North Bay Tenant Accused Of Evading Rent For Years

SONOMA COUNTY (CBS 5) — As the California rental market heats up, landlords need to do their homework.

Connie Cook bought a Sonoma County property eleven years ago, hoping to spend her retirement years there. Her plan was to rent out the converted barn to help pay the mortgage.

That plan was working well, that is until a single mother moved in with her teenage son in 2009.

Soon afterward, Gwen Smith, the new tenant, started complaining that a gas leak and unhealthy water were making the apartment uninhabitable.

Then, Smith stopped paying rent. But when Cook tried to evict her, Smith, who has a law degree, fought back in court by filing motion after motion – all while paying no rent.

A judge eventually ruled that Smith’s conduct was “malicious,” and her numerous court filings amounted to “tactical delay.” He awarded Cook $49,000. But, unfortunately for Cook, Smith appealed the judgment, and that case is still pending.

It turns out this wasn’t the first time Smith had stopped paying her rent.

As Connie Cook’s finances dwindled, she turned to her local legal aid office, which told her they knew Gwen Smith. They called her “notorious.”

Sebastopol homeowner Barbara Wilt rented part of her house to Smith in 2008.

A few weeks after moving in, Smith allegedly changed the locks, and began complaining that the apartment was uninhabitable.

But, when Wilt tried to enter the house to fix the alleged problems, she was met with a nasty surprise: the police.

Smith had called the police claiming someone was trying to break in. In one encounter, Smith even pepper sprayed Wilt.

“I just felt this liquid on my face, started swelling up, couldn’t see, it was horrible,” said Wilt.

When Wilt took Smith to court, Smith countersued, claiming she and her son suffered “property damage, illness, infections, and emotional trauma” – all from living in Wilt’s “hellish basement.”

Wilt eventually won a default judgment for more than $42,000. But Smith appealed that judgment as well.

A month ago, after three years of legal battles and a trip to the Supreme Court of California, the Supreme Court ruled in Wilt’s favor, upholding the judgment against Smith.

And that’s just two cases. CBS 5 found a total of eight judgments in eviction proceedings against Smith in four states.

Smith’s law degree helped her work the system, but experts say California’s tenant protection laws worked to her advantage.

According to attorney Jim Sansone, tenants can withhold rent while a case is pending. Faced with motion after motion, most landlords, he said, simply give up.

“I have a lot of landlords who come to me and say, you know what, I am going to figure out what the cost of defense is, and I am going to offer that to the tenant and waive all my rights,” said Sansone.

CBS 5 offered Smith a chance to share her side of the story. After two weeks we tracked her down to the small town of Forestville.

Smith wouldn’t speak with us, and her most recent landlord didn’t want his name used. But, he did tell CBS 5 that Smith stayed for three months without paying rent.

The day after our encounter with Smith, she moved out of the Forestville home. Her whereabouts now are unknown.

Meanwhile, Barbara Wilt is still waiting to collect on her judgment.

“I still am just so flabbergasted and shocked and so disappointed and disillusioned with our justice system,” Wilt said.

Connie Cook is still waiting for her money too. But, even if she gets it, it is already too late. Living on Social Security and with no rental income, Cook fell behind on her mortgage payments and lost her farmhouse to foreclosure.

“It breaks my heart, just breaks my heart,” Cook said.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

  • Tweeni

    Gwen Smith has been committing this fraud in many states. See:

    She is notorious and she uses her son in each one. She is wanted on Oregon as well as other states and has numerous alibis. What a con artist! Unbelievable that the system protects her and thatni was able to pull this info up in seconds but the person writing this article could not.

  • Karen Finch

    How is it this does not constitute criminal fraud? Anyone ask a DA about it?

  • GeoOT

    How is it that Gwendolyn Smith has not made it onto the California Vexatious Litigant List? From the stories it would seem like it would be appropriate.

  • Guapi

    How can we get our laws changed??? It is so easy to take advantage of the system and wreak havoc on good people’s lives. I have run across several con artists like Gwen (seem them do damage to my employers) and the laws not only protect the perpetrators, they enable them.

    My heart goes out to Connie and Barbara. I hope Gwen gets locked up for life!
    (And that would hardly be punishment enough).

  • Matthew

    Guapi :

    Give me a break. We shouldn’t gut our landlord / tenant laws because of one extreme case… The laws are there to protect alot of people from being thrown out onto the streets when their dealing with a jerk who won’t fix the plumbing..

    The people that complain about the laws are also often the same people who complain about homelessness… Well, you can’t have it both ways…

    • Guapi

      I didn’t say to “gut our laws”, I said change them so a that a scam artist (deadbeat, parasite, criminal, abuser, etc…) cannot get away with not paying the rent. Property owners do not deserve that. I don’t own property myself but I respect other’s property and when I leave an apartment, I leave it in the same (or better) condition than when I first arrived there.

      I also know for a fact that there are more jerks who destroy things in apartments than there are jerks who don’t fix the plumbing. And anyone with half a brain can figure out who the jerks are that don’t fix the plumbing….BEFORE they sign the lease and move in.

      Give me a break!! You’re comment about homelessness is ridiculous. You’re basically saying that if I had it my way and the laws were changed, then homelessness would become a huge problem. Here’s a newsflash, I’m not getting my way (yet) and the current laws are not going to change anytime soon and guess what… Homelessness IS a huge problem.

    • Shirley

      Most renters are leeches who think their landlord is some fat cat sitting on a pile of money who can afford to be their personal charity.

      • Bill

        Well Said and they are helped by federally funded attorneys. I bought a 4plex couple of years ago and having a hell of a time with it because you get low life people who do not want to pay and go to these attorneys who help low income people and they don’t have to pay a dime for attorneys and even the attorneys know what is going on and helping them commit the fraud.

    • matt doesn't get it

      you’re an idiot. nobody is complaining about homelessness here. we’re complaining about this scammer. get a clue!

  • Garry

    Wake up and get over it people. Ours is a system of laws, not a system of justice. Justice is irrelevant. It is a system designed by lawyers for the benefit of lawyers. Did you notice that the people who wasted their money winning a judgement against this woman haven’t benefitted from their “victory”? As for allegations of criminal fraud, DAs are lawyers too. They will only turn on one of their own if there are enough votes to be had out of it. Don’t look for honor among thieves.

  • K.J. Pierson

    Sounds like the simple solution is to catch her sleeping one night and…well you figure out the rest.

    • daffy

      Amen to that! I’m all for vigilante over legal anyday.

  • ThinkPositive

    II feel so bad for Ms Cook, what a nightmare and a shame. I have in the past been a renter for almost 20 years and had the best landlords in the world. I ended fixing up the place as needed because they never raised my rent and since I was good at fixing things, that saved them money and in the long run we had become the best of friends. Life was very good to us all. Now I am paying a mortgage and I have no job. Go figure. So what happened to Ms. Cook?

  • The Cat House

    Anonymously invite the homeless to occupy that house. ;)

    Have them bring their cats, lol!

    For as long as the rent is not paid.

  • grateful

    Thanks so much for running this story. Your attorneys will be spending time fending off meritless defamation claims, no doubt. I hope this will prompt the DA to bring racketeering charges against her, and/or CA legislators to modify the tenant protection laws so the tenant must at least continue to pay disputed rents into the court. Such is the law in Oregon, which greatly helped several landlords there. Since Gwen was unable to stay for free, she had to move on. If she or her son, Zeus are sighted, I hope folks will notify authorities.

  • Kristy Carol

    Background check would of saved these landlords. Cost is minimal. I charge the applicants for credit and background check. 9 times out of 10 they never return the application as they don’t want to pay for a negative report on their credit or Judgements against them.

  • Closer Look: Bay Area Problem Tenant Emerges In Oregon « CBS San Francisco

    […] = {"templates":{"twitter":"{{title}} {{url}}"}};}SONOMA COUNTY (CBS 5) — A few weeks ago, CBS 5 reported on a woman who avoided paying rent for years. She had numerous court judgments against her, and owes more than $100,000 to landlords, some in […]

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