(originally published in J Journal, Fall 2014)
It’s funny sometimes how things turn out. I had this tenant, a great tenant, Matt, who always paid the rent on time and took good care of the place. That included fixing things himself without bothering me, like leaky faucets and a lot of the other little problems that come up from time to time. And on top of that, he was a really nice guy. One problem with the place, a house I have in Escondido, is that there’s a bee hive under the roof in the garage and the bees can be pretty aggressive. I get rid of them, but then a year or so later, they’re back. This happened when Matt was there and when I told him I’d call the exterminator, he said not to. “The bees don’t bother me,” he said “They gotta live, too, you know.” So because of all that, I felt particularly bad when I found out that Matt had been murdered.
The way I found out was that when I came by the place to pick up the recyclables, the cans and bottles that Matt always put aside for me, there was a claw lock on the front door with a card from the San Diego Police Department saying “Do Not Enter” and giving their phone number. I called the number and got a Detective named David Smith.
He asked me a few questions -- when had I seen Matt last, how well did I know him, did I have his background information? Finally, he told me that Matt’s body had been found just off a road not far from the property. He had been shot. They thought it was a robbery. A picture flashed into my mind of Matt lying in the mud and the weeds. Just my imagining of it, but real to me.
I had to tell Detective Smith that I really didn’t know much about Matt. He kind of tricked me at first. What happened was that a woman who turned out to be his sister saw my ad on Craigslist and said she wanted to rent the house for her son, a kid going to college. She had great credit, owned her own hair salon, there was no problem about first and last and the cleaning deposit. By the time I realized, after a couple of months, that she hadn’t gotten it for her son but for Matt, it didn’t matter. He always paid in full on time, in cash or sometimes with Money Orders. I always gave him a receipt, and that was how the police knew where he was living.
Detective Smith asked for Matt’s sister’s information and told me to please not try to get into the house until they were finished with it.
You might think that finding out that someone you know has been murdered would stop you in your tracks or make some difference, but it doesn’t. You still do what you have to. After I got off the phone with Detective Smith, I went to the place by the side of the garage where Matt usually put the recyclables, but there weren’t any. Maybe they were still in the house.
About a week later, Detective Smith called to tell me he was coming over to take the claw lock off, and could I be there when they did. He didn’t come alone. Three tow trucks were following him. They hooked up the cars Matt had there and hauled them off.
Detective Smith asked me if I hadn’t wondered why Matt had so many cars. I told him that I thought that’s what Matt was doing for money, buying and selling used cars. There were always different cars parked there.
Turns out, all the cars were stolen. Smith told me that Matt was a kind of middle man, buying the cars from thieves and selling them to guys who took them to Mexico. They’d found a stack of license plates in the house and phony DMV papers he’d made on his computer. He had a record, including prison time, which was why his sister had to rent the house for him.
For some reason, I felt I had to speak up for Matt so I said what a nice guy he was. I even told Smith about the bees and how he said not bother the hive. I can’t say he was impressed. He said that Matt was a professional crook and that he would probably have cheated me on the rent when he was ready to leave. As for the bees and the fact that Matt did repairs himself, he said Matt probably didn’t want the exterminators and repair people coming around and maybe figuring out what he was doing. Well, maybe, but then why was he nice about the recyclables? I have a number of properties and I ask all my tenants to keep the recyclables for me, but most of them aren’t as good about that as Matt was. Maybe he figured I would be coming around anyway looking for them. I don’t know. It’s hard to judge people.
Smith pulled out some photos and asked if I recognized any of the guys. I had seen Matt with visitors a couple of times, but none of these looked familiar. He told me they had an idea who the killer was, someone he did business with regularly, who set him up by offering him a car. If Matt thought he might be buying, he would have a lot of cash with him. When they went for a test drive, that was the end of Matt.
I called Matt’s sister after Smith left and she came a few days later to clean out his place. It was pretty sad and we didn’t say much. She only packed up a few things, some papers and some photographs, and left a lot behind – his clothes, some barbells, some kitchen stuff, and told me I could have the rest of it. There wasn’t much I wanted to bother with, except the barbells, which I thought I might start using.
When I went to put them in the trunk of my car, I barely had room because of the bottles and cans that I’d collected from tenants over the past month or so and hadn’t gotten around to dropping off at the recycling center. One bag was from Matt. That’s when I realized that even when I was able to get back into the house, there wasn’t any more set aside for me. That sat in the back of my mind for a while, and then I called Detective Smith.
When I asked him if he would be interested in some cans which might have fingerprints, he said he would be right over. I was right when I guessed the reason the recyclables weren’t there. Smith had taken them but they didn’t find their suspect’s prints on any of them. Maybe they’d get lucky with the ones I had.
Turns out they did. The suspect’s prints were on some of the cans and apparently that sealed the deal. They were able to get the guy to confess. So that was good, and kind of interesting, really. Because Matt had been nice enough to put that stuff aside for me, his killer was going to jail. Is that karma or something?
So that’s my true crime story. I got the Goodwill to come up and get his stuff and I’m having the place cleaned and painted and ready to put back on the market. One thing – that bee hive. I really should get rid of it before I rent the place, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to do it.