a fake camera was never made) said that many of these requests are unreasonable.
Putting up surveillance cameras would be illegal, St. George said. “My insurance company doesn’t let me put them in,” he added. In an email to Civitella, St. George stated: “No I am not paying for an alarm service, as it stands I write a 16,000.00 check each year to the city of SB for there [sic] services and the primary is for police protection. Write the mayor, I just did, for what its worth. If you have a reasonable suggestion I am open to it, but as it stands I can assure you that I am fulfilling my obligations of security.”
Civitella felt that the company’s refusal to increase security contradicted the claim that money was not an issue. Disheartened, Civitella purchased his own portable security system that he will take with him when he moves.
The police suggested to him, said Citivella, that the fact that there were no signs of forced entry indicates that the robberies may be an inside job. The fact that the doors are consistently relocked after the theft further points to an insider. In addition, the thefts occur during times when tenants are not home, except for one case in which Civitella apparently was home but did not notice the burglar. “[They] know our schedules and always hit when we aren’t home,” said Civitella. “Someone has to be keeping tabs on our complex.” According to Civitella, additional police suggested that perhaps it was the work of a skilled professional.
Lieutenant Paul McCaffrey, the SBPD’s spokesperson, noted that the break-ins do seem unusual, not fitting the pattern of typical residential robberies. The robber “might have some knowledge of the comings and goings, and the ability to get into the residence without breaking windows or using force,” said McCaffrey. “I can’t say that it’s an inside job, but in a few cases the doors were locked and there was no sign of forced entry.” This would suggest, he said, that there is another means of entering. In at least one case the door was unlocked, but the robber “had a way of getting in [and out] with a small window of opportunity,” said McCaffrey. He would not comment on police suspicions in the case.
Any suggestion that an insider is responsible is erroneous, according to management. Property manager Inger Bortolazzo said strict control is maintained over keys; the only individuals with access to spare keys are the maintenance manager and the licensed and bonded plumber. Furthermore, the keys are not on a master lock system. “As unfortunate as your situation is, the break-in was not due to any irresponsibility on our part and we have changed the locks to insure your safety,” she wrote in an email to Masin. “The duplicate is kept in our locked key box here at our office.”
St. George reiterated the idea that the keys were never mishandled, and he stated that his maintenance manager, who has been with the company for over 20 years, is to be trusted. “All my guys have been with me for over 20 years,” said St. George. “It’s unfortunate, but nothing else can be done. All my places are getting hit.”
To support his position that the thefts are simply reflective of rising crime rates in Santa Barbara generally, St. George referenced the current crime situation in San Roque. “Crime is completely, completely out of control and the police know it,” he said. “There’s nothing they can do,” said St. George. He stood by this argument in an email response to Civitella’s complaint about the problem, writing: “Welcome to Santa Barbara, yesterday the News-Press reported the residences of San Roque have had the worst crime wave any one can remember, guess what, laptops and small electronic devices are being stolen.” St. George, who said he himself has been a victim of a recent robbery, went on to write, “Honestly I do not know what to do, the police have no suggestions nor do the sheriffs other than lock your homes, close your shades and leave a lite [sic] or radio on. The city of SB is receiving on average 30-50 burglary reports each day…”
Yet Lt. McCaffrey stated that the burglaries at 210 West Micheltorena cannot be compared to those of San Roque. “San Roque is a very large area with hundreds of homes, compared to a six-unit apartment,” said McCaffrey. Furthermore, McCaffrey said that the claim that Santa Barbara is receiving such an elevated number of theft reports is “absolutely not true … It’s very unusual to have this many thefts in such a short period of time,” said McCaffrey. “I don’t know of any six-unit residences that have had this many thefts in two months.”
“The whole situation is a nightmare,” said Scotland. “It’s just a gross mistreatment by the company. It’s obvious that it’s an employee.” Scotland and Masin are inspired to take legal action against the company, yet are hesitant to do so because of a clause in the lease saying that if the two parties ever meet in court, the losing party will be responsible for all legal fees. They are still considering taking the case to Small Claims Court, as is Civitella. However, they have been trying to obtain the police reports that say there were no signs of break-in, in an effort to prove that someone used a key, but have been unable to do so because the case remains open. “It’s really really frustrating,” said Civitella. “The reason we are leaving is because the cops and management have done nothing … We don’t feel we’re asking for anything too extreme.”
The police have taken the necessary steps, McCaffrey said. Because the apartments have not been ransacked, a burglar could get in and out without leaving much evidence. Police are on constant lookout for the resurfacing of stolen property, McCaffrey said. However, he cautioned, it’s very hard to trace such items as were taken in these cases.
Hope may be on the horizon. According to McCaffrey, police arrested David Ritchie on March 12 around 12:40 a.m. after Ritchie attempted to rob a house in the 1500 block of Bath Street, not far from the Micheltorena complex. Ritchie was caught and confronted by the tenant of the apartment. Police later searched his home and found various electronic items, consistent with the cases at the Micheltorena apartment complex.
However, it never rains but it pours: A separate arrest may point the finger in a different direction. According to Civitella, a police officer informed him on Monday that the brother of a plumber used by St. George and Associates was arrested after stealing blank checks and writing them to himself. St. George acknowledged that these thefts occurred at an apartment complex he owns on De la Vina Street. He said the fact that it is the brother of a plumber used by his company is merely a coincidence.