Hellarity burns - Page 7

How a cauldron of squatters and property owners, stirred by green dreams and the bursting housing bubble, set an unusual Oakland house ablaze

On the screen, Pal is sitting on a couch in the downstairs living room of Hellarity. At the door, a well-built man who looks to be in his 30s and calls himself Tony leans against the wall with two younger men who call themselves Salvador and Ryan. Sternberg tells me that Pal came to the house demanding they leave his property. Sternberg called the police, accusing Pal of trespassing. As they waited for the OPD to arrive, which took more than 25 minutes, they discuss their conflict over the house.

At the beginning of the video, Sternberg tells Pal why he and his friends refuse to give up the property: "People came over here from Europe and they said, 'Hey, we're going to take this place.' Now they sell land to each other. And how did they get it? They took it.... And just because somebody pays for something doesn't mean that they get it. And just because somebody sells something doesn't mean they have a right to sell that."

A few minutes into Sternberg's video, Pal told the squatters he was ready to take matters into his own hands. "You just have to deal with me now because what I'm saying is, it's person to person.... And you know what? If it's gonna get dirty, it's gonna get dirty. I don't care. Because you know what? That's the way it's gonna be, because this is what I need. I need to have it. I don't have any lawyer. I can't afford a damn lawyer. So it's gonna be me and you. One to one. Man to man."

Pal eventually left the property after the police arrived, but the two younger men, Salvador and Ryan, spent the night upstairs. "[Pal] had them stay there because they thought the people downstairs would squat the upstairs," Frank says. "He wanted to protect the house." Frank, who says he was concerned that Pal would try to evict him with everyone else, initially didn't protest the presence of the two young men.

The next day, at Frank's request, Pal told Salvador and Ryan to leave, and for the two weeks that followed, Pal didn't return to the house. The new group of squatters expected to see him Feb. 28, the date set for a case hearing called by Pal's lawyer prior to the re-occupation of the house. If the defendants didn't show up, a default judgment could have been entered, granting Pal his request to have the squatters removed and ordered to pay $2,000 per month in back rent. The squatters showed up for court, but Pal's side hadn't filed the necessary paperwork to hold the hearing.

Once again the house hung in legal limbo and the day after the hearing, the remaining people upstairs moved out as agreed. Frank says Pal called him while he was at work that afternoon to make sure they were gone. For the first time in 11 years, the upper apartment was empty, waiting for either Pal or the other squatters to seize it.

But someone was committed to preventing that from happening. The night after the people upstairs moved out, at around 3:15 a.m., the squatters downstairs awoke to fire creeping through the floorboards above them.

"Both of the doors upstairs were locked," Sternberg says. "We broke through one of the doors and threw buckets of water on the flames."

After the fire department extinguished the blaze, the squatters called the police to have an investigator search the scene. "It appears that unknown suspects entered the house through unknown means, and then set three fires in an attempt to burn the house," the police report states. According to the report, all three fires were set in the upstairs apartment; two burned out before the fire department arrived. Officer Vincent Chen found two used matches in the bathroom, where the wood around the sink had been burned, and a gas can hidden in the bushes on the east side of the house.

When I first met Sternberg, he told me the Oakland Police Department's arson investigator, Barry Donelan, was helpful.