A stunning apartment burglary left a Collingswood woman without Christmas and birthday presents for her daughter, heat and hot water for six days, and coincided with the delivery of an eviction notice from her landlord.
Collingswood police say the theft occurred in the 200 block of Haddon Avenue sometime during the overnight hours of Dec. 1. Damaris Medina, who resides in the apartment with her 11-year-old daughter, was headed down to Atlantic City for an overnight trip.
When the family returned home the next day, they discovered the door on the driveway side of their residence pried open, and called police.
“I looked up the steps; my door was busted in,” Medina said. “Everything in my kitchen was all over the floor. The bags that I had near my kitchen door, everything had been scattered. There was money missing from a cabinet in the kitchen.
“When I made my way towards the living room, I discovered the television was gone, the Xbox, the Kinect, bags of gifts that weren’t wrapped yet,” she said. “All that’s gone. When I entered the premises, my puppy was there, and she was even scared of me.”
According to the police report, the total value of lost property to the renters was $2,600, and also included a Dell laptop, Playstation 3 and an air conditioner condensing unit. The thieves also broke into the basement of the building and, isolating the hot water heater that warms the Medinas’ unit, removed it as well.
'Nobody saw a thing'
What makes the theft more remarkable is that apparently nobody noticed it happening: police say there are no eyewitness accounts of the act.
“I canvassed the whole neighborhood,” said Collingswood Detective Sgt. Guy DeRitis. “Nobody saw a thing. They did it in the dead of night.”
On that same date, police say, someone also gained entry to an unlocked shed on the block and rifled through the contents; nothing was reported to be missing. But nobody saw or heard anything in that incident, either.
“We have had a couple burglaries on that stretch of Haddon Avenue in the last couple weeks,” DeRitis said. “Hers was the first.”
The one hope Medina had for some insight into the crime was a neighbor who has a digital home security system, but police said that those cameras would not have provided a view of her property.
In the meantime, DeRitis said, detectives are processing fingerprints lifted from the scene, and have spoken with scrapyards and video game stores in the area to see if any of the stolen goods were traded in.
“Unfortunately right now, there’s nothing,” he said.
Perhaps worst of all, the Medinas were not carrying renters’ insurance. So the crime had left them with no Christmas and birthday presents, no heat or hot water—and no leads as to the culprits or their goods.
The eviction notice in the mailbox was just icing on the cake.
‘I’ve been trying to help her as much as humanly possible.’
Evan Moss, who owns the property and others in Collingswood, is the Medinas' landlord. He would not comment on his decision to provide them with a 60-day eviction notice.
Medina said that she has had conversations with Moss about how living conditions at the property have made other tenants there uncomfortable.
“At my home, there’s a relative who suffers seizures,” she said, “and there’s times when anxiety levels are high.”
She added that Moss “suggested that there are other people residing there with me,” but said that her brothers have occasionally stayed with her because her home was previously burglarized in 2010.
Still, after this most recent theft, Medina said that Moss told her “You’ll find a place faster than I can provide heat and hot water. It’s time to start over.
“The history of things going on, I guess they’re trying to relate it to this now,” she said.
For his part, Moss said that he cooperated with the Collingswood Fire Department and New Jersey housing authority in making it “as comfortable a situation as I possibly could.”
“There was no heat into the unit, and I didn’t know when I was going to get relief from the insurance company,” he said. “I lost about $6,000 worth of equipment in her unit.
“I’ve been trying to help her as much as humanly possible,” he said.
‘I don’t even know if I can rent around here anymore.’
Medina said that Moss installed a pair of space heaters in the apartment until he could get a new unit installed in the basement. These tripped the breakers, she said, and because Moss had boarded up access to the basement from her unit after the theft, she couldn’t turn them back on.
Boarding up the basement to prevent other break-ins also meant that Moss had to take the Medinas' belongings out, storing them on the porch—which he said was done with her consent.
Medina says she and her daughter had to leave the property at various times until the power could be restored. Eventually, Moss did install a new, permanent replacement heater in the building, Medina said. But she is still in search of a new place to live.
As a Section 8 tenant, however, she doesn’t have as much say in where she ends up. Medina said she’d like to stay in the same town where she’s resided for the last 9 years, and where her daughter attends elementary school. But she doesn’t know whether the program will be able to fulfill her wishes.
“I explained to [Moss] that I wasn’t going to rip my daughter out of school,” Medina said. “I’ve kept her here because it’s very important for her academically, safely; everything. [The program is] trying to get me pulled out so that I can remain here within the county so she can finish school,” she said.
“I don’t even know if I can rent around here anymore,” she said.
Grounds for eviction
Michael Mirne, an Ocean Township attorney who specializes in real estate law, said that there are only 17 reasons for eviction in the state of New Jersey, and that “the grounds for eviction of a Section 8 tenant are the grounds for the eviction of any other tenant.”
Although about “90 percent of evictions” are related to nonpayment of rent, Mirne said. Sub-Part D of NJSA: 2A:18-61.1 describes a commonly cited statute that includes “violation of landlord’s rules and regulations.”
Moreover, he said, the law doesn’t usually allow “equitable defenses” in court—i.e., whether it would pose an undue hardship on the tenant to be evicted—but he did say that a judge could award up to a six-month hardship stay “provided [a tenant] can meet certain conditions [and] as long as the tenant continues to stay current on the rent obligation.”
Medina just wants to keep her daughter enrolled in Collingswood public schools.
“We spoke to the principal because they said they would try for her education to not be interrupted if we had to move,” Medina said. “The principal said that it’s really not the borough’s place to say because they don’t have jurisdiction over the school. We didn’t get too far with the conversation.
“While you’re worrying about all these things, we have suffered in the worst ways,” Medina said. “It could be worse; there could be more.”