Nobody disputes that Todd Whitely signed a lease for a Highland Avenue apartment in March. Or that Roanoke police arrested the Air Force veteran and his girlfriend there Thursday night, on criminal trespass charges, based on a warrant obtained by his landlord.
Nobody disputes that while they were being fingerprinted and photographed in the Roanoke jail, landlord Sara Brooks had the locks changed to keep them out of the apartment. She told me she’d given Whitely more than 30-days notice to leave and was concerned about the safety of her other tenants.
Nobody disputes that after Whitely, 54, and his girlfriend moved into the apartment, they fought frequently and loudly, and occasionally brawled, and that Roanoke police have responded there repeatedly. City records show six police visits to the address since March 3, not counting the arrests Thursday.
Brooks contends those disturbances violated the lease, which she unilaterally cancelled. Whitely doesn’t dispute that, either.
The debate is over the method by which she evicted Whitley. Was that legal? Brooks, who owns 12 apartments and has been a landlord for decades, assured me it was. A police officer (whom she declined to identify) suggested the strategy, she said.
Whitely is skeptical. His employer, Neil Aneja, who owns 50 rental properties and brought the issue to my attention, said flatly he believes it’s not legal.
It’s an interesting question, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Excepting emergency cases, Virginia courts have been closed since March 16, delaying all landlord-tenant hearings. (The civil division of Roanoke General District Court, which handles evictions, reopened Monday.)
Meanwhile, the federal CARES Act — the same law that resulted in $1,200 stimulus checks for most American workers — has drastically limited many landlords’ ability to evict tenants who haven’t paid rent. The Virginia Supreme Court issued a memo to all Virginia judges about that Friday. Gov. Ralph Northam addressed the issue in his pandemic news conference Monday.
James Steele, a local lawyer who handles landlord-tenant cases, had this to say when I described in general terms the scenario that led to Whitely’s eviction. Steele is not involved in the case, but questioned the strategy of using criminal charges to evict a tenant.
“I don’t need to tell you that everything about this is improper,” Steele said. “It violates every part of the landlord-tenant statute.”
“She can cancel the lease, but she still has to remove them by going to court,” Aneja said.
Events in this drama date to March 1, when Whitely and Brooks signed a lease for an apartment in the 500 block of Highland Avenue. Whitely and his girlfriend — who is not on the lease — moved in. Brooks said she was aware the girlfriend would be living there. (The girlfriend told me she did not want her name in this column.)
Whitely, who told me he’s being treated for bipolar disorder, receives $1,400 monthly in veterans disability benefits, on top of his earnings working as a handyman for Aneja. He also told me he’s currently on probation stemming from felony convictions for assaulting and eluding police. General district court records indicate a number of other less serious arrests. He also said he has a drinking problem.
Aneja admires Whitely a lot, however. He called Whitely a good worker who’s “a genius when it comes to anything electrical.” That may be owing to Whitely’s Air Force experience as a mechanic for B-52 bombers and aerial refueling aircraft.
Brooks said she didn’t do the “usual background checks” for Whitely because she’s sensitive to the issue of homeless veterans, but she did verify his disability benefits.
Brooks said Whitely paid $725 rent for March but none in April or May. Whitely seemed unsure whether he had paid April’s rent. He definitely didn’t pay rent for May, he said. By then, Brooks had already ordered him to leave the apartment.
Brooks told me the back rent isn’t the reason she wants Whitely out. The frequent loud arguments, and the brawling between Whitely and his girlfriend, are the chief problems, she said. She had warned him about that, she added.
Whitely acknowledged the warning. He also acknowledged police have twice arrested him and his girlfriend for fighting at the apartment. He said Brooks canceled his lease by text and that she followed up with a paper notice.
But “I was waiting for a notice to be delivered from the court,” Whitely said. That never happened, because the courts have been closed. In the meantime, Whitely changed the deadbolt on the apartment door to keep Brooks out.
According to the warrant for Whitely’s arrest, Brooks appeared before Magistrate Jeffrey Kyle late Thursday afternoon. Based on her sworn statements, Kyle issued arrest warrants for Whitely and his girlfriend charging them with misdemeanor trespassing at 5:18 p.m.
That night between 9 and 10 p.m., police showed up at the apartment. Aneja, who lives nearby, told me Whitely called him and said police were pounding on his door. Aneja said he went over to Highland Avenue and found seven officers, Brooks, and her handyman, outside.
“I said, ‘He can’t be trespassing, he has a lease,’ ” Aneja told me. “They didn’t want to hear it.”
After police arrested the couple, Brooks’ handyman changed the locks. Whitely was released on personal recognizance but he had to arrange for a bondsman to post bail for his girlfriend. That was $1,000.
Both of them take medications that were locked inside the apartment. Brooks arranged for her handyman to let them in Friday morning so they could retrieve those.
The community action agency Total Action for Progress helped them get a motel room near Crossroads Shopping Center, Whitely said. Whitely’s furniture, clothing and other belongings remain locked in the apartment.
Brooks told me that under normal circumstances, she would have sought the eviction in General District Court. But “because the courts were shut down, I did not feel it was safe for my other tenants to have [Whitely] continue his dangerous and disruptive behavior,” she said.
Monday , Brooks began formal eviction proceedings against Whitely in General District Court. Her lawyer (whom she declined to identify) advised her to do that, she said. That hearing is scheduled for June 9.
The lawyer “also advised me that I should not let Todd into the apartment unless a judge orders me to,” Brooks said.
Whitely’s trespass charge is slated to be heard in General District Court June 22. Something tells me those might not be the last court hearings arising from this matter.