House squatter 'did just enough' to avoid neighbors' suspicion

  • Steven Hathorne

    Steven Hathorne

  • Sugar Grove police say Steven Hathorne lived in this vacant home in the village for months before being arrested Wednesday.

    Sugar Grove police say Steven Hathorne lived in this vacant home in the village for months before being arrested Wednesday. John Starks | Staff Photographer

Published4/18/2009 12:02 AM

In Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," the main character finds a squatter's place in New York City where he can draw off the power grid and make a livable space.

Sugar Grove's "Invisible Man," Steven Hathorne, found a place a lot sweeter than that - thanks to his own bold ingenuity and the calmness of the neighborhood.


"He introduced himself as our new neighbor," said Brandy McDonald, who lives "katty corner across the street" from the $700,000 house where Hathorne took up residence last August in the Prestbury subdivision - a vacant house in the process of foreclosure, police say.

"He did just enough" yard work, McDonald said, to avoid drawing attention to the house and himself.

"The house looked a little neglected," said Mary Vilim, who lives just down the street. "At election time in the fall, a whole bunch of election signs went up on it. I was like, 'Wow, the people running for office know there's nobody living there.' It was kind of funny."

Only the 41-year-old Hathorne was still living there. And, using a 10-foot-long device to turn the water back on whenever village officials would come by and turn it off, he stayed there until his arrest Wednesday, police say. Officers found the vacant house stocked with living room furniture and a pair of big-screen TVs.

Given the current economic chaos in the realty industry, it's not so far-fetched. Local real-estate and mortgage professionals said more homes likely will be abandoned this spring as foreclosures increase. Whether it's a $1 million mansion or a simple $150,000 ranch, some people don't stick around to either save the home or complete the foreclosure process, which can take up to a year.

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So the property declines, the grass grows higher and paint could peel off, all of which annoys neighbors, leading to complaints to local officials. Or a home can become a target for a squatter until he's discovered. In the meantime, the squatter could be sitting pretty for a few months.

Typically, after a foreclosure is completed in court, the judge assigns possession of the home to the bank or lender. In turn, the bank assigns the property to a real-estate firm to try to sell.

Even that assignment process could take several months, said Connie Hofherr, a 30-year Realtor with Prudential Starck in Mount Prospect. Her firm has about 90 foreclosed homes among its listings.

There could be "hundreds, or possibly more" homes abandoned just in this market alone, she said.

Until the court assigns ownership to the lender, that home is technically still the owner's, said Marve Stockert, executive director of Lombard-based Illinois Association of Mortgage Professionals.


While the home remains empty, its electricity and natural gas likely can remain on due to local laws. That makes it possible for squatters to set up a makeshift home for themselves.

"So there could be a couple of months in between there when someone very well could live inside," Stockert said. "And if they have the wherewithal to do it, they do."

McDonald admitted she had her suspicions about Hathorne.

"From the beginning, I guess for me, he was iffy. There were things that just didn't make sense," she said. "I knew people who were interested (in the property) who could not get anywhere with the bank beforehand. And he was in two weeks before it was supposed to go to auction.

"His comings and goings were never a regular schedule. Never anybody there at a regular time. The curtains usually closed," she said. "You know it never went into his name. You know there was a boot, a lien, on the property at all times. So if you know a little bit about real estate, then you know something wasn't right."

She even thought to do a little research on squatters' rights in the fall. Yet the general trustworthiness of the neighborhood helped cloak Hathorne.

"We have Neighborhood Watch," Vilim added with a laugh. "But if you have somebody who's just quietly coming and going, why wouldn't you think they own the house?"

"You're not just going to walk up to somebody and say, 'What are you doing here?'" McDonald said. "You don't want to jump the gun. You don't want to accuse someone of something that's not going on. Yet sometimes you have an instinct. Things aren't going the way they probably should, and you feel kind of crazy, but yeah."

But, she added, "You don't want to be proved right all the time."

Hathorne used his own name in introducing himself to neighbors and doesn't seem to have constituted much of a criminal threat.

"I know my neighbors up and down the street, and I imagine we'll talk about this because it's so amusing, but it doesn't surprise me that it happened," Vilim said. "It's not like I think it's scary or anything. I just think it's amusing that he got away with it."

For a little more than a half year, anyway.

• Daily Herald business writer Anna Marie Kukec contributed to this story.

Invisible: Foreclosure process can create a powered, empty house

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