Originally created 03/09/99

Tenants refuse to leave pricey home



MARIETTA, Ga. -- The upscale Charlton Forge neighborhood, with its $200,000-plus two-story homes of spacious decks and rolling, landscaped yards, would seem an unlikely place to find a pair of modern-day squatters.

And attorney Samuel Rael, an amateur boxer and sometimes-producer of B-movies, admits it's not even his kind of neighborhood, this Southern suburbia of sport-utility vehicles, soccer moms and backyard barbecues.

"So I'm fighting to stay in a place where I don't even want to be," he said.

Mr. Rael is renting a house -- owned by the wife of R&B musician Keith Sweat -- for a bargain rate through the Atlanta Showcase of Homes, which matches renters with an eye for decorating with absent owners who feel a lived-in look makes a house easier to sell.

But neighbors have wanted Mr. Rael out since they found out about his roommate, who is not allowed to stray more than 150 feet from the house while he awaits trial on rape and other charges.

Mr. Rael is fighting the eviction order. It's more than tenant's rights, he explains -- there's presumption of innocence, loyalty to a friend and standing up to small-minded attitudes and threats.

"That is ultimately what this is all about," Mr. Rael says. "It's fairness and justice."

That draws a chuckle from the attorney for Atlanta Showcase of Homes, Mr. Rael's would-be evictor.

"I think the people in the house would like to pretend that this is some issue of personal rights or individual freedoms," says Charles Robertson II. "In our view, they're simply trying to hang on to a cheap rent."

Under his contract with Atlanta Showcase, Mr. Rael was "resident manager," paying $650 a month and agreeing to keep the home ready to show to potential buyers.

The drawbacks are sometimes-frequent interruptions by real estate agents and requirement the house be vacated with only seven days' notice.

After a home he was renting sold last October, all Atlanta Showcase had available was the house in Cobb County.

Soon after Mr. Rael moved in, his friend Michael Wright needed a place to stay after spending four months in jail and coming out broke and jobless.

Still facing trial on charges that include rape and false imprisonment, Mr. Wright, 50, blames a bad breakup with a vengeful girlfriend and predicts he'll be acquitted.

But he has an ankle monitor that prevents him from going more than 150 feet from the house. "I'm probably the least-dangerous person in this neighborhood," says the lanky Indiana native.

Neighbors don't see it that way. They learned about Mr. Wright's status after he asked a church for assistance and his Charlton Forge address caught the eye of a volunteer who lives there.

Mr. Robertson last week won an eviction order against Mr. Rael. But while squatting is generally considered trespassing in current law, Mr. Robertson says, Mr. Rael is appealing and asking for a jury trial.