The letter was a red flag for deputy Tom Letras, who took it to mean that its author did not acknowledge the authority of law enforcement.
He and the other deputy backed away from the rundown, one-story home, which was partially obscured by tall, yellow weeds. They were determined to get more information about the 49-year-old man inside before proceeding with the eviction.
That level of caution is a direct result of a horrific incident in the spring, when a deputy and a locksmith were gunned down and a second deputy injured while attempting to evict a man in Modesto. In a region with a sky-high homeowner foreclosure rate and tenants unable to keep up with the rent, evictions are an all-too-common outcome. Most are sad and emotional, but only one has turned deadly.
Deputies Bob Paris and Mike Glinskas knew very little about Jim Richard Ferrario when they arrived at his home in the Whispering Woods subdivision April 12.
Under an overcast sky, they knocked on his door and announced their presence. When no one answered, locksmith Glendon Engert began drilling the front door lock of the home on Chrysler Drive. Seconds later, armor-piercing bullets tore through the front security screen door, instantly killing Paris and Engert.
The ambush set off a tense, 11-hour standoff on a rainy day that ended with flames engulfing the fourplex. Ferrario killed himself as the fire burned around him.
If only ...
The eviction procedure then did not always involve talking with neighbors, closely inspecting the property before posting a notice or using computers to run comprehensive background checks.
If deputies had, they might have been told of Ferrario's reclusive, paranoid and at times violent behavior. They might have paid attention to the security cameras that surrounded his house. They might have learned that Ferrario had taken great precautions against losing the home that he co-owned with his two sisters, such as leaving the house only at night and letting no one inside.
Even with that information, nothing could have prepared them for what Ferrario would do. A former security guard, he had no criminal record. He inherited rifles and legally acquired handguns.
Deputies in the Sheriff's Department's civil unit now invest more time researching the residents of a home prior to an eviction. They expanded a questionnaire given to landlords and real estate agents inquiring about the tenant's behavior, whether he or she has any weapons, if there is a history of drug use or violence, or vicious dogs on the property.
Also, since Paris and Engert were killed, deputies don't always abide by their busy eviction schedule. If they're on site and something about the tenant doesn't seem right, they'll call for backup or reschedule the eviction.
Volunteers and scared
In April, Letras and deputy Andrew Winter were working in the civil unit, transporting jail inmates to state prison or back to Stanislaus County if they were arrested on a local warrant in a different county.
Three days after Paris was killed, Glinskas and the eviction team's third deputy were out on medical leave. Letras, 39, and Winter, 28, knew the unit would need deputies for the job, so they volunteered. Two days later, they were in the field.
"That first eviction we did on that Tuesday morning, there was a lot of apprehension. I was scared," said Letras, a 15-year veteran of the department. "That first week was hard too because we hadn't even buried Bob yet
and we are out doing the evictions, but we are still grieving the loss of our friend."
It also was difficult for their families, particularly their children, who wondered not only why they had to do the job, but why they would volunteer.
"At any moment one of these guys may have to risk their lives to protect me, and any one of them would do it in a second," Letras said. "We know not one of us is more important than the other and that is kind of what I told my family somebody has got to do it."
After months of mostly routine evictions, their families' fears had started to subside. Then a double homicide occurred Aug. 13 in College Station, Texas, eerily similar to the one on Chrysler Drive.
The Texas incident left a Brazos County constable and a civilian dead and four other people injured when a man opened fire from inside a home where an eviction notice was being served.
Just like a thief
In the twisted minds of a handful of violent evictees, Letras said, "We are just like any other thief that would come into their house to try to steal from them, so they believe they have the right to defend their property with deadly force."
Letras and Winter know they often encounter people at one of the lowest points in their lives. They are angry, scared or frustrated people who can respond any number of ways.
Ideally, the tenants will have heeded the five-day notice the deputies have tacked to the door and moved out before they return.
But Letras and Winter have entered houses that are completely furnished to find the tenant waiting inside, intent on staying until they are forced out.
Before they enter a home, they knock loudly on the door and announce that they are representatives of the Sheriff's Department. If no one answers, a landlord will provide a key or a locksmith will drill out the lock.
"That is the most anxious moment for me, waiting to get that door open so we can get in and search the house," said Winter, who has been with the department six years.
It can be a tense moment for locksmiths as well. Lenin Rodriguez said he was nervous doing evictions after the April shootings. It always surprises him, he said, when he opens the door and people are still inside.
Juan Aveytia has been a locksmith for six years. He was scheduled to do the next eviction with Paris and Glinskas after the one on Chrysler Drive in April. As minutes ticked by and the deputies didn't show, he could hear the relentless wail of sirens echoing throughout the city and had a bad feeling. He called the Sheriff's Department and was told the scheduled evictions for the rest of the day had been canceled.
That was a Thursday. The next week, Aveytia was back at work. He said he hasn't altered the way he does his job because he's always been cautious and stands back while the deputies do their job.
Safety with a gun
At some point in every eviction, deputies enter the house with their guns drawn, clearing each room before the locksmith can change the locks. That's true whether a person answers and opens the door, if a landlord's key is used or if the lock has to be drilled.
If someone is inside, "You have to make a split-second decision," Letras said. "Are they there because they are a threat to me?"
In the case of the Oakdale man who left a warning letter on his door, the deputies spent a week learning the man's work schedule to ensure he wouldn't be at home when they returned.
Several patrol deputies went to the man's workplace while Letras and Winter went to his house. The man was leaving as patrol deputies arrived, so the eviction was nearly called off a second time. But the patrol deputies noticed expired registration tags on the man's vehicle and pulled him over. They told him Letras and Winter were at his home completing the eviction and asked if he had any explosives or weapons there. The man was cooperative. It turned out he already had moved most of his belongings.
Evictions can take as little as five minutes if no one is home. The locks are changed and a notice is posted inside on a window, notifying the former tenant that he or she can be arrested for trespassing if an attempt is made to re-enter the home. The landlord or bank is required to give former tenants at least 15 days to collect their belongings and can charge reasonable storage fees during that time.
Letras and Winter serve seven to 25 eviction notices in one day. Evictions are done Tuesday through Thursday. In between serving eviction notices and on Mondays and Fridays, the deputies also serve bank levy forms, restraining orders and paperwork for small-claims lawsuits.
About 60 percent of the time, the tenants have moved from the home when the deputies return to evict them, Letras estimates.
Staying out of fear
Even if someone is home, the deputies recognize the person doesn't always stay out of defiance.
Carla Triplett didn't want to leave her home in Turlock to apply for homeless assistance at the Stanislaus County Community Services Agency two weeks ago because she feared she would be locked out when she returned.
She was in tears when deputies arrived, but repeatedly told them she understood she had to go.
Triplett, 46, lost her job as a saleswoman for an assisted living center in January. Although she's had some temporary work since, she hasn't been able to find full-time employment to support herself and her three children. For the first time in her life, she had to apply for government assistance. It didn't cover even half her $1,200 monthly rent. She relied for months on the generosity of friends to supplement her meager income, but by July, it wasn't enough to stay in her home.
"I get to go and file to be homeless; I don't know how to do that," she said. "I have a lot of skill sets; being homeless is not one of the skill sets that I have."
Normally, Letras said, tenants are given five minutes to get medication and a change of clothes before the locks are changed. Triplett's landlord stayed at the home for an hour so she had more time to collect her belongings.
Triplett took her birth certificate, passport, a change of clothes and a toothbrush.
Her twin 17-year-old sons, who are seniors at Turlock High School, were split up. One went to stay at Triplett's sister's house and one to a family friend's home. Triplett's 18-year-old daughter left for college the day she was evicted. She has a wrestling scholarship to Missouri Baptist University.
That night, Triplett slept in her car in a hotel parking lot in Turlock.
The next day, several friends opened their homes to her to live for a short time and allowed her to store her things. Friday, Triplett had applied for a homeless program at the Stanislaus County Community Services Agency. It will pay for her to stay eight days in a hotel, and she will get $450 for a security deposit on a new place to live. Apart from that, she will have $608 in government assistance for living expenses.
Hard, emotional decisions
During the heat wave in early August, Letras and Winter went to a home in Modesto where a 40-year-old man who had suffered a debilitating stroke lived. The man had partial paralysis and slow, slurred speech. He used a walker to move to the front porch and sat on a step after the locks on his home were changed.
He had no one to care for him, so the deputies called Adult Protective Services. But he refused their offer to house him in a board and care facility. Letras and Winter couldn't leave him on the porch in 104-degree heat so, finally, they had to commit him on a 72-hour hold at Doctors Behavioral Health Center because he couldn't care for himself.
The daily scenarios Winter and Letras faced are emotionally charged.
"We have hearts, too, and it's not easy for me to tell a family of five, 'You can't live in this home anymore that you grew up in because the bank owns it now,' " Winter said.
"You sometimes feel like you are displacing these kids," Letras said. "We have to remind ourselves we didn't do this. We are just here to make sure it happens peacefully and, hopefully, so no one gets hurt."
The deputies have seen landlords lose homes while renters file multiple times for bankruptcy, continuously appealing evictions and living rent-free in a home for more than a year. They have also evicted tenants who have paid their rent on time every month and have no idea their landlord has defaulted on the mortgage and is in foreclosure.
Letras and Winter's workload is relentless. Soon, two more deputies will be added to help serve evictions and court papers.
"I hope I do the best job I can and honor Bob's memory," Letras said. "We are filling in for a fallen brother, making the right choices and not letting his loss be in vain. If we can learn from his sacrifices, then we are doing our jobs."
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2366.
The eviction process can be lengthy and complicated. Landlords must follow strict legal guidelines to ensure that it is executed properly. Modesto attorney Anthony Drew Rowe, who specializes in unlawful detainers, explained the basics of the eviction process for landlords and tenants:
If a tenant has breached the rental agreement, most often because they failed to pay rent, the landlord can serve a three-day notice to "pay or quit."
If the landlord wants the tenant out of the house for any other reason, such as they plan to sell the home, the tenant must be given 30 to 60 days to move. The reason must be legal, not discriminatory. If the tenant has lived at the home less than a year, they have 30 days to move; if they have lived there more than a year, they get 60 days.
If the landlord serves a three-day "pay or quit" notice, it must include specific language such as the address of the property, who the rent is paid to and the telephone number of the landlord. The tenant must receive the notice in one of three ways: It can be personally handed to him, it can be given to a third party at the home who is at least 18 years old and mailed to the tenant, or it can be mailed to the tenant and posted on his or her door.
If the tenant does not pay within the time specified on the notice, then the landlord can file in civil court a complaint of unlawful detainer, commonly referred to as an eviction.
A process server must attempt at least three times to serve the tenant in person with a summons. After three attempts, the summons can be posted on the door and mailed to the tenant, who then has five days to respond. A landlord can also file a "prejudgment claim of possession," which not only applies to the person named on a rental agreement, but also to anyone else who claims to live in the home. Anyone in that home has 10 days to respond.
If those served with the summons do not respond, a judge restores possession of the property to a landlord, and a deputy will post a five-day notice on the door. They will return after that time and remove the tenants from the property. The locks are changed and the tenant has 15 days to collect his or her belongings but cannot stay in the home.
The foreclosure process works differently but once a home is foreclosed, the former owner only gets three days to move. If they have rented to a third party at a "fair rental price," then the same eviction process applies to that tenant.