Six months ago, Wendy and Charlie Swenson bought a place that would be perfect for today's minimalist living movement.
The house just outside of Pine River was small, cozy and almost ready to rent - that is, until early October, when the family discovered their little rental house had become a personal fun house to about a dozen young students.
"We had purchased this place about six months ago," Charlie said. "(My sister) had been mowing the lawn and saw a fire extinguisher in the driveway and asked if we'd been to the property. I said no. She said someone had broken the windows out of the garage and a fire extinguisher was laying in the driveway. I said I would drive over. She had called me back and said there was graffiti on the walls of the garage. I came over and looked at that and I couldn't believe what I had seen. My boy had been here a couple days before and nobody had messed with the garage. Then we checked the house and saw it was a disaster.”
The damage in the garage included a broken window, dry chemical from a fire extinguisher, spray paint graffiti and vulgar phrases.
“It's pretty destructive,” Charlie said. “What gets me is the worst of the whole deal is that kids of that age with this kind of mentality is what gets me.”
Things only got worse with the house. Whoever had broken in was virtually living there, but they weren't neat and tidy.
“Lots of garbage,” Wendy said. “There was a cat here. There's cat feces in the living room and bathroom. There's a cat box. There's food all over. Cooked food, rotten food. Condoms blown up to look like balloons. Traces of what we think is marijuana. Personal items.”
“The window in the basement was broken and that's how I think they got in originally,” Charlie said. “They broke the window and got through.”
“It included broken windows, garage door panels, graffiti. In the realm of property damage it was probably more extensive property damage than we usually see probably because it went on for a few times,” said Lt. Brad Rittgers, with the Cass County Sheriff's Office.
There was spilled food in the kitchen where they had cooked on the stove, cups, glasses and dishes that were brought into the house and caked with rotten food. The living room had Christmas lights strung up for discrete lighting, furniture and blankets on the floor. The bedroom had melted plastic spoons, candles, condom wrappers and what looked like a drug stash box. Stranger yet, someone decided to repaint the small upstairs room, getting paint on the wooden floors in the process.
The Swensons estimate the juveniles responsible had been coming and going since Pine River-Backus homecoming weekend.
“We think they started over homecoming - Sept. 27-28 or that weekend. I had been in here the Sunday before that and everything was fine,” Wendy said. “I was cleaning cupboards out.”
This lasted until the fire extinguisher was found Oct. 6. It's possible there were children in the house when the vandalism in the garage was found.
“I think there were kids here when my sister came to mow the lawn and found the fire extinguisher, because when we came back there were four kids on the street here with blankets on them,” Charlie said. “My sister found a cell phone on the edge of the house. I think she actually ousted them out of here when she was picking up. I think the kids exited the house.”
Cass County deputies and Pine River police have confirmed involvement of approximately a dozen students. Receipts from local businesses, a school day pass, birthday gift wrapping, a cell phone and other evidence led to suspects and interviews.
“Evidence left on scene led us to several individuals involved,” Rittgers said. “We had cooperation from the Pine River Police Department; the school resource officer gathered information from folks at school. Several juveniles were interviewed. Several admitted involvement. Others are mentioned as being involved. That investigation process is still ongoing.”
Juveniles the officers interviewed said juveniles involved had done Snapchat stories about parties and vandalism at the house, though those posts are gone. Wendy and her daughter cornered some juveniles looking around the property later who admitted that the house had become locally famous on social media, known as Block 69 on Facebook.
“He said it's all over Facebook,” Wendy said. “I don't know. I don't have Facebook.”
The incident was unusual for the sheriff's department.
“It's certainly a strange property damage case due to the number of things that were damaged and the value of items damaged,” Rittgers said. “Generally when we see property damage it's a one time incident where we see damage and it's noticed and reported and folks don't come back to do any more. This time it was several visits or incidents of property damage. That's a little unusual. These juveniles spent a lot of time unsupervised and were out doing this.”
It's now in the hands of the county attorney to determine legal action against the juveniles involved.
“The whole case has been submitted for charges to the county attorney,” said Rittgers. “There aren't any tickets issued. We've submitted it for consideration and then the county attorney will consider who gets charged. The county attorney is going to sort it out and decide who gets charged and how they get charged. They will have a complaint available.”
Whatever happens, the Swensons have a lot of work and expensive repairs ahead of them before the property is ready to rent again.
“It's an old establishment and we knew that,” Charlie said. “We bought it to rent it out and we're going to clean it up. It's a mess now so we have to do extensive rolling up the carpets because they had drugs in here. We don't want someone to come if they have little kids if there was meth here. We want to make sure we get everything cleaned up and safe for a family to come with little kids. We'll have to do extensive cleaning. That's lots more work for us.”
They hope fines held against the juveniles and their families not only help to recoup damages, but to convince parents that they need to take a more active role in their children's lives.
“The best circumstance to come from this story is it would wake people up to know where their kids are,” Charlie said. “That's the best circumstances I would think. Respect for other people's property is what I would like to see out of this deal. You're not your kids' friends. You're the parent. You're supposed to be the guider, not the person who to me assists with what they are doing and thinking it's OK what they're doing. If that's the case they should let them do it at their own place.”
Because children were able to return to the scene multiple times, Rittgers agrees that parental oversight was lacking in this case.
“That's the biggest part,” Rittgers said. “Not a lot of parental involvement, I don't think. They did do it for a period of time. I don't know if we determined exactly how long the damage went on for but there were several separate incidences of damage that went on there.”
Charlie is open to the possibility that some of the responsible parties could be forced to help clean up or repair the mess they left behind.
“If the parents want to have them come and do some cleaning we'd be grateful,” Charlie said.
Rittgers said there is not an unusual amount of vandalism or break-ins in the community, so homeowners don't need to be overly concerned; however, there are smart steps to avoid being victimized if a property will sit empty for an extended period of time.
“They need to be vigilant and check their properties often,” Riggers said. “They need to have folks that, if they can't check it, they can have them check it even if it's just a driveby or quick look to see what's happening.”
Rittgers suggested unoccupied buildings should be secured with good locks or have boarded up windows and doors for longer periods of time. He also recommended security systems and surveillance cameras, including trail cameras.