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The Nightmare Share

She posted an ad for a roommate. What’s the worst that could happen?

Heidi Russell in her bedroom. Her roommate has taken over the rest of the apartment. Photo: Gillian Laub
Heidi Russell in her bedroom. Her roommate has taken over the rest of the apartment. Photo: Gillian Laub
Heidi Russell in her bedroom. Her roommate has taken over the rest of the apartment. Photo: Gillian Laub

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As it goes in New York City, the apartment was small, it was expensive, but it was theirs. Heidi Russell and Valentina Bajada owned an 860-square-foot second-floor walk-up, and they loved its single living-room window, cramped kitchen, and two little bedrooms. Their building was on a quiet, tree-lined block of Barrow Street close to the Hudson River. Neighbors kept libraries of free books and walked their dogs in leafy, open courtyards. It was as close to a village as the West Village gets.

Bajada, a Soviet immigrant who owned a catering company with her ex-husband, spent ten years on a waiting list before she was approved to become a tenant in 1998, back when the West Village Houses were still subsidized. They were the result of an affordable-housing triumph of the ’60s, when Jane Jacobs defeated Robert Moses’s plans to demolish the neighborhood and build a highway. Now they are market-rate co-ops in one of the most upscale neighborhoods in Manhattan.

Bajada and Russell, who met in 2005 at ladies’ night at a bar in the Village, bought their place in 2016 for just over $450,000, an insider rate offered exclusively to tenants. Like many of their neighbors, the couple could only really afford their apartment by renting a piece of it out. Bajada, 55, had a chronic pain condition and no longer worked; Russell, 56, was a fine-art photographer with a day job as an executive assistant. They put a listing on Airbnb: “Really historic place,” it read, with pictures of a tidy spare bedroom with a red curtain, a black-and-white print of snow-covered trees, and a chandelier.

In December 2018, a user named Katherine responded. “Hi! Your place looks & sounds lovely,” she wrote. “I’m wondering if you might be able to accept $65/night instead of the $95 listed, pretty please? :) It’s me and my very well-behaved 10-year-old daughter — we’re local & out of our apt — she goes to school at P.S. 3. We’d be very low-key and respectful, clean & quiet!”

That first, short stay was uneventful, even pleasant. Bajada was out of the country, so Russell received Katherine Gladstone, who went by Kate, and her daughter, Lily, alone. (Lily is a pseudonym.) A tall 42-year-old brunette who said she was a freelance film producer, Gladstone told Russell she and her daughter were originally from Pittsburgh and had recently lost their home in New York. Gladstone was chatty and charming. She even cleaned up after Russell’s white poodle, Abby, when she made a mess of the rug.

Gladstone texted Russell a few more times, asking to rent the room again, but things never worked out. In June, Russell told Gladstone that they needed someone to stay for longer than a few nights — possibly through August. The co-op had cracked down on Airbnbs, and money was getting tight; Russell and Bajada’s maintenance fees had gone up, and they had been unable to refinance the loan they’d taken out to buy the apartment. They were likely going to try to sell by year’s end. Russell and Gladstone agreed, by text this time, to $2,000 in rent, prorated for the first month. Russell was relieved — until she went down to let Gladstone into the building and was met with a surprise: a chestnut-colored spaniel named Happy, tucked under Gladstone’s arm.

“As soon as she started walking up the steps with the dog, I knew I shouldn’t let her in,” Russell says now, almost two years later. “But here was this woman with a dog and a kid. Where were they supposed to go?”

New York roommate stories often begin with a kind of claustrophobic, reluctant symbiosis: Two people, linked solely by necessity, now also have to share the same bathroom. Here, finding a place to live is so notoriously difficult, the hunt so mythologically cutthroat, that the parties tend also to be united in desperation. Agreements are forged hastily via text message, in the DMs of third-party apps, as last-minute promises. Owners, renters, subletters, sub-subletters, Airbnb hosts, and Craigslist couch surfers alike learn to size one another up in relation to their own needs; how red the flags appear often depends on how broke you are.

Gladstone peeking out of the Barrow Street living room. Photo: J.C.Rice/J.C. Rice

It took six days for Gladstone to actually pay for her first month — she was waiting for some money to come through, then for a cash loan from a friend, which became a check FedExed from Miami. Russell was cordial but exasperated and told Gladstone the whole thing was starting to seem like a scam. But then the check arrived and cleared. Gladstone apologized profusely and promised that this was all out of the ordinary. “I start steady work again next week,” she texted, “so going forward, these couple days will be a distant memory.”

But conditions only deteriorated. First, things got crowded in the apartment: Russell’s mother came down from upstate for a series of doctors’ appointments, and a family friend, Tara, unexpectedly in town, asked if she could crash on the couch for a few weeks. Russell knew it might be rude to spring the guests on her new tenant, but she was feeling paranoid and wanted her people around. “They’re sweet — no prob,” Gladstone texted Russell, clearly annoyed. “But I think it’s important to communicate about visitors.” The officious tone reminded Russell that Gladstone had asked during her first stay if Russell could let her know when she was coming into the apartment, because “Lily sometimes gets nervous with surprise noises,” and that Russell was not to discuss anything financial in front of the kid either. It was all starting to feel possessive. One morning, Tara, sleeping on the couch, woke up to find an irritated Gladstone sitting on her legs.

Russell knew the rule, as landlords do: If Gladstone stayed longer than 30 days, she would be protected by New York’s tenancy laws. She would rather scramble to look for someone else than risk Gladstone being late on payment again, she decided. On June 24, she sent Gladstone a text saying she could no longer stay for July and August. Her mother had gotten a spot in a surgery program at NYU to correct a bulging disc in her spine and needed the room, plus Russell and Bajada needed to ready the apartment for sale. Those things were technically true, though not as imminent as Russell suggested, and the news was abrupt. She was giving Gladstone and her daughter only six days to leave. From the bedroom next door, Gladstone didn’t reply.

The next day, Russell decided to bring it up in person, in her narrow hallway, with her mother and a friend present. Gladstone claimed she never saw the text; when Russell redelivered the news, she ushered Lily into the bedroom. “I could lose custody,” Gladstone said, her voice rising. She was in a heated divorce and custody battle with her ex-husband. “You will literally ruin lives.” She said the only way they would leave was if Russell refunded the $1,650 they had paid for their stay.

At this point, Russell was consumed by a desire to do everything exactly by the book. She consulted a lawyer who had assisted her and Bajada with a previous tenant dispute, and he helped her draft a two-day notice telling Gladstone she had to go by June 30. Its delivery was an awkward act of legal theater: The process server, an unassuming young guy, sat on the couch as if he were Russell’s guest. When Gladstone arrived, he went to the kitchen, ostensibly to make a sandwich, then served her when she walked by. Gladstone texted that she would pass “all communications” to her lawyer. “We cannot go thru more ourselves at [the] moment,” she wrote. The 30th came and went, but Gladstone and her daughter did not. That afternoon, Russell called the police, but the officers, standing in the hallway, said they needed permission from a judge to remove a child.

Now it was July, and Russell settled on a strategy of stubborn, sunny denial. “Good morning girls, Happy Friday!” she texted on the 5th, as if she hadn’t just told them to leave. “Another beautiful day. Please let me know when you can get me the July payment.” Gladstone ignored her. On the 15th, Russell called a peace summit on the couch, saying that she had a “compassionate solution” — to offer July and August free if Gladstone signed an agreement to leave by August 31. Clearly, Gladstone didn’t have the money, Russell reasoned with herself, and she and Bajada could handle being out $4,000 if it meant avoiding any more confrontation. (Or more fees — the lawyer she consulted told her an eviction would cost thousands of dollars and could take up to a year.) Russell shared her own woes, including her mother and Bajada’s health issues, and Gladstone described how her ex-husband had filed for emergency custody, embroiling her and Lily in an expensive court case that made her miss work. “It feels like this crazy novel,” Gladstone lamented. “Is this a great person who messes up here and there,” she said of her former husband, “or is this a bad person? It’s really hard to tell.”

But Gladstone did not sign. Instead, the conversation seemed to embolden her in her campaign to occupy the 14-by-21-foot living room. She started planting Lily, out of school for the summer, in front of the TV for hours. When Russell asked to watch The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Gladstone said the movies were educational, mandated by Lily’s custody lawyer. (One was the Dustin Hoffman–Meryl Streep divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer.) Their dynamic became excruciatingly petty. At one point, Russell retaliated by hiding the remote in her purse. And once, when Russell managed to stretch out on the couch, Gladstone came into the room and perched silently behind her on the windowsill. The bathroom became another zone of contention; Russell began brushing her teeth in the building’s laundry room because Gladstone would run into the bathroom as soon as she heard her get up. On August 1, after a month of nonpayment, Gladstone began urgently asking for a second set of keys, sending Russell a text so long it arrived as an attachment.

In Gladstone’s version of these events, it was Russell who was waging the campaign of terror. She wrote in the text: “You intentionally intimidated us and used what you know is our biggest vulnerability: our home and safety […] We didn’t owe anything we weren’t dirty we’re so clean and organized we’re respectful beyond reason.” Gladstone said Lily was “profoundly afraid” of Russell but that she was “trying to make it livable and peaceful so I remain (beyond) civil but am I showing her that people can treat you like that and you just smile and fake it?”

Though Gladstone and Lily had arrived with virtually no belongings (other than Happy), Russell realized by the end of the summer that they had taken over the living room. Where there had been just a couch, a few chairs, a desk, and the TV, now there were dozens of shopping bags, schoolbooks, paperwork, cleaning supplies, candles, and empty Amazon boxes filling the room. When Russell moved her TV into her bedroom, Gladstone fashioned its stand into an arts-and-crafts table.

Bajada, the legal owner of the apartment, was still out of the country, but she was insistent that they start eviction proceedings. On August 31, Russell, who has power of attorney, finally taped a 30-day eviction notice she had filled out at the courthouse to Gladstone’s door. (Though served correctly, the notice was ultimately filed wrong because Russell waited a day to mail it in.) Gladstone had taken to locking the door to their room — the apartment’s only route to the fire escape — from the inside, so Russell had to jimmy it open to remove some of her and Bajada’s things.

In response, Gladstone accused Russell of stealing $500 from her daughter. “Never touched your money,” she replied. “And what you are doing is considered harassment and extortion.” She had never seen cash in the room, much less the “neat stack” on the table Gladstone described. “Do not attempt to turn this back on us,” Gladstone responded. “You are not the victim here, Heidi. Give it all back. What you did is atrocious, and this is just the latest version.” She texted repeatedly about it for two weeks, threatening to call the police. “What you’ve done was illegal and intentionally disturbing. Provide the list of people who broke into our room along with you,” the messages say. She also accused Russell of taking their paintbrushes and leaving “behind something that has caused major rashes ever since that night.”

Russell started to feel like she was going crazy. She had Googled Gladstone before, but not exhaustively — she’d once found an associated person with the last name “Klein” and addresses in Pittsburgh — and didn’t want to pay for a background check. Sometime in September, going on the third month, it occurred to Russell that Gladstone could be using another name. Searching for “Katherine Klein,” she pulled up an address on Christopher Street.

One morning, Russell made her way over. She was stunned to see that the ground-level apartment of the prewar condo building was just steps away from her own. After chatting with a tenant, she got an email from a former resident of the building who confirmed that she knew Gladstone. Russell and the woman, who turned out to be Gladstone’s ex-girlfriend, met up. For Russell, their conversation was like falling down a rabbit hole. She learned that she was not the first person in the West Village to have had trouble kicking Gladstone out. She was just the latest New Yorker with a room for rent on whom Gladstone had worked a convincing routine, in the city in which she has an absolute fixation on living for free.

The Invasion of 129 Barrow Street: An 860-square-foot battle ground. (1) July 2019: Bathroom Blockade. (2) June 24 2019: The Bomb Drop. (3) March 2020: Cleaning Spray Blitz. (4) June 28 2019: The Secret Sandwich Ambush. (5) June 2019: The Great Leg-Sitting Offensive. (6) July 2019: TV Tug of War.

To a group of mothers at P.S. 3, where Lily had been a student since 2013, Gladstone was just another member of their tight-knit community. “She was very vivacious,” one says. They would drop their kids off and hang out on a bench nearby, smoking, drinking coffee, and chitchatting — “See you at bench” was their catchphrase. Gladstone’s ongoing custody battle would often dominate the conversation. She described her ex as a deadbeat who had little contact with their daughter.

Many knew that the pair constantly stayed in different rentals, even hotels, which made her kid perennially late. Gladstone was often asking if Lily, whose backpack always held sleepover necessities, could stay at her classmates’ homes, several parents told me. She would show up hours late for a drink or social event, saying she had been on a deadline, though they never actually understood clearly what she did for work. Online, Gladstone’s film credits are extremely sparse, mostly for being a “greensman,” someone who tends to flora. She would say she was location scouting, one person who knew her remembers, but was never able to name the film. “I have a pretty good bullshit detector,” says Jocelyn Anker, the PTA president, who knew Gladstone from when she served as class parent. “I would probe her because I’m a producer, and she would kind of always backpedal and not really give me very specific answers.”

Their unstructured lifestyle was sort of odd, but most of the parents just figured, That’s New York. Gladstone, a few of them said, was clearly devoted to her daughter. The pair projected a kind of us-against-the-world closeness.

But at least one mother at P.S. 3, who asked to remain anonymous, realized there was something darker and more bizarre going on when Gladstone and Lily stayed with her in Brooklyn in 2015. Though she knew Gladstone only casually, she recognized the “single-mom call,” said the woman, who was also divorced. The stay was only supposed to be for a few days while their apartment was being painted, but it turned into well over a week: The mother says Gladstone sat on her patio chain-smoking, drinking wine, and talking on the phone for hours. Even though their kids were in school together, Gladstone kept Lily home most days. At one point, the host threw a birthday party for her son, and Gladstone walked in wearing the woman’s clothes. The final straw, the woman said, was when she found a folded-up $20 bill in a room Gladstone had recently been in; it had white powder inside. She took a photo of the object and immediately told Gladstone she needed to leave. When she did, Gladstone took several items with her, including the woman’s jeans and a leather jacket. “I got her out of my life as quickly as possible,” the parent says. “I’m not the kind of person to go around blabbing about it. I didn’t realize it was a detriment to the whole community.”

Gladstone met her ex, J. Klein, in San Francisco in 2007. (New York is only identifying him by his first initial to protect his privacy.) A German filmmaker and special-effects producer, he had recently moved to the U.S. to work for a production company. She was 31, working as a waitress and as a receptionist at a company that made jukeboxes for bars, though Klein says she was calling herself a marketing specialist. Gladstone described her upbringing to him as charmed but derailed by tragedy. Her father was a wealthy businessman, and Gladstone’s Facebook profile says she was a boarder at the tony Kent School in Connecticut. But then her parents divorced, she told Klein. Court and bankruptcy records show her father’s money troubles; he was eventually sued by Kent for $29,000 in unpaid tuition. In 1992, when she was still in high school, Gladstone’s older brother committed suicide.

“She was charming,” Klein says of their getting together. “It was summer in San Francisco.” Klein claims Gladstone asked, a few weeks into their romance, if he would cover her rent; he declined. When Gladstone called to say she was pregnant, he moved with her to Pittsburgh and they married. Though they lived together for three years, Klein didn’t know who Gladstone really was, it seems, and still doesn’t. “I think I only know like one percent of what has really happened to her,” he says.

Their 2013 separation agreement stipulated Klein would pay Gladstone $25,000, an amount they have been fighting over ever since. Klein claimed that Gladstone had taken money from his business account and “concealed her romantic involvement with another woman with whom she eventually cohabited in New York.” (It didn’t help his case. “There was no evidence that the payment to Wife was contingent upon her remaining celibate, single, or heterosexual,” the court said.) This was the woman on Christopher Street with whom Gladstone had settled in the city. Though their relationship ended in 2014, Gladstone and Lily stayed at her apartment on and off for years.

Gladstone appears to have begun skipping out on rent in the West Village not long after she and the woman broke up. In September 2014, she moved into an apartment on Bank Street, where, according to the landlord, she stopped paying rent four months before she moved out, leaving an unpaid debt of around $9,000. Klein says that every time he came to visit Lily, she and her mother were living in a different place. In 2015, he filed for custody in Allegheny County as part of their divorce dispute.

In 2017, Gladstone moved into a studio on West 13th Street belonging to Matt Titus, a former celebrity matchmaker who was hastily subletting the four remaining months on his lease. The studio was so small “you could cook from the bed,” Titus says, and Gladstone did not disclose that she would be moving in with a kid. Gladstone, whom he had met via Craigslist, paid for only one month. One day in July, Titus and a friend waited until Gladstone left, then ran up to change the locks. Gladstone returned and called the police, who said Titus was performing an illegal lockout — which he was — and forced him to give Gladstone a new key. When Titus’s lease ended in September, Gladstone remained, and Titus himself was evicted by the management company; by the time she left in November, he owed $20,000.

In September of that year, during her stay at Titus’s studio, Gladstone briefly left the Village to book a room in Morningside Heights in the apartment of a man in his 50s named Paul. He too was a single parent who worked in film and was so cash-strapped he had illicitly converted part of his living room into an extra bedroom cordoned off by French doors. Paul met Gladstone on Airbnb but negotiated a steeply discounted, slightly ambiguous, off-the-books arrangement. She and Lily could stay — but only if she paid up-front. Gladstone told Paul that she’d had to “flee Pennsylvania” because of her husband, he says, and that her West Village place was being renovated. He didn’t think it was so strange that she wanted him to pretend, in front of Lily, that they were friends.

Gladstone paid piecemeal at first, then stopped. When Paul told her he would be changing the locks if she didn’t pay, she sent several long, heated emails demanding a full refund: “What an enormous loss of time, energy, and money you’re wasting for all of us — and how undeniably jarring the results to my daughter and me,” she wrote. She accused him of leaving open a window as a “tactic” to give Lily mosquito bites so bad she had to see the school nurse. After receiving no update on when they would be leaving, Paul confronted Gladstone in person, standing several feet away from the bathroom in which Lily was brushing her teeth, prompting Gladstone to accuse him of “harassing” her. To Paul, it felt like a threat: “Whatever my child has said or says to her teachers,” Gladstone wrote, “the administration, nurse, therapist at school or elsewhere … is fully within her rights.” He had a friend come over to make sure he wasn’t alone when they packed up and left.

Gladstone also stayed at boutique hotels like the Marlton and the Maritime — and was arrested in November 2018 for paying for the rooms with her ex-girlfriend’s credit card. According to police records, Gladstone (using her ex’s AmEx information) spent $11,719 at the hotels between September and November, and with her Citibank account spent $15,292 on purchases including Lyft rides and items from Amazon. She pleaded not guilty, and a restraining order was issued on behalf of her ex-girlfriend. Gladstone is currently being prosecuted for three felony counts. Parents at P.S. 3 say it was as if Gladstone was made of Teflon — she had been arrested after dropping Lily off at school and acted like it was all related to her custody drama. A month later, Gladstone found Russell and Bajada’s place on Airbnb, just around the corner.

Gladstone spraying air freshener in Russell’s direction. Photo: Courtesy Heidi Russell/Heidi Russell

On her walk back to Barrow Street, Russell felt a strange mix of relief and fear: relief because she figured that Gladstone’s ongoing criminal case would help get her out of the apartment, and fear because she was starting to think that she had been conned far more aggressively than she’d ever imagined. In her long text accusations, Gladstone had used some of the same phrases with Russell that she had with others; like Paul, Russell had been accused of intimidating Lily and was terrified of being accused of worse. She began sifting through an agonizing catalogue of warning signs: texts from Gladstone, desperate to stay again after their initial visit, begging to pay $50 for one night at the apartment, lest she and Lily end up “in a hotel lobby (if lucky) again.” Russell had chalked these up to the general chaos of Gladstone’s divorce proceedings and unpredictable work life. Now she was understanding that the itinerancy was a permanent state — no, not just that. It was her M.O.

The revelations did not surprise Bajada. “Heidi is more trusting than me,” she says. Bajada and her mother had been left homeless during the Khrushchev era of the USSR, after seven families were forcibly moved into their apartment. Currently, the situation at 129 Barrow is not even the worst of Bajada’s housing crises. While all of this was happening with Gladstone in New York, Bajada was in Kiev — her elderly mother had been murdered in a dispute over her apartment by another family that was trying to take possession of it.

Russell went down to the 6th Precinct to inform the NYPD that Gladstone was living in her home. On October 18, 2019, officers arrested Gladstone for violating her ex-girlfriend’s restraining order. Her ex had already reported to police that she had seen Gladstone skulking around her apartment on four occasions. Cops had been looking for Gladstone since May.

When Gladstone was arrested, Russell got a call from a faculty member at Lily’s current middle school to tell her they had arranged for the child to stay with another parent; Russell was left with Happy the dog. At this point, Klein, Gladstone’s ex husband, didn’t even know where she and his daughter had been living. The school only had the address on Christopher Street. During a court-ordered investigation back in March 2019, Klein told the Administration for Children’s Services that Gladstone had never really had a permanent address for Lily; he would call Lily and discover she and her mother had been sitting “all night in a Starbucks.” Gladstone told the ACS agents that she and Lily were living in Brooklyn on Frost Street with a man named Nory Settineri. Though a school official reported that Lily’s attendance was unsatisfactory, and her grandparents — Gladstone’s mother and stepfather — reported they were concerned for her well-being, Children’s Services dismissed Klein’s petition.

Settineri said he took in Gladstone because he could sympathize with her plight — he is in the middle of his own custody case. Gladstone told him that Klein owed her hundreds of thousands of dollars from the film company, which, she claimed, they were partners in, and that he was using the custody fight in New York to avoid paying her. (She also told him that she thought Klein was conspiring with her ex-girlfriend, whom she claimed Klein was now seeing.) “I don’t know if what she told me is the truth,” Settineri reflects. “I only know that I saw there was a mom fighting to be a mom under some shitty circumstances.”

Klein told police that the ex-spouses had a run-in on the night of May 31, when he drove Happy to New York from Pittsburgh. He said Gladstone grabbed his arm during an argument, then followed him “around the entire West Village” with Lily in tow. It might explain why, five days later, she showed up at Russell’s doorstep with the dog. She had texted Russell that night at 3 a.m. asking if they could be let in early, stating that Lily was asleep on her lap.

Russell and Bajada served Gladstone another 30-day notice on October 22, and at the end of November, Russell says, Gladstone told her that Lily had hand-foot-and-mouth disease; Gladstone told her lawyer in her criminal case that Lily had pneumonia. Russell filed a holdover petition, used to evict a tenant who stays beyond the terms of a lease, but the court date was postponed so that Gladstone could find a lawyer. On January 30, 2020, at the courthouse in Manhattan, a small miracle occurred: Gladstone actually signed an agreement saying that she would leave by March 31, 2020. Russell’s lawyer had persuasively argued to Gladstone that he could win against her in court and even get damages. Russell was overjoyed, texting friends and Bajada. Thinking ahead, they sought and were granted a warrant of eviction in case Gladstone tried to stay.

It was just in time. Russell had been laid off in October; she and Bajada were both living off her unemployment assistance. They’d had no rental income for seven months. In the apartment, Russell stayed up late and woke up late. She had taken to recording nearly every interaction she had with Gladstone, hundreds of hours of footage, with Gladstone recording her back in a bizarre iPhone standoff. With news of the coronavirus, Gladstone had taken to spraying chemical cleaners in the air — Russell made three complaints at the 6th Precinct about Gladstone following her into the kitchen and, under the auspices of cleaning, spraying close to her food. She started spraying into the crack between the door and the frame of Russell’s room while she was inside. Once, Gladstone sprayed her in the back, leaving bleachy streaks on her sweater.

As the pandemic’s first wave crested over New York, Governor Cuomo issued a state executive order on March 20, halting all eviction proceedings 11 days before marshals would have knocked on Russell’s door.

By the summer of 2020, Russell had developed a routine. Like the rest of the city, she had been ordered to stay home, only her home was also occupied by a tenant who refused to be evicted, her 12-year-old, and two dogs. She was essentially living out of her bedroom and had become a de facto hoarder: Like a loony kind of bazaar, every inch of the space was cluttered with disparate items — her television, her expensive kitchen-knife set, a small fridge — with a tiny patch on the floor for Abby, her poodle. To cope, Russell spent hours outdoors. And she found a decent public bathroom at the Wendy’s on 14th Street. She would walk all the way to Wall Street and back and then sit on the stoops of friends’ apartments. She hung out in the West Village Houses’ laundry room, where she would take “farmer showers.” It was better than the first few months of the pandemic, when Russell wandered a frigid, empty downtown, pushing Abby, who had injured her leg, around in a carriage. Back on Barrow Street, Gladstone still had the colored lights she’d put up for Christmas nailed to the wall. She was getting copies of The New Yorker.

A reprieve came in July, when Gladstone and Lily suddenly left for 17 days. Cautiously, Russell returned to her apartment. She made dinner. She watched Hot in Cleveland on her TV, which she brought back into the living room, while sitting on the couch. It had been a year since Gladstone had told her that her life felt like a crazy novel. Maybe Russell’s crazy novel was over. Maybe Bajada could come back from Kiev, where she was helping out in a cousin’s market in exchange for food.

They had not been able to afford a lawyer since March, so Russell found an attorney, Matt Porges, through a housing clinic. She changed her locks and left a note for Gladstone to call Porges’s number if and when she returned. On the 17th day, Porges got the call. Gladstone told him she and Lily were never planning on leaving the apartment. It was their home.

Out walking in the Village, Russell broke down. For the first time, she let go of her obsession with following the rules: She would rather fight the lockout in court, she told Porges, than let them in. A neighbor saw Gladstone in the hallway, her daughter next to her, trying to pick the lock one night. After that, Gladstone filed an illegal lockout case, which sent the police to Russell’s apartment the night before their hearing.

In pretrial negotiations, Gladstone said she would leave for $24,000. The amount almost made Russell laugh. During a three-day trial held via Skype, Gladstone claimed she had paid rent; at one point, she said that she and Russell had worked out an exchange in which she would clean in lieu of paying rent — a reference to a text she had sent regarding her cleaning up after Abby during her very first stay. Under cross-examination, Gladstone eventually admitted to the judge that, in his words, “no rent payments were subsequently made.”

Regardless, the judge felt that Gladstone did not pose a sufficient “imminent and substantial threat or danger” to Russell to allow him to overrule the moratorium (though he did find that she could have treated Russell with “greater kindness”). Arthur Schwartz, another attorney helping Russell, tried a different tactic: He filed a federal lawsuit against New York State’s chief judge, who refused to process evictions like Russell’s even after the governor had allowed them to be exempted from the moratorium. It didn’t work — but the lawsuit made Russell’s case go public. It was picked up by the New York Post, with a large photo of Gladstone and the headline RESIDENT EVIL. The saga provided a counternarrative to the city’s wave of eviction-related stories over the summer, as more than a million of New York’s tenants begged for rent relief. Russell joined other small landlords, from Harlem to the Hamptons, in seeking exceptions to the moratorium. An anonymous group calling itself the West Village Guardian Angels sprang up on Twitter, posting photos of flyers that were plastered west of Hudson Street with Gladstone’s photo and a hashtag: #WestVillageGrifter.

A flyer put up by the West Village Guardian Angels on the corner of Washington and Barrow. Photo: Courtesy Heidi Russell/Heidi Russell

The scandal soon traveled across the neighborhood and quickly reached P.S. 3. “She preyed on us as moms,” one former friend said. “I can’t believe it was the same person sitting on the bench with us.” It seemed to confirm rumors about Gladstone that some parents had heard in February, when one of Russell’s friends posted about her on the site Nextdoor. One vociferous defense of Gladstone came from Alberto Moris, a P.S. 3 parent with a law office in Miami (he was the one who had sent Gladstone the money to pay Russell in June 2019). “So your defense is the city is full of scammers, hence she must BE one?” he wrote. “The city IS full of scammers and many are landlords.” (In an email to New York, Moris said he had known Gladstone for six years and that their relationship was both personal and professional. She had hired him informally to review contracts and had assisted him in his legal practice. He wrote, “This seems to be Ms. Russell’s 15 minutes of fame.”)

It is difficult to know just how far back Gladstone’s tactics go. An eviction case was brought against her by a Washington, D.C., management company in 2004. In New York, the hustle was all the more effective because of how familiar her precarity seemed. She camouflaged herself in a morass of insecure New Yorkers teetering on the brink.

When she won her lockout case, Gladstone settled back into Russell’s apartment with renewed fervor. She blasted plucky guitar music and began spraying cleaning chemicals again, as Russell recorded her, pleading with her to stop. (“You’ve gotta get your mental stuff under control,” Gladstone tells Russell in one of her recordings.) She put up a sign in the kitchen: IT’S ALWAYS DARKEST BEFORE THE DAWN. Written under it, on the wall, was TELL THE TRUTH HEIDI. Gladstone left a note on the counter with a dramatic list of “Missing/Damaged/Poisoned/Ruined” items that she accused Russell of tampering with. As for the flyers, she texted Russell to immediately cease and desist the “campaign of defamation.” “And apologize,” she wrote, “for all the harm you’ve intentionally caused so many in this terrible & deceitful game you’re playing with people’s lives.”

In October, a friend of Russell’s offered to let her stay at their place in order to help her recover from an operation. Russell has been mostly sleeping there since, visiting the apartment a few times a week. I went there with her in December. As Russell showed me around, Gladstone followed us to the kitchen and accused Russell of being a “COVID-denier” (though Russell entered the apartment in a mask). Gladstone was insistent about telling me her side of the story that day: She said she had given evidence in court that she’d paid rent through April (she hadn’t), that she was awarded “treble damages” (she wasn’t), and that there was a warrant out for Russell’s arrest (there wasn’t). She alluded to a conspiracy, insinuating that Russell was being paid for her “campaign,” but she would not say by whom. “That was the story — and I was about to write it,” she said, though she wouldn’t say where. “This is bizarre,” she told Russell. “You really fucked our lives. We are really afraid all the time.” Her daughter stood nearby.

Asked to comment and respond to the 50-plus accounts in this article, Gladstone replied as follows: “This recitation below is false and defamatory. I brought a Housing Court case against Heidi Russell; she lost. She filed an emergency appeal; she lost. She filed a Federal Court case against me and my co-defendant, Hon. Lawrence K. Marks, Chief Administrative Judge; she quickly withdrew it.” Klein dropped his custody attempts last year, he says, because he has been financially ruined by the cost of attorneys and by the pandemic’s effect on the film industry. Now he is sleeping on the couches of friends, effectively homeless.

Russell already speaks in the past tense about her two-bedroom on Barrow Street. Though she has found another part-time assistant job, she and Bajada owe $40,000 in legal fees. The balance on the loan they took out, still accruing interest, has ballooned to over $800,000. When they sell, they will be unable to make any money, which Bajada had been counting on for retirement — that is, if they are not foreclosed on by their lender or evicted by their co-op for thousands of dollars in unpaid maintenance fees.

“It’s one thing if you don’t have money but you have shelter, right?” Russell said recently on a frigid day, which she spent almost entirely outside. “Or you don’t have shelter but you have money. That’s what Val always used to say — as long as you have one or the other, a good job or an apartment, you’re okay.” They could lose the apartment before Gladstone does, which helps explain why Russell was taken in by Gladstone in the first place. Barely able to make rent but making it work, between paychecks, trying to hang on to a place in New York City — what could be a more believable story?

This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Gladstone’s first arrest was in 2018.

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