Anyone who has ever rented out their property will find this story incredibly unsettling.
Seventy-one-year-old Elizabeth Abel, an English professor at the University of California-Berkeley, decided to rent out her home while she was on a semester-long research trip to Paris.
She jumped on website SabbaticalHomes.com to find someone to lease her beloved home fully-furnished (the website touts itself as something of an Airbnb for academics).
According to the website Mother Jones, she liked the idea that she would be handing over the keys to a colleague instead of a random person - as the site's founder put it in a press release, "there is an implicit degree of trust amongst academics".
A political scientist from Sarah Lawrence College named David Peritz responded to her ad. He was two decades younger than Elizabeth and said he had a wife and a teenage son.
After looking around the property David announced he was keen to move in and Elizabeth admits she didn't bother checking his references or doing a background check - mainly because he was a professor. And to her, that equated with respectability.
The first sign of trouble was when his first rental payment didn't arrive. After a delay and many apologies the money eventually appeared. She put it down to him being a little disorganised. In March, he failed to pay the second payment. He said his wife had needed dental surgery and that they had ended up being a little short, but he would get the money through soon. Elizabeth was slightly worried at this point and gave him the chance to break the lease but he said he wanted to stay and would catch up on payments.
April came and no money arrived and Elizabeth had officially had enough. It didn't help that she was starting to get concerned emails from neighbours - they said they had seen him moving her furniture into the garage late at night and they hadn't seen any sign of his wife or son. She wrote to David and said she was taking him to the small-claims court.
She also contacted the local police department who sent an officer around to the property. The officer emailed Elizabeth in Paris and said he thought Peritz was trying to establish squatters rights and that a police officer should accompany her when she returned home. They suggested she started the eviction process immediately, as it could take months to actually get David out of her house.
It turns out it's quite difficult to evict someone in California. When a tenant stops paying rent they are served with a three-day notice of what is owed. Once that notice has expired the landlord has to file an "unlawful detainer" complaint which is served along with a court summons. The renter has five days to respond and either party can request a court date within 20 days (this can be delayed for a number of reasons and the process can stretch out to a couple of months). In the meantime, the tenant stays in the property rent-free.
Some people have been using the system to score a few months of free housing. These people are known as "serial evictees" or "serial detainers". They move from house to house never paying a cent. It's become enough of an issue with Airbnb that they now have a page devoted to the topic (the issue made headlines in 2014 when brothers, dubbed the 'Airbnb squatters' refused to leave a house in Palm Springs).
Elizabeth Abel cut her stay in Paris short and flew home. She sent David an email saying she wanted to move back into her home on May 1. According to Mother Jones he responded several days later saying he "wasn't presently in a position to vacate the premises."
He also told her he'd been in touch with a lawyer, and said if she tried to evict him, they'd end up in court, which "could be expensive, time-consuming and draining for both of us."
Peritz also blamed Abel for his inability to find a new place to stay, claiming that she had "submitted a false feedback report" on SabbaticalHomes.com. The lawyer, he said, had called it a "textbook case of libel."
"I realise that your intentions in making that report were good," Peritz wrote, "but it remains the case that what you reported was false and that we have been damaged by it."
He said if she was willing to negotiate or arbitrate a settlement, he was "amenable to releasing you from all potential liability that could result from your false report."
Elizabeth was stunned.
She moved into a neighbour's house directly opposite her house so she could keep a close eye on the property. She hired a private investigator who discovered that when David first reached out to her - assuring her in an email, "We have sublet and house-sat several times before, and have references to say that we are responsible, considerate, quiet, clean and reasonably easy going" - he was actually in the middle of being evicted from another rental home in Berkeley.
She was also put in touch with a couple in New York who had threatened David with a lawsuit after he failed to pay rent and damaged their property.
The PI also turned up multiple federal and New York State tax liens.
During this time an anonymous blog popped up titled David Peritz - Unlawful Detainer (Elizabeth denies having anything to do with the website).
Elizabeth got in touch with David's employers at Sarah Lawrence College to see if it could help. They wanted nothing to do with it.
But Elizabeth's university colleagues were happy to support their friend.
Renowned gender theorist Judith Butler penned the best of the emails to Peritz:
"I have recently become aware of your scurrilous behaviour - effectively squatting in the home of my colleague, Elizabeth Abel. If you are not out of that apartment within five days time, I will write to every colleague in your field explaining the horrible scam you have committed."
The second, written less than a week later, had the subject line "your miscalculation" and included this outstanding paragraph:
" ... please accept the fact that you have painted yourself into a corner, and that you have to leave promptly, and with an apology and a payment plan, in order to avoid any further destruction to your professional and personal world. Your itinerary of self-destruction is a stellar one".
Elizabeth complained to SabbaticalHomes.com and the site's founder blocked David's account. When David attempted to create a new account with a different email address, that was blocked too.
Ian Gordon, the author of the story on Mother Jones, reached out to David to hear his side of the story, but didn't have much luck.
"In his response to my initial email, he denied 'the veracity of most of what is said about me' on the blog about him. He said he would meet with me, if only to correct the record. He then stopped responding to my emails and phone calls."
In late May, Elizabeth and David came to an agreement. David would vacate the house and pay the remainder of what he owed her. When the moving day came, Elizabeth and her friends stood across the road and watched him slowly pack the van. When his vehicle rolled away they popped a bottle of champagne.
David was scheduled to begin paying Elizabeth his back rent at the end of September, though she resigned herself to never seeing that money. But one night, she returned home to find an envelope containing an $800 money order - his first settlement payment.
"He does manage to keep one off-guard," Elizabeth told Mother Jones.
According to the course registry for San Francisco State University, David Peritz will be teaching a class there starting in January. The name of the course: "Ethics and Politics of New Technology."