The vacant house next to Jay Bonieja’s Merced home has been a hotbed for squatting, cooking fires, drug use, violence and nudity.
He’s complained many times and filed numerous reports with the Merced Police Department, saying he feared his home could be at risk for fires, according to police reports obtained by the Merced Sun-Star.
On Monday, his fears came true when a fire started next door and flames spread to Bonieja’s home on R Street.
Jay and Laura Bonieja awoke to the sound of the flames outside their bedroom window just before 4 a.m. “I heard the roar of the fire,” Jay said. “I opened the window and said, ‘Honey, the house is on fire!’ We both yelled ‘Get the kids!’ and bolted out the door.”
Despite flames crawling up a tree and jumping 80 feet, Jay ran back to the burning house three times for his dogs, wallet and to move his motorcycle.
Firefighters managed to save the family’s cat, rabbits, family photos, Jay’s cane and some furniture.
Jay said if he hadn’t woken up earlier, he and his family may have died.
“The firefighters told me that in 10 more minutes, my wife and I would’ve been killed,” Jay said.
For more than a year, the Boniejas have dealt with squatters next door on 25th Street. They extended their backyard fence to the driveway so people wouldn’t walk through their yard. They boarded up the shed and fence in the backyard of the foreclosed home, hoping it would deter people from staying there. Someone ripped the screen door from their front door during one encounter. Another threw a brick through their window.
And, over the course of a year, they’ve made dozens of reports about the illegal activity happening next door – drug use, violence, a bicycle “chop shop,” nudity and more, according to police reports.
Jay, a former combat Marine, said a police officer advised him to buy a gun to protect his family.
“When the cops were here Friday, I told them they (the squatters) were going to burn our house down,” Bonieja said.
Janet Bamford, a Gonella real estate agent representing Coldwell Bank, said she met police at the home for a citizen’s arrest. “I’ve constantly, constantly run (the homeless) off,” she said. “They seem to know when something is vacant. It doesn’t matter what neighborhood it is, they seem to do the same sort of thing.”
Each time the police come, they tell the Boniejas there’s only so much they can do. They issue citations to the homeless, and if they book offenders into jail, they’re released and back at the foreclosed home within a couple of days.
Merced Police Lt. Jay Struble said if “no trespass” letters are posted at the home, officers can arrest trespassers. In Merced, at least 150 properties currently have those letters posted.
150Number of “no trespass” letters issued to vacant properties in the city of Merced
But if officers cite and release the offender, or even book him or her into jail, that doesn’t stop the squatter from returning. “Unfortunately, they seem to want to return when they get out of jail,” Struble said.
Police work with mental health service providers to assist the homeless, such as Merced County Behavioral Health and United Way. “Assistance is available for these people. They have to make the choice to take it,” Struble said. “Unfortunately, we’re limited to the resources that are available.”
We believe this could have been prevented if they were more vigilant.
Laura Bonieja, homeowner
Merced City Fire Capt. Jim Evans said the fire started at 1101 25th St. The fire destroyed a shed in the backyard before spreading to the Boniejas’ home, extending into the attic.
The Boniejas’ home sustained about $10,000 worth of damage and is uninhabitable, Evans said. Fire investigators are working to determine the cause of the fire, but Evans said it’s believed to be suspicious. No arrests have been made.
Now, the Boniejas worry their burned-out home will be looted. “We’re going to camp here in a tent with a loaded shotgun,” Jay said. “We’re going to lock and load this thing and defend this damn thing.”
The Merced City Council was scheduled to vote on its budget Monday night, which includes one-time funding for this type of situation, said Stephanie Dietz, assistant city manager.
The city is funding a pilot “substandard housing” program where the city attorney’s office will seek out property owners to make sure vacant homes are abated and secured in order to prevent homeless encampments.
The city also is moving the code enforcement and fire prevention departments to one location so the two offices can work more closely.
“For us, we decided to use one-time funding because through our town hall meetings and goals and priorities, we heard from the public and council that this is a top priority to make the community safer and a more attractive place to live and work,” she said. “We’re going to go out and do what we can legally to put pressure on the banks and homeowners to fix these issues.”
But for the Boniejas, it’s too little too late.
“We call this our kingdom,” Laura said about the family home. “This burned a hole in our world.”
The family has started a GoFundMe campaign.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477