Anja Hertel is willing to forgive the smell of rotting food and the mice in the kitchen. She can look past the pile of boxes that filled her garage. She can even dismiss the rude tone and hateful name-calling if she could remove – and end the legal battle with – her tenant, Jamie Pryce.
At least she thought her name was Jamie Pryce.
Hertel, who lives alone, posted an ad on Craigslist in August to rent out her spare bedroom.
A 73-year-old woman who called herself Jamie Pryce agreed to rent the room. Hertel described the ensuing months as the most difficult time of her life as she quickly realized she was dealing with more than just a combative and messy tenant, and was instead faced with a woman who has a warrant for her arrest in Wisconsin, is defiant of many U.S. laws and has a history of using frivolous lawsuits to rack up thousands in legal fees for her unsuspecting landlords.
‘She tries to destroy lives’
In mid-August, Pryce showed up with a semitruck full of boxes when she moved into Hertel’s McHenry home. Pryce filled Hertel’s freezer with old meat. Her boxes piled in her room and the rest overflowed into the garage, many of which contained old food that attracted mice. Pryce, who rarely came out of her room, didn’t respond to requests to remove the rotting food and became agitated when Hertel moved items from the freezer.
But it wasn’t until Pryce called the police on Hertel that her real identity became clear, and when Hertel realized how big of a problem she really had.
Pryce’s real name is Marion F. Berntsen, and in the four months since she has lived with Hertel, she has called the police roughly 10 times.
Berntsen accused Hertel of stealing her belongings, which Hertel denies. She called the police when Hertel cut off the Internet access after Berntsen failed to pay rent. She called the police and accused Hertel of putting glue in her door lock, and she told police Hertel should be “tarred and feathered.”
Police were able to open the door without a problem, Hertel said.
Berntsen then filed suit against Hertel claiming $15,000 in damages for stolen items, filed an order of protection against Hertel, and will likely ask for a jury trial, all of which – court records show – are tactics Berntsen has used to tie past landlords up in court.
“It’s lies upon lies,” said Hertel, who already has paid more than $4,000 in legal fees fighting the frivolous lawsuit and expects to likely accrue more as she files to evict Berntsen. “It’s wasting taxpayer money. … She’s causing people to lose all their money, but she has a place to stay.
“She tries to destroy lives. She’s trying to destroy my life. If it wasn’t for my faith, I’d be balled up in a corner.”
A pattern of behavior
Hertel quickly found out she wasn’t the only one to wind up in court with Berntsen. Berntsen had almost identical encounters with at least three other landlords in McHenry and Cook counties.
Spring Grove resident John Hosta rented a room to Berntsen in 2012, and after she failed to pay rent, Hosta cut off Berntsen’s cable and Internet. She in turn sued him for leaving her “in the dark,” and she was “fearful for her safety,” according to court records. She also filed an order of protection and sued him in a separate case for money damages in excess of $50,000 for items she said Hosta stole.
“What’s going on here is a major abuse of the judicial system that I experienced firsthand,” Hosta said. “It’s a horrible situation where someone can go into court, fabricate things and waste hours of law enforcement time.
“I wouldn’t even believe it unless it happened to me.”
Both cases against Hosta were dismissed by a McHenry County judge, and Hosta eventually had Berntsen evicted from his home.
“She’s addicted to frivolous lawsuits,” Hosta said. “She’s one of a kind. She just knows how to make people run through hoops and jump through doors.”
Before living with Hosta, Berntsen rented a room from Suzette Andrews in Palatine under the name “Molly.”
“She’s a hoarder. She’s very nasty,” Andrews said. “When she moved in with me, I did not have a lot of furniture. She took over the whole house. She would bring in more and more stuff.”
Like Hertel, Andrews’ refrigerator began to be filled with rotting meat, and Berntsen would get very upset if she tried to throw it away.
In May 2013, Berntsen filed an order of protection against Andrews and filed a lawsuit demanding $15,000 in damages for stolen items, which Andrews denies. A Cook County judge dismissed the case.
“She was just trying to send me broke and into the poor house,” Andrews said. “It was to make me miserable.”
A ‘sovereign’ citizen
Dressed in a bright-red jacket and jet-black wig, Berntsen rolled her squeaking wheelchair up to McHenry County Judge John Bolger’s stand for her eviction summons against Hertel.
Berntsen, who according to Hertel does not use a wheelchair in the house, was upset with how the judge was handling the case and demanded that a new one be appointed. Bolger informed her she hadn’t yet filed the proper paperwork and would need to do so in the next three days.
“Listen to me, ma’am,” Bolger said, as a frustrated Berntsen rolled her chair away from the stand.
“I’m following the rules,” Berntsen barked back as her wheelchair came to rest in the aisle of the courtroom. Exasperated, Hertel and her lawyer stood looking up at Judge Bolger. The case was heading to a jury trial, which is extremely rare in eviction cases, Hertel’s lawyer said.
Berntsen’s actions, along with the wording in many of the legal documents she files, is consistent with the behavior of a sovereign citizen, said Steve Olson, police chief in Fontana, Wis., where Berntsen has a warrant for her arrest and a lengthy rap sheet of similar frivolous lawsuits and traffic violations.
The FBI considers sovereign citizens a loosely connected group of anti-government individuals who don’t believe that federal, state and local laws apply to them. Viewed as “extremists,” sovereign citizens create an influx of documents that clog the courts and other government agencies, according to a 2011 report by the FBI.
The sovereign citizen movement is believed to have begun in the 1970s and is increasing in popularity on the Internet. In November, a Carpentersville sovereign citizen was sentenced to 180 days in jail for bogging down the Kane County Courthouse with bogus motions and filings.
Sovereign citizens are known to be confrontational with law enforcement and government officials, and often disregard common traffic laws, according to the FBI. There have been instances where sovereign citizens have become violent, most notably in 2010, when two Arkansas police officers were gunned down during a routine traffic stop by two sovereign citizens.
But many sovereign citizens’ choice of weapon is death by a thousand paper cuts, and are instructed to do so online by sovereign “gurus,” who teach people how to tie up the courts and live under “sovereign rule.”
The Fontana Police Department had dozens of interactions with Berntsen and arrested her on five separate charges dating to the mid-1990s. The most recent was an incident in 2005, when Berntsen and her husband were pulled over for driving with a suspended driver’s license and failed to pull over for police, according to police records.
When Berntsen finally pulled over, she wouldn’t roll down her window and cooperate with police. After police asked her to exit the vehicle, she said no, and officers had to break her car windows and remove the Berntsens from the vehicle. During the incident, Marion Berntsen stated that she was afraid of the officers because they were “armed and dangerous” and called 911 while officers tried to enter the car.
Marion Berntsen was arrested in connection with operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license, failure to stop for an emergency vehicle and resisting arrest.
She in turn filed a joint lawsuit against the Wisconsin secretary of transportation, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and the Wisconsin Police Department, claiming her license should not have been suspended and that she was “harassed and terrorized for 45 minutes, and forcibly dragged out of our car” by Fontana police officers, according to police records.
The case was dismissed by a Walworth County judge.
“[Marion Berntsen] has had extensive contact with our department,” Olson said. “She has an extremist view of the government … from my training on sovereign citizens, she appears to fit the description.”
When asked, after her Dec. 17 court appearance, if she was a sovereign citizen, Berntsen replied, “Of course. Aren’t you?”
Berntsen went on to explain how she follows “common law “ and it is her mission to inform “regular” people how to “get justice in the judicial system.” She declined to further elaborate on her views of the judicial system.
Berntsen also described Hertel as a “witch with a capital B,” and said Hertel stole her love letters from her deceased husband.
An ongoing battle
Hertel and Berntsen are due in court again in January for the beginning of the jury trial for the eviction case. The lawsuit against Hertel claiming she stole items from Berntsen also may end in a jury trial, according to Charmaine Ruckoldt, Hertel’s attorney.
“This is pretty unusual,” Ruckoldt said. “What makes this so unusual is that this person knows enough or has enough experience with what she’s doing – much more experience than Anja has – and knows how to abuse the system to the point where she’s making this an absolute nightmare.”
Berntsen’s courtroom experience, plus the fact that she qualifies as a pauper and isn’t required to pay legal fees, puts her at an economic advantage over the people she is suing, Ruckoldt said. But, one might ask, since she hasn’t won any of her cases, what exactly is the point?
“I don’t know,” Ruckoldt said. “Other than the fact that she doesn’t think the court should have jurisdiction over anyone and the court shouldn’t exist. It’s hard to understand because she’s using the courts, but she wants to take the government and court system down.”
If Hertel’s second case does go to a jury trial, Ruckoldt expects Hertel’s legal fees to exceed well into the tens of thousands of dollars.
“Why can she go in front of a judge and swear that I stole those items? Why is that OK?” Hertel said. “My son is a Marine, and here she is, a non-law-abiding citizen, and I have a son who is fighting for her rights.”