FAIR OAKS, Calif — A white Spanish-style home owned by Karen and Skip Morairty is tucked away in Fair Oaks. To them, the house hold precious memories.
"It was our first house. We got married there. We had our wedding reception there," said Karen. "As our family grew, we needed a larger place."
Rather than sell, the Morairtys moved into a bigger home not far away. They've been renting their beloved Fair Oaks home to several tenants for the last 34 years but always planned to return once they became empty nesters.
"We had made it into an investment, but we planned to downsize and go back there," said Karen.
With their youngest moved out, they decided to lease the house one final time and posted it on Craigslist. When Ann and Mario Figueroa reached out, they met for a house tour.
"They were a mature couple," recalled Karen.
"They were older, didn't have kids or pets or anything," said Skip. "(We) had a nice long conversation. It was all set. They seemed like wonderful people."
To seal the deal, Karen requested documents, including a credit report and 401(k) statement which said Mario had $455,823.80 saved.
"He has probably 20x as much as I have in my 401(k)," said Karen.
Left with a good impression and knowing the Figueroas had the funds to pay rent, the Morairtys handed over the keys in Aug. 2022. There were problems immediately.
"We deeply apologize. Mario's grandfather passed away last week. We had to contribute," was a portion of the text Karen received from Ann when they were late on rent in Sept. 2022, just one month into living there.
Karen and Skip got more excuses every month instead of the rent payment.
"Then his mother was being sent home from the hospital," recalled Karen.
After, Mario's father allegedly fell ill because the mother had passed away. By December, the Figueroas stopped paying altogether.
Without rent, Skip and Karen had to cover the mortgage with their funds and savings.
"I'm holding off buying Christmas presents," Karen recalled.
Frustrated, Karen drove by 10 days before Christmas.
"There were lights all strung up. It was decorated," Karen said. "And at least five cars in the driveway... it looked like they were having a party."
Desperate for help, Karen and Skip reached out to their realtor, Gary Meek. With years of experience, Meek is familiar with squatters, but he says some are experts.
"I've had hours of conversations with Karen (as she was) frustrated, upset, crying," said Meek. "Unfortunately, there are criminals out there that use amazing talent and education for bad."
Meek asked to see the documents the Figueroas provided when moving in, and made a discovery.
"They've all been falsified," said Meek. "The bank statements, the credit reports, everything has been falsified."
But they discovered something even more astonishing; this is not the first house Mario and Ann Figueroa squatted in.
Court records show there have been at least eight prior residences in Sacramento County that Mario and Ann have lived in for months and not paid rent since 2008.
They've been evicted from homes in Wilton, Elk Grove, Orangevale and Fair Oaks, court documents show. Some of those homes are just blocks from one another.
One Orangevale home was owned by Tari Gunn.
"He was just so charming and helpful and everything," Gunn recalled. "I thought, 'These are going to be good people.'"
But shortly after moving in, rent was replaced with excuses; the same excuses the Morairtys received about Mario's father and other relatives falling ill and even dying.
"It was so hard because they got to live there rent-free," said Gunn. "It took me four months to get them out. Having to go back and forth (to) court, filing, just everything... I incurred so many financial issues. It was really hard."
The ordeal put strain on her financially and emotionally. When she finally got them out, what she found was shocking.
"We went into the house. The key and garage door opener were on the kitchen counter," Gunn recalled. "There was a note taped to the sliding glass window that said, 'See you in bankruptcy court.'"
Gunn was left with anger and a house she had to front the cash to fix up.
"(I was) extremely angry (and) hurt that I put so much faith in these people and they took advantage of it," said Gunn.
Her anger doubled when she learned Karen and Skip were among the Figueroas next victims. Their house is just 2.5 miles from Gunn's.
"How dare they?! How dare they stay in the same area and keep doing it?!" said Gunn.
In an attempt to get answers from the Figueroas, include their side in our reporting and ask why they keep doing this, ABC10 made a number of efforts to speak with them.
We called and left voicemails for both Mario and Ann. When we didn't hear back, we went to Karen and Skip's house to speak with them.
No one answered the door after knocking multiple times, so we left a letter requesting an interview with them. Although no one answered, it seemed like they were there or had been recently. The windows were open and lights on inside. The trash can was also filled with refrigerated items, goods that are often discarded when someone moves.
At this point, the eviction process started four months earlier. Karen and Skip credit the man they hired to evict them.
"We got Barry," said Skip. "He's a little pitbull."
As a broker and property manager, Barry Mathis knows how to handle squatters.
"Once I get involved, they can start packing because they're going to go away," said Mathis.
But, as we've seen with the Morairtys and Gunns, California law makes it a lengthy and often costly process to evict squatters.
"If you follow administrative law, it will go step one, two, three, four and pretty much go by the book... with a few exceptions and this is one of those exceptions when you get professional tenants that are in there and have been evicted seven, eight times from other properties," said Mathis. "They have $75,000 to $100,000 in judgements behind them. The system was not built for people like them."
The system is especially vulnerable due to COVID. For over two years, California created laws to protect tenants from being evicted while navigating the pandemic.
Between those laws and backed up/overwhelmed courts, California's system enables squatters, Mathis says.
"We're so into victims' rights... but the problem is in this case, they don't see the landlords as a victim," said Mathis.
Mathis says current law treats landlords like they're massive entities with endless funds; it's an issue because it's not true.
"About seven out of 10 properties that are being rented are rented by mom and pop investors like Skip and Karen," said Mathis. "These are not big bad corporations that have to be fought."
Instead, homeowners like Karen and Skip have to fight serial squatters.
"This is just theft," said Mathis.
And that's why Mathis says there needs to be change.
"I think our owners' rights have been taken," said Mathis.
For now, he recommends homeowners do their homework on potential tenants, especially if you're renting out directly, as serial squatters could target homeowners who don't do a thorough check.
"You've got to do a background check," said Mathis. "You've got to do a criminal, eviction, credit, verify your employment, verify your income."
Or hire a property manager to vet rental candidates and take care of your home.
"Hire somebody that does this for a living," said Mathis. "If you don't have somebody that's in the trenches all the time, it's almost impossible to keep up with the new type of fraud that [comes] up."
Mathis' work paid off. After ABC10's interview and nine months after they first moved in, Mario and Ann were evicted.
Gunn and ABC10 accompanied the Morairtys as they went into their home for the first time.
"They had a lot of parties it looks like," said Skip.
The house had wear and tear. Blinds and shutters were left destroyed. A mattress as well as art-decal stuck to some walls. The pool left completely green, despite Karen and Skip hiring a pool man for tenants.
"I'm just happy that they're out of here," said Karen. "I just can't believe people are like that and how they really destroy other people's lives."
Karen and Skip are owed over $15,000 for rent. That's not including what it'll take to fix the place.
Since our initial walkthrough, they've received an estimate of around $30,000 to fix damages in the house. It doesn't include costs for repairing the pool.
It's why they decided to sell the house instead of moving back.
"I'm still working when I should be retiring," said Karen.
Tari also decided to sell after evicting the Figueroas.
"I just sat there and said, 'I can't do this again. I'm not going to be violated again,'" said Gunn.
Gunn, the Morairtys and others are part of the same club they never thought they'd be a part of, so what's their advice for others?
"If you're in this situation or you come across people that are like this, make sure and go with your gut," said Gunn.
And do your homework. As for their serial squatters' next victim...
"They're already on their way someplace else," said Karen.
If it fits their pattern, their new home could be just miles away.
"I just feel sorry for the next person," said Karen. "I wish I could've forewarned them."
MORE ABOUT SQUATTERS: After leaving the house empty for two weeks as they prepared to move from Daly City, the Hodge family walked into their new home and found people living there.