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A Brief History of People Stealing Entire Houses

Making off with a whole house is hard to manage, hard to get away with and hard on the victims. It also happens more often than you might think.
25 marts 2015, 6:45am

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Last year, VICE reported on what could be the crime of our young century: In May, Andy Pascali of Bucharest lost his entire house in a robbery. That is, his summer residence was completely replaced by corn.

There are obviously a lot of questions that come with a theft like that, starting with how? but also why? Can you sell entire houses, or parts of houses, on some bizarre black market? Was the crime a kind of prank? Pascali wasn't sure, but when VICE Romania spoke to him he warned everyone who owns a house, "You never know when you might wake up to find it missing."

The scary thing about Pascali's warning is that he's right. Since 2010, there have been at least four cases of what we might call housenapping, and the crime is by no means a modern invention. The earliest example I could find comes from a 1874 New York Times story with the headline "A House Stolen."

It's not always easy to decipher from the news coverage just what possessed these master thieves, but I found some trends and sorted housenapping into a few broad categories:

Con Jobs
Back around the turn of the last century, there was con man named George C. Parker, who claimed he was selling New York landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge to his victims, a scheme that apparently worked because people were stupider back then. (He's where we get the phrase "and if you believe that, I've got a bridge to sell you.")

He wasn't the only criminal in history to specialize in property fraud on a massive scale. In Montreal in 1936, police were tricked into helping some clever thieves when someone pretending to be a building owner asked them to supervise the demolition of a large residential building by 500 "unemployed," as the New York Times referred to them. Three of the unemployed, wound up being arrested when the real owner clued the police into the fact that they were supervising a heist.

In 2006, a Pennsylvania woman must have been trying for some similar sort of long con when she tried to trade some bad checks for a house. This did not work, because people are usually pretty cautious when it comes to giant real estate transactions.

Finally, last month in Klamath County, Oregon, a good samaritan reported to the local sheriff that a 1,200-square-foot log cabin had vanished. Law enforcement notified the owner, and the international media got involved. "I was getting calls from the AP [and] the BBC," Sheriff Frank Skrah told a local TV station.

Two days later, the house was found a half mile away, having been moved by someone else claiming to own it. That person had apparently bought it at a rock-bottom price from a third party, leaving the actual ownership of the house in serious dispute. A classic George C. Parker job.

It Wasn't Nailed Down
Casey Friday used to blog a lot about his "Tiny House," which is exactly what it sounds like—it's a cheap living space that's small and on wheels. Modest though it was, someone evidently coveted Friday's diminutive domicile and, last December, stole it. (Luckily, it was recovered a few days later in fine condition, though Friday and his wife eventually decided not to live in it.)

Friday's tiny house theft seems to be the first of its kind, but there were tiny homes long before there was a Tiny House movement. In 1990, a 14-by-20 cottage in Mississippi was lifted onto blocks in preparation for delivery. But then some extremely clever crooks trucked the house away—and even used an old permit to convince the police to give them an escort out of town, according to an AP story.

Just three years ago, the unassembled parts of a prefabricated house in Callala Beach, Australia, were stolen from the site where the house was going to be built. The Lee family had forked over Aus $35,000 for the prefabricated home of their dreams, but people dressed as a construction crew snatched the house parts away, and the dreams along with it. Reported the Illawara Mercury: "One neighbor saw what they said looked like an orange car trailer and others heard what they thought were road workers, and a truck but thought nothing more of it as there had recently been road works in the area."

A fair number of the house thefts of yore targeted modular homes, like the one the Lee family hadn't yet put together. In 1959, a prefabricated house in London that was slated for demolition was carted off, and the manager of the firm that was working on the property told the press, "It was made of reinforced concrete, and it weighs about 14 tons in all."

Fuck You, We're Taking This
One of the most brazen house thefts in history was documented in a 1890 New York Times story titled "A House Stolen by Italians." That year, on July 20, "the greater part of the old Washoe Tool Works" in Newark was stolen. How did that happen? As the Times reported, in the middle of the afternoon, "A large crowd of Italians gathered at the old building, which had been deserted for several years, and began tearing it down." This went on for two hours, and then "Police Captain McManus learned what was going on and he sent a couple of officers to the place. When questioned, the Italians could give no reason for their acts."

Two men were arrested, according to the story.

House thefts this outlandish have become a rarity, unfortunately, but around the turn of the century, they seem to have been carried out from time to time, and—like the one above—involve Italians, for whatever reason. "Four Italians—three men and a woman—were arrested yesterday," begins one such story, from 1911, about people who slowly carried away an entire three-story frame house "said to be owned by a Polish priest who lives in Brooklyn."

But skip ahead to 1975 and there was an anachronistically brazen theft in Tacoma, Washington. A wrecking crew showed up on an otherwise normal Thursday, demolished a house, and carted away the rubble. Which leaves you wondering how they could have possibly benefitted from stealing a bunch of rubble.

That last incident might also fit into my last category:

The House Just Had to Go
Many buildings that get housenapped were abandoned or neglected long before they were stolen.

Take the case of John Thoms, which occurred back in 1981 near Spokane, Washington, and was written about in an article titled, "Man Really Burned Up to Find House Missing." When Thoms discovered his vacation home had burned down after visiting it for the first time in two years, he launched an investigation personally and and uncovered what he believed to be a conspiracy. Apparently, some kids from the area had made it a habit of breaking in to dick around inside it, and local officials had failed to extinguish the fire, file a report, or notify Thoms that his house had burned down—proof, Thoms thought, that the were trying to protect the kids from prosecution.

That on its own might not indicate a cover-up, but then a neighbor flattened the remnants to the ground, leaving just an empty plot. An insurance investigator told the Spokane Daily Chronicle that how the fire was set will probably never be known because "all the evidence has been pushed into a whole and covered with a bulldozer."

That sounds a lot like what happened to Andy Pascali, that Romanian guy with corn instead of a house. As he told VICE Romania:

The house was broken into before in 1996. Back then, they stole the fridge with everything that was in it. I look at the people living in that village and see that they don't have jobs—poverty is very high there. The house is in the village but not in the middle of it, and the neighbors aren't so close.

They didn't steal the house so much as they slowly gutted it until it fell apart. "They cut whatever they could with a blowtorch and left a pile of gravel behind," he said. As for the corn, another neighbor in that impoverished village notified Pascali that he wanted to plant corn on the vacant lot, and did so when Pascali didn't specifically forbid it.

"I'm lucky," said Pascali, "because I live in Bucharest and have two houses—I have all I need."

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