OAKLAND (CBS 5) — As a controversial Bay Area landlord is being investigated over providing tenants tainted water; another former tenant has come forward with his horror story about cockroaches.
Nate Silin thought a third floor apartment in an Oakland building would make a good home for his family. But within days of moving in he said, "We started seeing cockroaches."
Within a few weeks, the insects were everywhere. "They were in our clothes, they were in our radio, our TV, our furniture. It got to the point where we would find them crawling on our bodies in bed," said Silin.
Silin said it turned what should have been peaceful nights of slumber into nightmares for his young sons. "They had them amongst their toys and clothes. I mean we would have to shake off their clothes before we put them on. So, I think it is something they will never forget," he said.
When the landlord wouldn't fix the problem Silin moved his family out. But his ordeal was far from over, because in a shocking twist, landlord Richard Thomas blamed him for the crawling infestation, and refused to return his security deposit.
Thomas and his wife own more than 150 apartment units in the Bay Area. His property on Harvey Avenue in Hayward was the subject of another CBS 5 investigation.
Lab tests conducted by CBS 5 found renters were drinking and bathing in water contaminated with both E. Coli and fecal bacteria. Describing the water, former tenant Katrina Rodriguez told CBS 5, "It would be brown before it turned clear."
CBS 5's investigation prompted the Alameda County District Attorney to open its own investigation. No one is saying that's a criminal or civil investigation. But a spokesman said the office is all too familiar with Richard Thomas because of hundreds of tenants who had sued him.
Silin was one of those tenants, joining a class action lawsuit in 2007. "He preys on the weakest and he profits from it," according to Barry Willdorf, the lead attorney on the case. "He was, in my estimation, bullying little people around."
Willdorf said he uncovered a pattern of bad faith. When his tenants would move out, Thomas would walk the apartment, nit-picking a laundry list of supposed damages.
Thomas would then send his former tenants letters, sometimes 20 pages long, which he claimed allowed him to withhold their security deposit. If tenants sued for their deposits, as Silin did for $1,300, Thomas would almost always countersue, in Silin's case for almost $7,000, claiming the roach infestation cost him lost rent.
"These are people that are working paycheck to paycheck. He's left them in dire, dire straits. And for the amount of people we are talking about it is a significant impact on the quality of life in the community," Willdorf said.
The jury found in favor of the tenants, awarding them a million dollars in punitive damages. They believed Thomas committed these acts with malice and fraud. Last month, an appeals court agreed. But still, none have collected a dime because Thomas continues to fight the verdict while continuing to rent to the public.
"The important thing is that these acts don't continue for other people, because you can be a victim and you don't even know what you are getting into," said Silin.
CBS 5 asked Thomas for comment but never heard back. A judge has just denied his petition for a rehearing on the appellate ruling.
Within the next few days, lawyers for the tenants predict he will file another petition, this time taking his appeal to the California Supreme Court.
Photo caption: Oakland building owned by Richard Thomas. (CBS)