A Mountain View woman who was arrested on suspicion of coordinating a burglary against a family staying at an apartment she offers for short-term rentals is mounting an aggressive defense, alleging that the occupants should be the ones facing criminal charges.
Sunnyvale resident Reenu Saini told the Voice that she was fully within her legal rights as an "inn keeper" when her cleaning woman and two others attempted to forcibly evict a family from a Rock Street apartment in August. Mountain View police officials consider the incident as an illegal home invasion, and arrested Saini and her four associates. Currently, Saini and two of the four are facing felony charges in Santa Clara County court.
The family, Marc and Elizabeth Klimchok and their three children, are now facing two civil lawsuits filed by Saini.
According to Saini, she is the true victim in the case. As a lessee of the apartment who then rents it out for short-term stays, she says she is hemorrhaging money while the renters haven't "paid a dime" in rent. She alleges the family fabricated proof of employment and bank statements to persuade her to rent them an apartment.
"The real crime here is what's being done to this property. These people defrauded me," Saini said. "They knew how to work the fine print to stay as illegal tenants."
Saini's defense attorney echoed those claims at a preliminary hearing in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Thursday, Oct. 10. Defense attorney Charles Smith told the court that Saini and her co-defendant Steven Carling would be exonerated when a full record of the text messages and emails sent to her tenants becomes available. He claimed that "informal information" that he was still verifying would eventually show that the Klimchok family had lied about their employment and income when they rented the home from Saini.
An attorney representing the Klimchok family emphatically denied those allegations, saying that Saini was fully aware that the family wasn't immediately able to pay rent.
Smith told the court that Saini sent the Klimchok family multiple warnings telling them they needed to vacate the property for failing to pay rent and that she was heading over, Smith said. The Aug. 26 altercation should have been no surprise, he said.
"This wasn't an ambush, the family knew they were coming," Smith said. "Our evidence shows these people were told, 'You're not paying rent; you don't belong here.'"
That line of argument was immediately called out by prosecutors. A formal set of procedures must be followed to evict a tenant, which is supposed to be carried out by law enforcement after a civil unlawful detainer judgment. Saini did not have authority to do this on her own with hired muscle, said Deputy District Attorney Paola Pretorius.
"Whatever wrongdoing the defense is alleging the victims may have perpetrated as to not paying rent, the defendant still doesn't have an open field day to terrify and intimidate these people," she said.
According to the police report, Saini arrived the evening of Aug. 26 with Carling, her house cleaner Lori Ann Walston, and two other people at the Rock Street apartment occupied by the Klimchok family. Saini cut the power to the unit, and Carling went up to the front door, began shouting for the family to leave, and then started kicking the door, splintering the wood. The report says he began thrusting a knife through the cracks while Marc Klimchok was trying to brace the door from the other side.
By this time, the rest of the family had fled out the back door, and multiple 911 calls came into police dispatch reporting a burglary in progress. The Klimchok children told police they were extremely scared; one said she felt like she was having a panic attack.
Mountain View police detained Saini and her four alleged accomplices at the scene. On the suspects' cellphones, they found a detailed text message chat between Saini and Walston discussing how they would seize the Klimchok family's cellphones and scare them into leaving, according to the police report.
All five members of the group were arrested on suspicion of burglary-related crimes. Saini faces additional charges for illegally turning off the apartment's power, as does Carling for attempted assault. Prosecutors have not pressed charges against the other two suspects involved in the Aug. 26 incident, but they filed a new indictment against Walston for burglary.
Marc and Elizabeth Klimchok were present at the courthouse on Oct. 10, waiting in an anteroom ready to testify against Saini and Carling, according to prosecutors.
But attorneys for Saini and Carling urged Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Charles Wilson to delay any formal arguments on the alleged crimes, warning that allowing the Klimchok family to testify should be postponed because they could face criminal charges themselves. Wilson agreed to this request.
"By them testifying under oath, they're exposing themselves to criminal felonies due to how they ended up staying in the residence," said Luz Maria Solis, a public defender appointed to represent Carling. "They need to be aware of the potential consequences of them testifying under oath."
Prosecutors have declined to say whether Saini's allegations of criminal conduct by the Klimchok family are being investigated.
Carlos Jato, an attorney who is representing the Klimchok family in Saini's civil lawsuits, said the defense attorneys' move to prevent the Klimchok's from testifying was nothing more than a delay tactic. The family had just moved to Mountain View in July, and they were initially living at an Airbnb rental managed by Saini. The Klimchoks were current on rent payments, but the lucrative tech industry job that originally brought the family out to California ended up falling through, according to Jato. Around that time, Saini offered to put the family up in the Rock Street apartment, and they signed a rental agreement with the understanding that the family wouldn't be able to pay her immediately, Jato said.
"She knew all along that they didn't have the money when they signed the deal," he said. "To say there's fraud here is just smoke and mirrors."
The Klimchoks say they agreed to pay Saini $3,900 a month in rent for the two-bedroom apartment on Rock Street. But when they reviewed the lease forms, they say Saini had changed the agreement to $10,000 a month.
Saini told the Voice the deal was always for $10,000, a price that she acknowledged seemed high, but it is justified because the place is furnished and often unoccupied due to seasonal rentals, she said. Charging $3,900 a month was nonsensical, she said, because it would mean she was losing money on the $4,500 a month she pays to the property's owner.
She dismissed the Aug. 26 incident, the text messages discussing seizing the family's cellphones and the man who said he had Saini's permission to break down the door.
"That's just an interpretation. It wasn't like we were going in there to steal their phones." she said. "We weren't going to do anything illegal, but I don't think the plan was thought out to that extent."
Prior to the Aug. 26 altercation, Saini says she went to the police at least three times, but they were no help.
Jato, the attorney for the Klimchok family, confirmed that Saini had repeatedly gone to the police, but he says she was told each time that her complaints were a civil matter, not criminal. Instead of going through the civil court process for an eviction, she apparently decided to do it on her own, he said.
"The truth of the matter is even if you have the right, you can't use self-help to do your own eviction," Jato said.
There are currently two active civil lawsuits filed by Saini seeking compensation. One small claims court case is seeking upward of $2,000 in allegedly unpaid rent for when the Klimchoks lived at the Airbnb for which Saini held a lease. A second case seeks $20,000 from the Klimchoks for two months of rent at the Rock Street apartment.
The criminal case against Saini and her co-defendants is now scheduled to return to court later this month.