It had been more than two years since Kennisha Gilbert set eyes on her upstairs apartment.
Gilbert and her husband had rented the second-floor unit of their two-family home in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, to a married couple and their three children. Two years of unrelenting misery later, she was getting her first chance to see why her ceilings were coated with urine and her stairwell ravaged by an unbearable stench.
A dangerous leak had given Gilbert emergency access to the apartment. Stepping into the swarm of flies that engulfed the second-floor landing that August day, the landlord mounted her phone to a selfie stick and steeled herself for a gruesome sight.
Gilbert and her husband, Roderick Charles, had bought the townhome at 649 East 94th Street in the spring of 2018 ahead of their move from Arizona. They renovated its two units with stainless steel appliances and shiny hardwood floors. Charles and the couple’s two children settled in the basement and first floor. Gilbert, an OB/GYN, would follow a few months later after finishing her work contract out West.
Tenants all their life, it would be their first go as landlords.
In February 2019, they leased the apartment to Trevor and Kim Evelyn. Trevor worked for the city’s sanitation department, and public records showed his salary was enough to cover the $2,500 rent.
But when March 1 rolled around, the Evelyns missed their first payment. Trevor Evelyn told Gilbert he had given his wife the rent money but she had spent it.
“That was just a sign of things to come,” Gilbert said.
“What I saw was nothing close to what I could have imagined. What the apartment had been turned into was sickening.”
The Evelyns caught up on rent by April, but other red flags soon emerged, Gilbert said.
The tenants would clog the toilet with baby wipes, sending water streaming into Gilbert’s apartment below. They left garbage in the entryway and got into loud fights that disturbed Gilbert’s grade school–aged children. The disputes would often end with Kim Evelyn locking her husband out.
By October, Gilbert, still in Arizona, was fielding middle-of-the-night calls from Kim Evelyn “screaming, yelling and cursing” that Charles had knocked on her door to confront her about the noise or flooding.
Gilbert notified the Evelyns that month that she would not renew their lease and mailed reminders every month. The tenants never acknowledged getting them, Gilbert said.
Twelve days before the lease was up, in February 2020, Gilbert texted Kim Evelyn to arrange a time to collect the keys and inspect the apartment. There was no response. She texted again four days later. Still nothing.
Evelyn finally texted back five days before her lease’s end date. She’d had a death in the family, she explained, and would confirm a time for the inspection that Friday, the day before she would need to move. Gilbert sympathized and agreed.
No rent, no response
But as February turned to March, the Evelyns stayed put.
Then Covid hit. The state enacted a moratorium on evictions and Gilbert said the tenants seized on the protection as a way to remain in the apartment without paying.
“It became, ‘Well, you can’t do anything now and I’m going to do exactly what I want,’” Gilbert said.
The landlord said the Evelyns would pound on her bedroom window at 2 a.m. and blast music all night. When she’d try to confront them, no one would come to the door.
In June, after months of unanswered texts, Kim Evelyn finally wrote Gilbert back about a window the Evelyns had broken that Gilbert hoped to fix. Evelyn wrote that she could not set up a time for the repair as it was “not a priority” and the family was in quarantine. She said she planned to move “very soon.”
In August 2020, Gilbert recalled, she was carrying a package up to her apartment while Kim Evelyn watched from the second floor. Midway up the stairs the side of Gilbert’s face started to burn.
Cleaning solution had sprayed her, irritating her face and eyes. She called the police, but the entryway camera hadn’t captured the person who threw the cleaner, just the impact. There wasn’t enough evidence to press charges.
In October 2020, after eight months of nonpayment, Gilbert finally filed a holdover proceeding against the couple, court records show. Gilbert knew the moratorium meant she would be waiting until at least January to secure a court date.
Ultimately, lawmakers would continue the ban until early 2022. Gilbert’s second year of torture would be worse than her first.
Four days into 2021, Gilbert said she saw the Evelyns vacate the apartment, with most of their possessions in tow.
“I thought, okay, at least they’re moving out,” Gilbert said. “Maybe we won’t have to have this drawn out.”
Three weeks later, Gilbert said banging outside the upstairs unit woke her in the middle of the night. The Evelyns had returned, using their key to enter the building and a hammer to pound off the lock on the second-floor apartment. The break-in was not necessary; Gilbert had not changed the locks.
She called the cops. But the Evelyns informed the police that they had lost their keys, an answer that satisfied the officers, Gilbert said. The landlord noticed the family moving furniture back into the unit.
Gilbert said she eventually learned that Kim Evelyn had moved in her adult son, Ravon Service. Defying the no-pets policy, he’d brought a dog.
Gilbert called the police again, but an officer told her that Evelyn still had rights to the apartment through her holdover status and was entitled to house her son.
The end of the moratorium couldn’t come soon enough.
By mid-February 2021, Gilbert and Charles noticed Service and a man living with him, Tafaniel Michaud, carting cages into the building. Barking echoed from the upstairs apartment.
Throughout the summer, strangers would ring Gilbert’s doorbell to inquire about buying dogs. “That was my next clue that something was going on up there,” she said.
Another clue was coming.
Gilbert followed Service’s social media and saw him documenting trips to Florida. She suspected the tenants had not made arrangements for the dogs to be walked or their cages cleaned.
No animal should have to live like this! I will not stop until they are rescued. Would you let you kids live beneath this. Urine has to be mopped off the walls. Unacceptable that @NYPD67Pct is not putting a stop to this pic.twitter.com/qOvIFqYIka. pic.twitter.com/Gh0qJw0cP0
— Kennisha Gilbert (@GilbertKennisha) September 24, 2021
Evidence of that neglect began to seep into her apartment.
Evelyn’s son, like his mother, would flood the upstairs unit, and not just with toilet water. Dog urine started to stream down the walls. There was fur in the leakage, Gilbert said. She moved her children to another room, away from the animal waste.
“I can’t count the number of times that the Fire Department had to come,” she said. “My ceilings were sagging. There were times when they had to turn the electricity off because there was so much water coming in.”
Gilbert considered filling a nuisance case against the tenants, which could bypass the eviction ban. But the attorney’s fees from the pending case were already a burden and she feared without video evidence — someone had repeatedly pulled her building camera off its hinges — she wouldn’t have a case.
It occurred to her to call the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In August, a detective from the NYPD Animal Cruelty Investigation Squad came by. The partner living in the unit said he and Evelyn’s son owned only three dogs. The detective took him at his word, Gilbert said.
A few weeks later, in August 2021, the tenants started another flood and left the apartment. Gilbert again called the police, who granted her permission to enter. She grabbed her phone and her selfie stick. This was the day that she had both longed for and dreaded.
“And you know, what I saw was nothing close to what I could have imagined,” she said. “What the apartment had been turned into was sickening.”
Dogs sat three to a cage. Others lay chained to the floor. Many looked underweight. Piles of feces darkened the hardwood. In other spots, urine had eaten through the floor. Gilbert later discovered the true number of dogs: 21.
The police obtained a search warrant and executed it on Sept. 30, Gilbert said.
When Gilbert came home from work that night, a police car was outside. The ASPCA had taken the dogs and the NYPD had arrested Service for animal cruelty. The police released him later that day, the New York Post reported.
Kim Evelyn had also returned. Gilbert said she asked the police to stick around “to make sure nothing crazy happened.”
“I could tell from her stance she looked aggressive,” Gilbert said.
But the officers left. Gilbert said the cruiser was halfway down the street when her husband began backing her car into their garage. Out of nowhere, one of Evelyn’s younger sons, a minor, emerged. He broke the windshield wiper off the back of Gilbert’s car and whipped her face with it.
Then Service approached. “What the fuck did you do with my dogs?” he yelled. “Where the fuck are my dogs at?”
He began punching Gilbert in the face and ribs, she said. The Post reported that her husband tried to exit the car, but Evelyn’s two sons, 16 and 17, pinned him inside, pummeling him in the torso and head, breaking his ribs, she said.
Gilbert ran across the street to her neighbor’s house and dialed 911, but before she could turn her phone’s speaker on, Kim Evelyn hit her on the side of the head. The phone fell from her hand but Gilbert could see the call had connected. She screamed her address into the grass.
“Finally, I hear sirens,” Gilbert said. Kim Evelyn, her teenage sons and Service were arrested, the Post reported.
Evelyn and Service were arraigned for 21 misdemeanor counts of animal torture and neglect, and felony charges, including assault with a weapon and intent to cause serious physical injury, according to court records.
Gilbert immediately requested an order of protection against the mother and son, which the state issued in mid-November.
Neither Evelyn nor Service responded to requests for comment.
The case drags on
Gilbert has not seen the family since. But with the housing court case still pending, the Evelyns and Service retain possession of the rental.
An attorney for Brooklyn Legal Services, which is representing Kim Evelyn in the holdover case, said the two parties considered a settlement in which Evelyn would hand over the keys, but that it had fallen through.
Gilbert said that was news to her. Her lawyer, Edward Hall of Balsamo Rosenblatt & Hall, had told her the parties had reached the agreement after a Jan. 28 court date and Evelyn was supposed to return the keys on Feb. 11, which she failed to do. Hall did not comment for this story.
The case is now awaiting trial. Once the court assigns a date, Gilbert will have to prove Evelyn overstayed her lease. Gilbert’s complaint asks the court to order an eviction and a money judgment for outstanding arrears.
But, in a sign of how badly she wants to end the saga, Gilbert said she is willing to forgo the Evelyns’ two years of missed rent, nearly $60,000.
“My peace,” she said, “is worth more than getting paid for lost rent.”
Evelyn’s attorney said the case could still be settled. However, if it is not, the tenants still have leverage: Housing court is backlogged after the two-year freeze on evictions.
In the meantime, Gilbert cannot touch the mess upstairs: abandoned dog cages, unwashed dishes and piles of excrement.
“It’s getting warmer now, so the stuff that’s in there is starting to smell again,” Gilbert said. “And then the flies will be back.”