x

Landlord facing charges had previous complaints against him

A Friday Harbor landlord recently charged with voyeurism and residential burglary was in small claims court with a tenant in November. That case against him was dismissed.

Ryan Bennett, 44, was charged with Residential Burglary with Sexual Motivation and Voyeurism in San Juan County Superior Court in early May.

On Nov. 17, 2020, San Juan County District Court Judge Carolyn Jewett heard the testimonies of the accused, Bennett and the accuser, Joyce Murdock-Feilke, who had rented a unit at 380 Argyle Ave. from Malcom Street Properties from May to September 2020.

Bennett is listed as a governor on the Malcom Street Properties, LLC, according to the Washington Secretary of State.

Murdock-Feilke brought the claim against Bennett, along with a request for a protection order that was denied, in October 2020. She accused Bennett of fraudulently renting her a commercial property claiming it could be lived in; later leasing her an unlivable unit; failing to return her security deposit; and the loss of a hard drive. When Murdock-Feilke initially filed the notice of a small claim, she was seeking $4,400, but at the time of the hearing, she had changed the request to $5,280.

“I had invested several hundred dollars into custom shelving for the unit, then was forced to move out due to his zoning violation and was not reimbursed for any of my expenses. I was forced to move into his smaller back unit because it was during the pandemic Phase One and I could not travel home and there was no other place to go,” Murdock-Feilke told the Journal. “In the smaller back unit there was no deadbolt on the door, no bathroom sink, no window that could open for ventilation, and it reeked with paint fumes since he was painting the interior of the building.”

The building is located within the Town of Friday Harbor’s Commercial Zone. Permitted uses within the town’s Commercial Zone include, “Ancillary residential uses on other than ground floor street front areas shall be less than 50 percent of the total habitable square footage. (Ord. 1372 § 10, 2008; Ord. 1172 § 39, 2001).”

Murdock-Feilke originally leased the street-facing unit and began to prepare the space to open a bookstore, she told the court in November. When it was discovered she was living there, the town sent a letter addressing code violations and upon this revelation, Bennett said at the hearing Murdock-Feilke wanted to move into the back unit — one wherein a residence is allowed, according to both parties. But it was not in livable condition, according to Murdock-Feilke.

“It had not passed any inspections for occupancy — electrical, plumbing or anything,” she said at the November hearing, adding that no windows in the unit were able to be opened and she felt overwhelmed by paint fumes. “At times, when I complained to the landlord that it was unhealthy — especially in June and July with all the paint fumes — Ryan and his mother promised to get a window that can open for ventilation. But they never did.”

Another part of the lease that Murdock-Feilke said was not met by her landlords was Wi-Fi availability. For three months, Murdock-Feilke continued, she had to park outside of the Rock Island office and work in her car to have access to the internet. At the end of July, she called Rock Island and discovered Bennett had never submitted an application for internet to be installed at the location, she said at the hearing. She set up an appointment for Rock Island to install Wi-Fi in her unit.

“In addition to being unventilated and unhealthy, it increasingly became a hostile environment because the landlords were covertly continuing to lease their commercial units as residences, knowing full well that it was in violation of town ordinance,” Murdock-Feilke said, adding Bennett told her to not talk to the town inspector should he show on the property. “[Bennett was] implying that it was my fault that the town had discovered that I was living in the commercial unit.”

On Sept. 1, Bennett entered the unit and removed the Wi-Fi installed, “in a very aggressive manner,” Murdock-Feilke said at the hearing.

“He was angry because he wanted all the units in the building to use the one password that had been entered for my Wi-Fi,” she added.

Jewett asked if the Wi-Fi that was installed was in Bennett’s name. Murdock-Feilke said an internet connection was part of her lease, but the subject was dropped at the hearing and never brought up again.

On Sept. 4, Murdock-Feilke informed Bennett and his mother — who owns Malcom Street Properties — she was moving and expected her full deposit prior to vacating the property, Murdock-Feilke stated.

“I knew they needed my unit for one of the other tenants who was residing there illegally in commercial unit 2,” Murdock-Feilke said. “And since they had a pattern of being deceptive and dishonest with me in the past, with the first lease that I was given, I told them that I needed my deposit returned at the time I left because I didn’t really trust them.”

On Sept. 6, Bennett replied via text that he would return the deposit and inspect the apartment on Sept. 8, according to a copy of the conversation submitted as an exhibit in the case. Murdock-Feilke said she reported her leaving to the Malcom Street Properties bookkeeper, asking her to hold the rent check so she could submit a prorated one once she received her security deposit back. She also signed a lease on a new place on Sept. 6, assuming she’d be able to move out on Sept. 8.

On Sept. 8, Murdock-Feilke said she called the San Juan County Sheriff’s office to request someone be present for the inspection.

“Because I had not seen him since that incident on Sept. 1 when he was so aggressive removing my Wi-Fi, and I didn’t really feel safe being there by myself without someone present,” Murdock-Feilke said at the hearing. “It was because I was worried because of the triggered anger I had experienced before.”

The move-out date came and went without Bennett showing up to do the inspection, according to Murdock-Feilke.

“I tried to reach him several times, but he never responded,” she said. “I really believed that he would have kept his word, but so often, as was the case with Ryan, when he made a decision his mother would undermine it and then things would become chaotic.”

Murdock-Feilke said she stopped payment on her September rent check, but heard nothing back from her landlords until she arrived at the unit on Sept. 14 to a note saying she had 14 days to move out. She said she had waited at the unit every day for Bennett to come inspect it and to return the deposit, but he never came. The eviction notice was posted amid the state’s COVID eviction moratorium. On Sept. 28, she arrived to find she had been locked out.

Jewett noted that in the exhibits, Murdock-Feilke had told the Malcom Street Properties bookkeeper she was going to continue to reside in the unit until her lease expired on Oct. 31.

“I was not leaving until they followed through with their agreement and he avoided coming over to follow through,” Murdock-Feilke said. “This was the second time I had trusted what they said and I couldn’t depend on them so I was just waiting until they followed through. … I was waiting for Ryan to follow through with what he said, but he didn’t, he just put a note on the door.”

When Murdock-Feilke arrived on Sept. 28 and found the door locked, she expressed concern because while she had moved most of her items out of the unit, she said she still had a hard drive, documents, dishes and other assorted items. They were in bags outside the residence, she said, and the hard drive was missing.

“I thought you moved out?” Jewett questioned.

Murdock-Feilke replied, saying she had been at the unit daily working and waiting for Bennett to do the inspection.

“So you were occupying the unit during the day,” Jewett said. She concluded there was no hardship caused to Murdock-Feilke by her being evicted.

“You can’t be evicted if you’ve already moved out,” Jewett said. “Did you not think that he would probably come on the 28th?”

Jewett reiterated small claims court’s purview is very narrow and that the court cannot award monies for pain and suffering or emotional distress.

“She doesn’t really have anything that justifies this case,” Bennett said at the hearing. “Why am I here, to be quite honest? I think it was misdirected.”

Ultimately, Jewett concluded that Bennett was not the proper person to be named in Murdock-Feilke’s lawsuit and suggested she bring it up against Malcom Street Properties.

“I’m an employee of Malcom Street Properties,” Bennett said. “I’m a waiter, essentially, not a chef, if that makes sense.”

Bennett is listed as a governor on the Malcom Street Properties, LLC, according to the Washington Secretary of State.

“Who would you expect to be the chef of Malcom Street Properties?” Jewett asked.

Bennett replied: his mother.

Jewett asked why Bennett didn’t show up for the Sept. 8 meeting. After claiming it was late at night when he received the text, he added, “She was holding our apartment hostage and wanted her deposit before she moved. No landlord in history has ever done that.”

Bennett then said Murdock-Feilke began to retaliate. He added that until her relationship with him changed, she had been one of his favorite tenants.

“One day, everything changed. I don’t know what went wrong,” he said. “It kind of broke my heart, really.”

Ultimately, Jewett dismissed the case against Bennett with prejudice.

“I think there’s a lot of issues here,” Jewett said. “I’m not particularly impressed by the behavior of either party towards each other. It sounds like there’s been a lot of game playing on both sides.”

Jewett explained she believes that Bennett and Murdock-Feilke were “playing chicken with a landlord-tenant situation seeing who can call whose bluff.” She concluded the complaints brought up by Murdock-Feilke were things that would fall under the responsibility of Malcom Street Properties.

“So it doesn’t really make any sense to hold Mr. Bennett responsible unless he’s acting so far outside of his business purview that he should be held personally accountable for damages,” Jewett said.

Jewett stated Murdock-Feilke made “a number of inconsistent statements” about what she was doing in the unit — particularly in occupying during the day and having valuable property locked in the unit.

“Even if you’re not spending the night there, if you’re occupying a unit, you’re living there, if you’re occupying your days there,” Jewett said.

She reminded Murdock-Feilke that she was free to file a claim against Malcom Street Properties.

“I think Miss Feilke has some real claims here and that there has been some poor behavior here. But, legally, I think Mr. Bennett is not personally liable for them,” Jewett said. “And there’s still some open questions about what really happened and how much Malcom Street Properties might be liable or not liable. They would need to come into court to answer to that.”

Murdock-Feilke told the Journal she has not filed another suit against the company because after her experience in court she felt disappointed and didn’t feel as though it would help. Additionally, Bennett has a lawyer and she does not, she added.

“I lost faith in getting fair treatment in the courts of Friday Harbor after several conversations with town inspector Mike Bertrand. He told me that Ryan Bennett and his mother Lyn Danaher have a long history of getting away with violations. I had invested a few hundred dollars in filing this lawsuit and the restraining order request (which wasn’t granted), as well as six weeks of gathering FOIA information from the town clerk; so, I decided not to invest more time and money on top of what I had already lost.”

Murdock-Feilke brought the suit against Bennett because he was the one who had locked her out of the apartment, put her belongings in the yard, had been aggressive when removing the Wi-Fi without authorization and allowed her to order several hundred dollars worth of custom shelving for an apartment she ended up not being allowed to reside in, she explained.

“Ryan Bennett is responsible for all of the things that I addressed in my suit. Malcolm Street Properties is just an LLC that serves to protect him. I wanted to sue Ryan Bennett, and I did, but the judge didn’t think he was responsible for any of his own behavior. I think the judge’s decision was very unfair,” she said.

If you have information related to the current charges against Bennett, contact Detective Raymond Harvey at 360-370-7028 or email rayh@sanjuanco.com; or Detective Lukas Peter at 360-370-7625 or email lukasp@sanjuanco.com.