Over the span of twenty-plus years, a component of my business was to represent lenders in the sale and disposition of foreclosed real estate.
Many of these were family homes.
I am an empathetic guy; I have been the underdog in my own lifetime and again, and being a liaison between the lender and the borrower many times put me at emotional cross-purposes. I found ways to advocate for the dispossessed while maintaining my fiduciary responsibility to the lenders. But it wasn’t always easy.
There are many encounters I will long remember, but among these, there is one singular experience that stands alone.
The home assigned to me was located within steps of the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500 mile race. It was a modest single-level home in a pleasant neighborhood and it appeared to have been well-maintained. The occupant could not be contacted and there was a full house of furniture and personal belongings inside. Having exhausted all methods of communication with no results, the court ordered the Marshal to accompany myself, a locksmith, and moving crew to open the property, give the occupant time to gather personal belongings, and secure the property, preparatory to selling it.
Since I was the legal representative of the lender, it all fell on my shoulders. In an occupied property breach, I insisted on using qualified and sensitive people; no rubes or oafs were tolerated.
This isn’t about real estate, it is about real people.
These characters assembled at the home on a crisp blue Spring day. The Marshals always take the lead in case there is a conflict. They knocked and identified themselves several times at the front door. One officer positioned himself at the back door. For several minutes they repeated their efforts. This is not unusual. Whether the occupant is a renter or owner makes little difference. Emotions surrounding one’s home are strong, and losing control over a residence is a gut-wrenching experience.
At length it was decided to walk to the rear door and try to rouse the occupant. As the group walked the short distance from the front stoop, around the north side of the structure, we passed a small open window, screened against aerial pests. The screen and shadows barred our view of the interior, but as we passed the portal, a clear and distinct voice came from inside the house. It was the voice of an elderly woman.
“What’s going on out there? Who’s here?” She asked.
There were four of us walking together; we all heard it and stopped. JJ, one of the Marshals, responded kindly.
“Marshals, ma’am. Sorry, but it’s time to leave. Can you open the door for us?”
“Oh, my. I’m sorry about all this. Yes, I’ll open the back door.”
We walked to the rear door where another Marshal had been standing, and joined him while we waited. The mood among the group was a grab-bag of emotions. None of us found any enjoyment in this procedure; we were messengers of bad news, appendages of the evil money-lenders. We were doing our jobs, and all of us kept an eye toward kindness and leniency. We were relieved that contact had been made; the locksmith stood by, but we were all convinced that he wouldn’t have to pick the door open. Occupant co-operation in the face of inevitability makes my job easier, but it did little to relieve the angst in the process. This was tough on all of us, all grown men supporting families in our roles as part of the machinery dismantling national banking fraud — and counting bodies and lives along the way.
We waited; we chatted about this and that, about the lucky break of making contact, about the sensitivity needed to respect the elderly occupant’s dignity, and the possibility that we might be able to address some of her pressing concerns using resources at our disposal.
We waited about five minutes. The Marshals repeated the knocking and appeals routine. No response. We waited.
The decision was made to open the door. At this juncture only the locksmith and Marshals gather near the door. Opening the door to such a home can be dangerous; I have been beaten to within an inch of my life by an angry man wielding a brick. I prefer to let the guys with uniforms and weapons handle this. Barry, the locksmith, had the door open quickly. He stepped aside. The Marshals drew their weapons and announced themselves as they stepped inside.
Normally this step takes only a couple of minutes. The officers clear the house room by room, then give the team an all-clear to move forward with our appointed tasks. We waited. We waited for about ten minutes, an inordinate and puzzling length of time.
JJ walked out the back door, his face furrowed, brows frowning.
“Nobody’s in there. We’ve searched every room, the attic and the basement. Nobody’s home.” He stopped, and looked at us in wide-eyed dissonance.
We looked at each other, at JJ, then wrinkled our own brows. Heads cocked, silent inquiries made. JJ motioned the all clear and we filed through the back door. Each of us made more or less the same observations repeatedly:
“We heard her at the window! Where could she have gone? Are there any other windows open? (As if an elderly woman could crawl through one..) Was somebody at the front door? (Yes) Did we look everywhere? (yes)”
There was nobody home. This normally upbeat and cheery group of men had worked together on many of these assignments. Playful banter was normal — but there was only sober discussion that day.
It is not unusual for neighbors to take interest in this type of hubbub. I stood outside, filling out forms and reflecting on what had just happened. A soft-spoken neighbor approached me, and asked for some details. I gave him the boilerplate answer; the property is now lender-owned and we are cleaning and securing it prior to marketing.
The gentleman understood.
He shook his head affirmatively without much comment, and planted himself in the shade of a large Elm tree, content to watch the show. He watched without comment for a few minutes, then turned to walk back to his house across the street. On his way, he stopped to chat with me again.
“I knew this was coming, just didn’t know when.”
A common refrain from neighbors; I heard it often.
“Did you know the owner of the house?” I asked him.
“Yes, I knew them for many years. The husband died a few years back, and the wife lived alone since that time. She was a kind elderly lady, very gentle.”
“When was the last time you saw her?” I was just making small talk.
“Oh, she passed away, right here in this house about a month ago.”
He smiled and gave a little wave as he turned and walked across the street.
I smiled back.