WOODSTOCK – Rolling a wheelchair backward down a deserted courthouse hallway, Marion Berntsen had bizarre answers to a reporter’s questions.
McHenry County Judge Thomas Meyer had just given her one week to vacate the McHenry home where she’d been living.
The 73-year-old Berntsen was fighting tooth and nail her landlord Anja Hertel’s petition to evict her. A jury trial was set for Tuesday, but not before Berntsen first inexplicably waived a jury trial, then agreed to leave the McHenry home.
Cases such as these rarely make it to a jury, Hertel’s lawyer explained.
In August 2013, Berntsen responded to a Craigslist ad Hertel placed for a roommate. After a brief meeting, she began renting a room for $500 a month.
Not long after Berntsen arrived with a semitrailer full of boxes, filled Hertel’s refrigerator with rotting meat and her garage with boxes of old food that attracted mice, it was clear their verbal rental agreement wasn’t going to work out.
“I feel like the devil has been living in my house and he will finally be removed,” Hertel said after Meyer gave Berntsen until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday to leave the home. “I feel so bad about the next victim. For me, I don’t want there to be another victim.”
Berntsen said she had “no idea” where she would live next.
She has an extensive history of legal fights with various landlords in Illinois and Wisconsin.
As is the case with Hertel, Berntsen has sued previous landlords as a pauper to avoid legal fees but costing the landlords thousands. According to the petition, she obtains her income from Social Security.
Hertel’s legal bills are $4,000 and growing. She can’t afford an attorney to represent her on a separate pending lawsuit Berntsen filed against her.
Outside the courtroom Tuesday, Berntsen didn’t directly respond to questions about the case.
“A good reporter does not ask questions they don’t know the answer to, a good reporter doesn’t expect me to educate [her],” Berntsen said in the empty hallway.
Other inquiries, such as how she responds to claims she’s a sovereign citizen, were volleyed with questions of her own.
“Are you a God-fearing woman?” she asked, looking up through glasses, an attached visor pushing the curls from her jet-black wig out of her face.
“Do you believe in the Ten Commandments?”
“Or are you one of the slaves on the plantation?”
The FBI considers sovereign citizens anti-government individuals who don’t believe 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.
Berntsen represented herself Tuesday, but her court filings are as polished as those prepared by someone with legal training.
“She knows enough to be dangerous, and that’s the problem,” said Charmaine Ruckoldt, Hertel’s attorney.
Hertel’s legal battle with Berntsen is far from over. In a separate case, the former tenant is seeking $15,000 in damages, alleging that Hertel stole her personal property including love letters from her deceased husband.
It doesn’t stop there. Berntsen has a laundry list of items she alleges Hertel took from her. Included among the presumed stolen items are $70 worth of garbanzo beans and other canned goods, toiletries, utensils, 10 boxes of VHS tapes, pillows and blankets and other items totaling $3,396. Hertel denies all those claims.
That case is scheduled for a March 6 status date.