Fran Breslauer said she and her husband built their dream home themselves. They lived in the three-bedroom home near the San Diego State University campus for nearly six decades. Their two daughters were raised there.
But the 90-year-old was moved out in the spring, shortly after her husband’s death, while a caretaker squatted in the house for several months and rented out rooms against Breslauer’s will, according to court documents and interviews.
The caretaker, 71-year-old Cheryl Sherrell, was arrested Monday on charges of theft, theft against an elder, elder abuse and criminal trespass. Sherrell was arraigned Tuesday.
Over the weekend, several neighbors held a rally outside the house, chalking the word “parasite” on the sidewalk and calling for Sherrell to move out.
A Facebook page called “Get Cheryl Sherrell out of that house” posted a stream of news stories about the saga, along with angry exhortations for Sherrell to leave.
“GET OUT OF FRAN’S HOME, CHERYL,” one post read. “GET OUT OF SAN DIEGO, WHILE YOU’RE AT IT. NOBODY WANTS YOU LIVING IN THIS COUNTY SO KICK ROCKS, YOU LOW-LIFE, ELDER ABUSING LIAR.”
Breslauer hired Sherrell about a year ago to care for her dying husband, Alan. They had a written agreement allowing Sherrell to live in a studio outside the main house while she worked as a caregiver.
But after only a few months, Alan Breslauer complained that Sherrell had done something inappropriate, so she was fired and told to leave, Fran Breslauer told The Washington Post.
Sherrell, however, refused to do so despite receiving a handwritten 30-day notice of termination and remained on the property even after Alan Breslauer died last January, according to a lawsuit filed against her.
Sherrell became violent in February, according to the complaint, which says she forcefully threw Breslauer’s car keys, hitting the elderly woman’s wrist. That same month, Sherrell turned up the water heater to its hottest setting, the complaint states. Breslauer suffered severe burns to her skin after she unknowingly put her hands under scalding hot water.
Sherrell left in March after a judge issued a temporary restraining order and directed law enforcement to remove her from the house.
Fran Breslauer also moved out to live with one of her daughters out of state.
“She didn’t want to be there and put herself at risk,” Breslauer’s attorney, Jason Burris, said in an interview. “She’d already been physically, verbally and emotionally abused by Cheryl. She didn’t move back in.”
At the time, Breslauer was preparing to put the house up for sale, and her real estate agent hired a cleaner to ready the property for showing.
Sherrell, knowing that Breslauer was gone, moved back in the following month, after the restraining order expired. According to the complaint, Sherrell told the cleaner that she was “either the owner or the tenant.”
She remained in the house until she was arrested Monday, four months after the civil lawsuit was filed.
Burris said Sherrell never had a right to stay in the main house. Breslauer’s daughter, Jan, who is also an attorney, said Sherrell was never a tenant, and that she only lived in the studio outside the house as a condition of her employment.
“If you are a squatter or a former employee or a former tenant, and you do a little bit of research on the Internet, you can delay these cases for months,” the attorney said. “This is how the system is designed in California. The defendant has to be given a full and fair opportunity to defend themselves. If a defendant has defenses whether they’re bogus or not, then they still get their day in court.”
Sherrell’s attorney, Lawrence Mudgett III, disagreed with the accusations, saying Fran Breslauer was never forced out of her own home and that she left the state voluntarily. He added that Sherrell was a legal tenant, not a squatter.
“California law is crystal clear. If you employ somebody and as a compensation for their employment, you provide room and board, landlord-tenant law applies,” Mudgett said, adding that even after the 30-day notice of termination had expired, Sherrell continued providing services for Breslauer, including cooking, cleaning and picking up her husband’s ashes from the mortuary.
Mudgett said the handwritten 30-day notice isn’t enforceable because it had the wrong date and did not follow the format required by law.
Sherrell did not return a call on Monday morning, before her arrest. She had successfully sought her own no-harassment order against Breslauer. Mudgett cited a police report on an incident in which Breslauer allegedly assaulted Sherrell.
While living in the house, Sherrell rented rooms to unwitting tenants who responded to ads she’d placed on Craigslist, Jan Breslauer said.
One woman, Connie Follis, told Breslauer’s attorney that Sherrell had been renting rooms to college students. Follis also said that when she went to the house recently, after Sherrell asked for help moving some of her belongings, she saw the garage full of old refrigerators, freezers and appliances, documents say.
In 2010, a duplex that Sherrell was sharing with her ex-husband was featured in an episode of “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” Sherrell told the San Diego Union-Tribune that her hoarding problem grew out of control after she worked at a storage facility and brought home items that customers didn’t want. Their duplex was later filled with clothing, books and boxes of paperwork that they had to squeeze in narrow pathways in the living room, the newspaper reported.
Burris, the attorney, said that pieces of junk have piled up outside the house. Since Sherrell moved in, Burris said, she has locked and chained the property’s gate.
This isn’t the first time Sherrell is alleged to have victimized the elderly.
Cheri Gittins said in a statement to Breslauer’s attorney that she hired Sherrell about 15 years ago to take care of her ailing grandmother. Things went from bad to worse in less than a month, Gittins said; at one point, Gittins noticed that Sherrell wasn’t properly feeding her grandmother. Sherrell also had a boyfriend stay at the house, according to Gittins. When she was fired and told to leave, Sherrell refused to do so.
Breslauer said she has sat awake on many nights, worrying about her home.
“I wonder what she’s doing to my beautiful house that I designed and built,” Breslauer said. “After this experience, I can’t tolerate that. I usually am very trusting. I was quite shocked by this.”
Said her daughter, Jan: “I’m outraged that someone could do this and would do this to my mother — to any 90-year-old. I can’t fathom the cruelty that was involved.”