By Teresa L. Benns
CENTER—Center Housing Authority Director Theresa (Audrey) Chavez, 61, appeared for a Saguache County Court hearing last week to answer charges of second degree burglary, a class three felony and criminal mischief, a class one misdemeanor, for allegedly failing to use the proper eviction procedure to eject a tenant.
Theresa Chavez’s case was bound over to district court Feb. 28. Her first appearance in district court will be on March 20, 2018 at 10 a.m. Ruben Chavez, also charged in the case by Center Police, currently has a dispositional hearing in county court set for April 11 at 9 a.m.
Theresa Chavez owns property separate from the public housing she directs for the federal government (HUD) in Center. The incident in question happened Aug. 14 and 15, 2017 on her private rental property, a mobile home at 162 West First St., no. 3, in Center. District Attorney Crista Newmyer-Olsen filed charges against Chavez with the court on Sept. 14, 2017. Chavez was served with a summons and complaint by the Saguache Sheriff’s Office Sept. 23, 2017.
Center Police Chief James Gowin says additional charges against Chavez, one of them a felony, are pending with the District Attorney’s office.
Chief Gowin report
According to a report issued Aug. 14, 2017 by Chief Gowin, Officer Moses Heredia was summoned to the trailer by Ruben Chavez because he wanted the tenants in that space to move out. Chavez told Heredia and Gowin, when he later arrived on scene, he’d had a verbal agreement with several tenants in the unit to pay $50 per tenant per week when they first moved in. Because only two tenants remained, Harvey Zomsa and his sister Gisell Mendez, the amount of rent was reduced contrary to the initial agreement.
Zomsa said he had paid rent for previous weeks he stayed at the trailer. He and his sister would be moving out soon when she came home from work, he added.
Gowin carefully explained to Chavez that if the tenants did not wish to leave right away they did not have to. In order for the tenants to leave, Gowin told Chavez in general terms, he and Theresa would need to need to follow the steps in an eviction process for the action to be legal. Chavez then left the scene.
Gowin returned to the police station at Center Town Hall and happened to overhear office staff receive a call from Theresa Chavez, requesting the utilities be turned off for one of her rentals. After determining it was the trailer he had just left, Gowin told the person taking the call that Chavez could not turn off the utilities unless and until she legally evicted the residents. But because Chavez owns the property and demanded they be turned off, the electrical service to the trailer was ended.
The next day, Aug. 15, Gowin was dispatched to the trailer after receiving a call to contact a party regarding the removal of their personal belongings from the residence. Gisell Mendez said that a demand for compliance notice was posted on her trailer door Aug. 14, 2017. Mendez said she found her belongings had been removed from the residence and the locks were changed when she came home from work Aug. 15. Several of her items were missing or damaged, she told Gowin.
State statutes say that the tenants have three days to vacate after the posting is placed on the door. Zomsa and Mendez were given one day.
Mendez said Chavez was upset because when Mendez moved into the trailer in July she had several other family members with her who each paid weekly rent. When the only ones left in the trailer were Mendez and her brother Harvey, Chavez told them to move.
After contacting Theresa Chavez at home, Gowin discovered that she had two men, Charles Dominguez and Fidel Arredondo, help remove the items from the trailer. He told both Ruben and Theresa they did not have the right to enter the residence and remove property without the proper eviction process. Gowin says Theresa became argumentative over the phone and said the tenants had no lease and did not even receive bills there.
Gowin then went to speak to Theresa and Ruben Chavez in person at their residence. He told the couple that in light of their conduct, he would be filing charges with the District Attorney’s Office against them since they chose not to follow the legal eviction process.
Sgt. Arellano report
Two hours later, according to a second report by Sgt. Tim Arellano, Arellano was dispatched to the trailer regarding a dispute between landlord and tenants. He was later joined by Officer Aaron Fresquez. Theresa Chavez began shouting and pointing to broken windows on her trailer, saying she wanted to pursue Zomsa and Mendez for damages. Chavez claimed the two tenants caused the damage trying to enter the trailer after the locks were changed, saying they broke into the trailer.
Arellano said he was aware of the situation and the fact Chavez had not followed the proper eviction process. He informed Chavez that Mendez and Zomsa were still tenants and she could not restrict or prevent them from staying in the trailer. Chavez became enraged and called the Saguache Sheriff’s Office complaining that two evicted tenants refused to leave her property and requested they send a deputy. Arellano told the dispatcher things were under control and a deputy was not needed because Chavez had already been instructed what to do.
Chavez then began shouting it was a standoff, she wanted a standoff, it was her property and she was not going to leave. Arellano told Chavez to get in her truck and leave immediately or she would be arrested for harassment. Ruben Chavez then instructed his wife to get in the truck and leave. Before leaving Chavez told Arellano she wanted an officer to witness the condition of the trailer.
Arellano said no one was going into the trailer until the eviction process was completed. Chavez said she had already been in the trailer to fix the bathroom and Ruben Chavez said he had materials in the trailer he wanted to remove. Arellano repeated they were forbidden to enter the trailer and requested again that they leave. Theresa Chavez was once again informed to follow the proper eviction process and to stay away from Zomsa and Mendez to avoid harassment charges.
Based on Arellano’s report Chief Gowin requested an additional charge of criminal trespassing, a Felony 5, be added to the charges against Chavez.
Body cam videos confirm reports
The police reports are backed up by several very clear body cam videos with sound, recorded during each visit to the trailer park by Center Police. The events detailed in the written reports occur just as they are described. In the videos Chavez offers three or four explanations of the renters’ status on the property.
First she says they have already left and guides one unwitting police officer through the trailer. Toiletries are still on the vanity in the bathroom and personal items on beds in the bedroom. A white SUV is parked in front of the trailer, but Chavez says she does not know who it belongs to. Later Zomsa and Mendez appear and say they will eventually leave, but have not left yet. Chavez then says they need to leave, and at one point calls them squatters.
The video shows both Ruben and Theresa Chavez as angry and argumentative. Chavez seems to have no regard for the belongings laying scattered on the ground.
A spokesperson for the Saguache Sheriff’s Office says Theresa Chavez has requested assistance with several eviction notices in the past that appear to have been properly filed with the courts, but commented Chavez “never goes to the third step,” meaning tenants are assumed to have vacated before having to be physically evicted. The spokesperson added that they did not know the circumstances or what actually took place between the second and third steps, but said they were never called to assist further and no charges were filed by tenants.
Several unconfirmed reports have been received over the years by the Center Post-Dispatch regarding Chavez’s improper eviction of clients from both the HUD housing and her private rentals. Other questionably lawful actions also have been alleged, but those reporting cite their fear of retaliation from Chavez and the Town of Center for not pursuing the matters with police or the sheriff’s office.
Chief Gowin said that during the hearing for Theresa Chavez Feb. 28, three notable Center town officials — Center Trustees Adeline Sanchez and Mary McClure, also longtime political activist Jenny Sanchez — came to support Chavez. “It’s pretty good when the town supports the [person charged] and not their police force,” he commented.