Montgomery landlord allegedly paid enforcer for evictions

There is the standard eviction process: Give the tenant notice and hope that works, go to court and bring in the law if it doesn’t.

And then there is what — according to Montgomery County police — a 71-year-old landlord did: pay $1,000 to a 220-pound tree­removal guy named Bunny to drag a pair of wayward renters out.

The landlord, Martin G. Winepol, has been charged with conspiracy to commit assault as well as conspiracy to commit burglary and robbery, police said Thursday. The latter charges relate to detectives’ assertion that the tree-remover, along with four other people, broke into the tenants’ apartment, grabbed a cellphone from a 72-year-old woman as she was trying to call 911, and broke it as they were dragging and pushing her out, according to court records.

Police allege the accomplice is Garfield “Bunny” Johnson, 50, who has been charged with assault, robbery and other counts.

Johnson admitted to detectives that he was at the scene the night of the altercation — Aug. 6 — and that he saw a commotion and heard Winepol say he was paying several people “to scare and kick-out” tenants, according to court records. But Johnson told detectives that he was there only to collect $1,000 as a deposit for a future tree-removal job, the records state.


Martin Winepol, age 71. Detectives have arrested Martin Winepol and Garfield Johnson (not pictured) for their involvement in this case. (Courtesy of Montgomery County Police)

Winepol and his wife live at the house, which is on Cashell Road in the Olney area and has been carved into apartments, including one leased to a special agent at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to court records. Housing inspectors have joined the probe and condemned the dwelling, saying it had four illegal accessory apartments, five kitchens and 15 occupants.

Winepol, who has been released on bond, declined to comment, referring questions to his attorney, S. David Elling, of the Gaithersburg firm of Elling & Elling.

He declined to comment on the matter but said that early in criminal cases, “things aren’t always what they seem to be.”

Johnson, also free on bond, said he did nothing wrong. “I was falsely accused,” he said.

The allegations

In a narrative laid out in affidavits, detectives allege that Winepol had planned the forced eviction enough to warn at least three other residents to stay in their rooms if they heard noises or screams.

The story begins before that, when two of the tenants — the 72-year-old and her son, 50, who both stayed in a basement apartment — fell two months’ behind in their rent.

At the time, according to police, Winepol had grown frustrated with the length and legal costs of the traditional eviction process. He knew Johnson, who lives outside Baltimore, because Johnson had removed trees for him in the past, police said.


Garfield Johnson, 50. Detectives have arrested Martin Winepol (not pictured) and Johnsonfor their involvement in this case. (Courtesy of Montgomery County Police)

It isn’t clear from the affidavits when and how Winepol may have approached Johnson for the alleged eviction job. But according to the detectives, by Aug. 6, Johnson was headed for the home.

That day, Winepol had conversations with other tenants — including the Homeland Security agent. Winepol asked him if he could borrow $500 to $1,000. The agent said no but drove Winepol to a bank, where the landlord withdrew $1,000. At one point, he told the agent he intended to pay several people to force out other tenants.

Winepol told him to stay in his room if he heard noises. The agent advised him not to force the tenants out, according to the affidavit.

At 8:51 p.m., two calls were placed to 911, one about a woman screaming for help and the other about a woman screaming for help and banging on a window.

The agent heard screams and a door slam and ran out to the driveway, hoping to take down vehicle or license-plate information, court papers say. But by then, the visitors had left.

The female victim told detectives that sometime after 8:30 p.m., she walked from a kitchen to her bedroom and saw a group of strangers. She tried to shut the door on them, but they wouldn’t let her. She yelled to her son, who was outside smoking, for help.

He rushed in and would later describe the group as four men and one woman — all 6 feet tall. At least one of the intruders advised that “the landlord said they had to go and pack their stuff,” according to at least one of the victims.

The 50-year-old tenant suffered a cut and scrapes, but neither victim appeared to have been seriously injured, according to court papers.

Afterward

Winepol told detectives that he hadn’t heard or seen anything suspicious during the night in question, according to the affidavits. Regarding the trip to the bank, Winepol said he needed money for tree removal.

A detective called Johnson, and he agreed to meet in a Best Buy parking lot outside Baltimore. Johnson told the detectives that he went to the residence at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 6. But, he said, he was just there to discuss tree-removal work.

In an interview Thursday, Johnson said that he’s a hardworking arborist who doesn’t steal from people and that every year he holds a soccer tournament to raise money to donate back-to-school bags to children.

Detectives also spoke with another occupant of the home, who said that Winepol told her that he was “going to pay a guy from Baltimore” to scare the tenants into moving, according to the court records.

In 2007, Winepol pleaded guilty to failing to obey a restraining order filed by one of his tenants.

Police had been called to a dispute at the same house, where they asked Winepol to leave the renter’s living area. When he refused, they moved to place him under arrest, according to police affidavits. “Who do you think you are? King?” Winepol told one of the officers, according to a police account. “You don’t tell me what to do!”

Police asked that anyone with information about the case call 240-773-5500.

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Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County. He arrived at the paper in 2005, after reporting stops at the Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun and Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, where he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is the author of The Yoga Store Murder.

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