In May 2015, Bernard Vinluan’s job at Willmark Communities became more secret agent than apartment leasing agent. Vinluan waited for the employees to clock out of the office before he made his move.
He snuck into his coworker Rita Ruiz’s office and fumbled through the collections administrator’s desk drawers. He grabbed documents and invoices and took them down the hall to his office. Vinluan and his boss Randy Williams removed the metal filing cabinet from Ruiz’s office and replaced it with a similar cabinet.
The covert operations occurred at the headquarters of Willmark Communities in Scripps Ranch, just east of Interstate 15 off the Mira Mesa Boulevard exit. Willmark owns and operates nine large apartment complexes in San Diego County, and several other properties out of state.
The spying began days after the company learned that a group of tenants had filed a class-action lawsuit. According to the group’s attorney, the number of plaintiffs now stands at 3000 people.
In the complaint, tenants claim that Willmark pocketed their security deposits. And when asked about the charges, the company refused to provide proper invoices and tried to hide overcharges. The class-action lawsuit also alleges that general manager Williams and owner Mark Schmidt encouraged employees to lie and show doctored photos on the witness stand if the tenants sued them in small-claims court. Court records show that since 2007, 62 former tenants filed lawsuits in small-claims court.
In the following days, when Vinluan was not sneaking into his coworkers’ offices, he was on the phone calling hundreds of former tenants. He told them that an internal audit found mistakes on their security deposits. Vinluan said he would issue them a check if they agreed to not be a part of the class-action lawsuit.
Vinluan admitted to as much in a statement (obtained by the Reader through a Public Records Act request) that he provided to the Unemployment Insurance Board in June of this year.
“I couldn’t be truthful to some workers when asked what I was working on,” Vinluan wrote. “Some of the things that I was asked to do felt I felt were against my morals.”
In the following months after the class action was filed, three employees, including Rita Ruiz, filed lawsuits against the company. In their lawsuits they all claim the same things, that Willmark Communities, with the owner and general manager’s knowledge, encouraged employees to lie in order to keep people’s security deposits.
“They shove the kids around”
Douglas Rice and his wife moved into Alpine Woods, a half mile south of Interstate 8 along Tavern Road in Alpine, in 2010. During his move-in, Rice brought his washing machine and dryer. His dryer, however, was the wrong wattage and he rented one from Willmark. Five years later, when moving out, Rice took his washer and the dryer he stored with him.
After moving out, Rice received a summary of charges from Willmark. They kept his entire deposit and charged Rice and his wife $1000. In all, the bill came to approximately $2400. Willmark charged the couple to paint the entire apartment, to install new carpet, and a list of other items, including for the washer and dryer they brought with them five years earlier.
Rice says Rita Ruiz accused Rice of stealing the washer and dryer. She threatened to report Rice to law enforcement when he contested the charges.
“I was amazed at how brazen they are,” Rice said in a September 21 interview. “They are a few minor steps away from being mobsters. I had thought about filing an attempted-extortion lawsuit. I’m 70 years old and have been a tenant, owned property, and been a landlord. I have never seen an outfit that is legitimately so mischievous. This outfit is about as bad as it gets. I don’t know how or why they are still allowed to operate in this state. They are used to shoving people around. They shove the kids around, and the kids don’t know any better.”
Rice says he was about to file a small-claims case but then learned about the class action and joined. “Even if they paid me what they owed me I would still pursue this for what I say is attempted extortion. It was blatantly illegal.”
Kristen (who only wished to use her first name) and her two sons moved into Prominence Apartments south of State Route 78 at Twin Oaks Valley Road in San Marcos in July 2013. She noted that there were several stains on the carpet and it smelled like a dog had lived in the apartment before.
Soon after moving in, Kristen’s son’s allergies worsened. She took him to the doctor. He found dog dander to be a possible cause to his allergies. She requested that the carpet be replaced. Willmark told her that they would have it inspected but never followed through.
In April 2015, Kristen notified Willmark that she was moving. At the time she was on a month-to-month lease agreement. An employee inspected the apartment after she moved. The employee said the apartment needed to be touched up with paint in some places, the carpet cleaned, and additional cleaning of the bathroom and kitchen.
Three weeks later she received notice that Willmark charged her to replace the carpet and paint the entire apartment, as well as other fixes. They took her $325 deposit and charged her an additional $703.
“My first reaction was to sue them, because I was just blown away,” she said in a phone interview. “To think that they were charging me to replace the carpet that I had asked them to replace, the same carpet that made my son sick...it infuriated me.”
Terri Winbush and her family moved into a two-bedroom apartment at Rancho Hillside Apartments off Jamacha Road in Rancho San Diego. In December 2012 the family bought a house. Long after the 21-day deadline to receive security deposit returns, Winbush received hers. It was postmarked late and had been sent to her address at Rancho Hillside, not her new home. Willmark took Winbush’s entire $199 deposit as well as charged her an extra $151.