Squatter Murders in L.A. Burbs
Eric Melendez and his mother called the police on June 16, asking for help to remove a squatter who had broken into and changed the locks on a Chatsworth house they were trying to sell. Two officers from the Devonshire station conducted a brief investigation and told the Melendezes to file in civil court legal action against the squatters.
About two months later, on Aug. 12, LAPD, following a tip about a possible homicide, pulled two decomposing bodies from trash bins next to the residence at 20410 Lassen St.
Suddenly, the Melendezes' house was a homicide scene. And Brent Zubek, the aggressive squatter and convicted bank robber who had installed two Rottweiler-like dogs on their property, was a double-murder suspect on the lam.
The events sent a ripple of horror through this laid-back, horse-oriented Los Angeles neighborhood at the outer edge of the city's limits.
Neighbors believe the murdered pair — a couple who apparently had shared the house with Zubek — were part of a daylong stream of creepy characters who came and went from the home during the period leading up to the discovery of the bodies.
Yet none of this had to happen, the Melendezes and residents of Chatsworth tell L.A. Weekly.
"The police knew it was fake," says a disgusted Eric Melendez, 19, of the allegedly doctored lease agreement Zubek showed cops before the tragedies unfolded. When the bodies were discovered at the house a few weeks later, he says, "We had been there — and the cops didn't do anything about it."
LAPD did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Weekly.
Keith Shindoll, a former Dallas police officer who lives across the street from the Lassen house, says he put in a bid on the home more than two months ago, but then somebody moved in. He noticed the electricity was turned back on — he assumed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Soon after that, things went bad at the house, Shindoll says. One night a woman was yelling outside the property's fence, and two men were walking around the perimeter, bizarrely rubbing their heads. Shindoll recognized possible signs of tweeking — methamphetamine use — and called LAPD.
The police came once again but left soon after.
Shindoll says strangers arrived at the house at all hours — a situation that lessened but didn't stop, even after the house was declared a homicide crime scene.
Alan Benavente was moving into a house on the same block on Lassen Street around the time the bodies were found, and he says fire alarms went off more than once and he thought to himself, "Oh God, it's that house again."
When LAPD found the bodies, after responding to a tip, Zubek, 43, had disappeared.
To widespread media coverage, the Los Angeles City Council offered $75,000 for information leading to conviction of the double murderer, and Zubek's mother and sister urged the fugitive to give himself up. Detectives quietly began surveilling a leafy Encino neighborhood on Tibbitt Avenue where Zubek's girlfriend lived.
On Aug. 21, detectives spotted Zubek outside an upscale Ralphs in Encino on Ventura Boulevard at about 9:30 p.m., but Zubek pulled a gun, shot at the officers and fled. LAPD lost his trail, launching a huge house-to-house search involving more than 100 police officers and closing access to a square-mile area of the bustling Valley community.
Police finally cornered Zubek on a rooftop near Gelson's, shot him in the hip and arrested him at around 4:30 a.m. on Aug. 22.
Despite the double murders, neighbors on Lassen Street say LAPD failed to close off the squatter home to further crime and trespassing.
On Aug. 17, five days before Zubek was captured, the Los Angeles Fire Department responded to a fire at the Lassen Street property, according to spokesman Matt Spence. Then, early on Aug. 22, even as cops were searching Encino backyards for Zubek, arson investigators responded to a new fire that had erupted in two rooms and left the squatter house badly charred.
Benavente alleges that LAPD failed to secure the house, a crime scene. "People were moving in and out after the police and reporters left," he claims. Benavente describes the house on Lassen as "completely open" to people tramping through.
"What's going on? Does anybody care?" he says he began to wonder.
Melendez's mother and a business partner purchased the Lassen Street property a few years ago with a plan to convert it to an assisted-living facility. When the economy bottomed out, her partner balked and she was forced to put the empty house up for sale.
Last June, the younger Melendez went to check on the house and found locks on its gate. Two days later, a broker called his mother, warning her that she had tried to show the house to buyers and a man inside had produced a document that he insisted was a lease agreement.
His mother reported the incident to LAPD, speaking with Detective Sandy Lee. Melendez says Lee asked his mother to go to the house with police. As Melendez and his mother waited on the sidewalk on June 16, LAPD spoke to a white man wearing jeans, now known to be Zubek, who refused to let the police in and presented them with purported lease papers.
Melendez and his mother left with the police officer's card, on which the officer had written a short description of the incident. His mother jotted down the squatter's cellphone number and name: Brent Darrin Zubek.
That was the end of LAPD's help regarding the trouble-plagued house — until the bodies of Zubek's two housemates turned up in the trash.
Eviction lawyer Dennis Block says squatters with faked lease documents have become a real problem during the recession, but LAPD and other police departments rarely get involved. "The police will look at a rental agreement or take their word for it," Block says. "The police will say, 'I'm not a judge. You've got to take them to court.' "
Eviction lawyer Melissa Marsh says squatters "can get a lease agreement off the Internet, but when you ask them for proof of payment, they can't do it."
The problem LAPD faced on Lassen Street was that "we don't allow for any jurisdiction to take the law into their own hands, and police don't want to face charges." Block agrees that the police acted properly under the letter of the law.
But LAPD had solid evidence that Zubek was lying.
Melendez says Zubek acted angry, "like a guy who was getting kicked out of his own house," yet when LAPD officers asked Zubek to describe his landlord, Zubek wrongly described a tall white woman. Melendez's mother is Salvadoran.
The DWP says L.A. has 4,715 unoccupied single homes and 35,919 empty apartment units and other multiple dwellings — 4,804 more than in December 2007, when the city had 3,624 vacant single homes and 32,206 multiple-dwelling homes. The DWP determines these figures by counting idle water and power readings.
Los Angeles Housing Department spokeswoman Deanna McNeally, whose agency hosts the city's vacancy data on its website, says it was not "appropriate" for her agency to explain how the City of Los Angeles accounts for, or identifies, squatters who dupe the city into reconnecting the utilities, or who find ways to turn the electricity on themselves.
The DWP did not respond to the Weekly's request for a response. For its part, LAPD is refusing to answer questions about what unfolded on Lassen Street.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.