Oak Bluffs landlord accused of threatening tenants with chainsaw

John W. Sensabaugh, with his attorney Ryan Searle, in Edgartown District Court — Photo by Steve Myrick

Oak Bluffs Police last week arrested a landlord they said terrorized his tenants by accosting them early in the morning while holding a running chainsaw and revving its engine within striking distance of the young men.

Police arrested John W. Sensabaugh, the owner of a house at 67 Front Street, on the morning of Tuesday, June 18, after responding to calls from several of the frightened foreign tenants living at the house.

Mr. Sensabaugh, who has a court record of disputes with his tenants, was arraigned in Edgartown District Court on Thursday, June 20. The court entered a not guilty plea for him, on a charge of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.

According to the police report, 12 renters and Mr. Sensabaugh were living in the four-bedroom, two-bath house the morning police arrived.

Assistant district attorney Laura Marshard told the court that Mr. Sensabaugh blamed his actions on two tenants who, he said, awakened him after they returned from their work shift at an Edgartown restaurant.

At about 6 am the following morning, he got in a Bobcat excavator and began destroying lawn furniture and ramming the house near the tenants’ basement window, Ms. Marshard said.

“They were absolutely terrified when he came into their bedroom and held a revving chain saw over their head,” Ms. Marshard told the court. “The victims indicated Mr. Sensabaugh was close enough to strike them.”

Police wrote in their report that Mr. Sensabaugh had a strong odor of alcohol on his breath. In court Thursday, Mr. Sensabaugh said he was not intoxicated. The police report noted that Mr. Sensabaugh twice refused to take a breathalyzer test during the booking procedure at the Dukes County Jail, on the morning of his arrest.

Presiding Justice H. Gregory Williams set bail at $1,000. Mr. Sensabaugh was released. Conditions of bail included random alcohol screens and no contact with eight of the tenants who were living at his house.

Ms. Marshard asked the court to proceed quickly to trial.

“I’m looking to fast-track this case,” Ms. Marshard said, noting that she expects victims and witnesses to leave the country in September. “Once they go back to (Bosnia), I’m not going to be able to try this case,” she said.

“That’s not fair to the defendant,” defense attorney Ryan Searle responded. “That does not allow him time to prepare to defend himself.”

Judge Williams ordered Mr. Sensabaugh to return to court for a pre-trial hearing on July 15.

Hiding, then fleeing

In an interview with The Times last week, two of the tenants described what happened.

Vanja Ceifovic, 22, and Srdan Barasic, 21, are childhood friends who grew up in Bosnia and now attend the same college in their home country. Mr. Ceifovic worked on Martha’s Vineyard last summer, as a cook at Chesca’s restaurant in Edgartown. He returned this summer at the beginning of June, with his friend, Mr. Barasic. Both are in the country legally on J-1 student visas, which allow them to work for up to four months before returning to Bosnia. Both men are working at Chesca’s this summer.

They said when Mr. Sensabaugh began smashing lawn furniture and banging into the house with his Bobcat, some of the upstairs tenants fled the house, but they locked the door to the basement and tried to hide. Mr. Ceifovic got under his bed, and Mr. Barasic tried to hide in a laundry room.

“He came inside the bedroom with the chainsaw, Mr. Barasic said. “He said ‘good morning sunshine, are you feeling comfortable?'”

“I just jumped out, we ran out of the house, in our underwear,” Mr. Ceifovic said. “We ran to a neighbor’s house and called police.”

The two men found their way to Mr. Sensabaugh’s house through an advertisement on criagslist.com, a popular online classified listing service. They said 14 people, most of them Eastern Europeans, live in the house, in addition to Mr. Sensabaugh.

The police report listed 12 people, in addition to Mr. Sensabaugh. The court listed eight people by name on the no-contact order issued by Judge Williams as a condition of bail.

Mr. Ceifovic and Mr. Barasic each paid $450 in rent and security deposits when they moved in, and were to pay $150 per week for a bed in a basement. They said there are four beds separated by makeshift partitions in the basement.

The two men said some of the tenants have returned to the house, because they have already paid rent in advance for the entire summer and fear they will lose their money and be unable to find other housing, if they move out.

Police sent a copy of their report to the Oak Bluffs building inspector and the board of health. Health agent Shirley Fauteux said she will inspect the home to ensure the owner is in compliance with all local and state health regulations. There is no bylaw in Oak Bluffs that limits the number of people allowed to live in a home.

According to assessors records, the two-story colonial home has 2,048 square feet of living space, and includes four bedrooms and two bathrooms. The property is assessed at $503,500.

Not the first time

Police responded to Mr. Sensabaugh’s home in July, 2010, and November 2012, to investigate unrelated disputes with tenants.

In the 2010 incident, tenants told police that Mr. Sensabaugh made them uncomfortable by leaving pornographic material around the house, taking pictures of them with his mobile phone camera, and showing them a complete suit of camouflage, including a face screen and night vision goggles.

According to the police report, Mr. Sensabaugh was trying to evict tenants because their rent was late. Three of the tenants gave police written statements.

“In (tenant’s) statement she says that Sensabaugh threw a metal tray at her; it did not hit her but she was scared to live in the house,” Oak Bluffs police officer Damien Harris wrote in his report. “In the other two statements, they talk about how Sensabaugh left a note saying the electricity and water would be shut off, which was hung up on the wall using a knife.”

Mr. Sensabaugh was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and failure to provide utilities to tenants.

According to court documents, after several delays in court proceedings, Ms. Marshard reluctantly decided not to move forward with prosecution, because the victims had all moved back to their homes in Eastern Europe, and were unavailable to testify.

In the 2012 incident, Mr. Sensabaugh was arrested and charged with assault and battery. According to the police report, a tenant accused him of pushing her down a stairway. That case was eventually dismissed at the request of the prosecutor, because of insufficient evidence, according to court documents.