Stephen Edelen picked through the black plastic garbage bags lining the sidewalk in front of his rented Northwest Washington home yesterday, trying to salvage valuables in the wake of his surprise, and apparently erroneous, eviction.
"This is my brother," he said, scooping up a soggy, pocket-sized photograph layered in grime. "I guess I better save that. This is my mother's last will and testament. Can you believe this?" He zeroed in on one of the bags and poked his hands inside. "This must be my bag," he declared with an ironic smile.
Edelen and his four housemates returned to 1439 Q St. NW Wednesday night after work to discover their house empty and what was left of their ransacked belongings on the street. They claim that their eviction -- the culmination of a landlord-tenant dispute -- was a mistake, that a D.C. Superior Court judge had, in fact, ordered that they not be evicted, but that the U.S. marshals who oversaw the action were never informed.
Wednesday afternoon, after movers had emptied the entire contents of the house out onto the sidewalk, Edelen said, "It was simply looted by pas-sers-by and neighbors and strangers. I blame the people in this city who couldn't stand up and stop what was clearly a free-for-all looting of our private lives."
"They tossed out my jewelry box, with all the gold still in it," said Helen Burstin, 23, who moved into the house just three weeks ago. "My parents are Holocaust survivors, and there was a Star of David that my father's sister gave him just before she was gassed at Auschwitz.
"I was named after her, and it was given to me since our initials are the same. It was the only piece of anything we had left from my father's entire family."
Burstin, a third-year medical student at the State University of New York's Upstate Medical Center, is on leave for the year while serving as president of the American Medical Student Association in Reston. In addition to the irreplaceable family heirloom, she said, all of her medical textbooks and three years' of class notes were taken.
The eviction was ordered, according to the tenants and attorneys familiar with the case, after a D.C. Superior Court clerk apparently forgot to submit a notation in the case file that Judge Emmet G. Sullivan had quashed an eviction writ and set a trial date. The U.S. Marshals Service, which oversees evictions, subsequently enforced the writ since they were never told it had been quashed.
The eviction order stemmed from a dispute between the landlord, Dorothea Nelson, and the tenant who had signed the lease in December, Artemus Suarez.
Suarez, managing partner of a firm called Minority Campaign Strategies, said he stopped paying rent in March after city housing inspectors cited about 50 code violations and placed the money in an escrow account.
Kenneth Loewinger, Nelson's attorney, said that she went to court to evict Suarez in April, and the writ for eviction was issued when Suarez failed to show up for a court hearing on the dispute.
The tenants got a stay on the order, and on May 14, Nelson and Edelen went before Judge Sullivan. Suarez was late, and a notation was made in the case file that the defendent was not present, according to court records.
A short time later Suarez arrived, the hearing was reopened and the judge ordered that the writ be quashed and the matter be continued until June 6, according to Suarez. However, the clerk did not make an entry in the court file, according to Suarez and Nelson's attorney.
"The clerk apparently failed to make the appropriate entry saying the judgment was set aside and the writ recalled," Loewinger said. "That's certainly regrettable, but clerks are human too."
Loewinger said that the error came to light when his client made an inquiry about the case and went to Superior Court "to ascertain what the court record was." The eviction proceeded, Loewinger said, because Nelson "acted on the state of the court record when the writ was filed and executed. If you can't rely on the court record, what can you rely on?"
On Thursday, Judge Sullivan held another hearing on the matter in which he reviewed a recording of the May 14 hearing, again quashed the eviction writ and returned the house to the tenants pending a future hearing. The tenants said they are staying with friends and don't want to return to the house.
Sullivan was not sitting in court yesterday and could not be reached for comment.