In the age of Facebook and Twitter, a new crime has hit America: "Sharpie parties," gatherings of party revelers armed with "Sharpie" magic markers and lured by social media invitations to wreak havoc on foreclosed homes.
Five years into the U.S. foreclosure crisis, Sharpie parties are a new form of blight on the landscape of boarded-up homes, brown lawns and abandoned streets. They are also the latest iteration of collective home-trashing spurred by social media.
At least six Sharpie parties were reported in one California county in recent months, where invitations posted online drew scores to foreclosed homes.
A couple in Salem, Idaho, decided to walk away from their home when they discovered that thousands of snakes were slithering in the walls and the siding of the house. Amber and Ben Sessions said they could hear the scales of the snakes against the house and saw track marks all over the place where the snakes would slither.
A man in Omaha, Neb., was living in fear in his own home -- because it was infested with venomous brown recluse spiders. After finding 40 of the dangerous arachnids in his apartment, Dylan Baumann said that he would shake his towels before drying off after a shower, shake his clothes before putting them on and check his shoes before wearing them. Baumann said he plans to move out in September.
A Miami teenager came home to find her father dead in his house, which was swarmed by 60,000 bees. The house was reportedly under renovation, and it was said that the man may have been trying to get rid of the bees when he died.
When Susan Minutillo of Hudson, Fla., ran out to run an errand, she didn't expect to come back and find that her home had dropped into the ground -- after a giant sinkhole under her house suddenly swallowed half of it. Minutillo ran to her neighbors' house, but their home was soon evacuated, too, due to the danger posed by the sinkhole.
After vandals trashed a foreclosed home in Huntington Beach, Calif., an army of mold took over the house, causing $250,000 in damage. Appliances had been removed and water from the Jacuzzi bathtub had been left running. When the water was left to sit, mold grew on the walls, furniture and under tiles.
Brian Dyer intended to dig a hole for a pool in the backyard of his Lakeland, Fla., home. But that hole and two others that contractors attempted to dig were already filled -- with mounds and mounds of trash. Tires, washing machine tubs, debris, metal parts -- even a lawnmower -- were found buried 3 feet under the soil in his backyard.
A pack of coyotes moved into a burned-out and abandoned home in Glendale, Calif. The owners were set to demolish the home and gave the city permission to trap the animals. But the home's neighbors were frightened to even walk outside.
A Palmetto, Fla., homeowner walked into her bathroom to find a 7-foot-long alligator on the floor. Apparently, the gator crawled into the woman's home through the cat door. The alligator was removed without incident -- but the woman removed her cat door.
The partygoers are handed Sharpie pens on arrival by their hosts and urged to graffiti the walls - a destructive binge that often prompts other acts of vandalism including smashing holes in walls and doors, flooding bathrooms and ripping up floors.
The California spree follows a similar outbreak earlier this year, when teenagers wrecked homes in states including Texas, Florida and Utah after seeing the movie Project X. The film features a house wrecking party sparked by online invitations.
Anna Hazel, an investigator in the Merced district attorney's office in central California, said the use of social media is a very effective way for partygoers to find the address and to track the progress of the party.
It also provides a treasure trove of evidence for the police.
Hazel said in her most recent case of "extensive destruction" to a foreclosed property, the host of the Sharpie party posted an invitation to "Matt's House of Mayhem" on a Facebook page.
See How One Home Was Trashed During a 'Sharpie Party'
At least 100 people turned up. Hundreds of smartphone text messages describing the party were also sent.
They drank alcohol, scrawled profanities on walls, smashed glass, tore up parts of the house and left garbage strewn everywhere.
"We obtained search warrants for Facebook accounts," Hazel said. "It was very useful to us to get access to the social networks. They posted pictures of the party. They were brazen about it."
Three men, aged 21, 24 and 30, were arrested on suspicion of felony vandalism, burglary and conspiracy. One of them was the son of the evicted former owner.
"The Sharpie party is the newest twist here," said Larry Morse, the district attorney in Merced County, California. Morse said he has investigated vandalized homes after six "Sharpie parties" in recent months.
Andy Krotic, a Californian realtor, said: "It's a growing fad among young people, especially the Twitter crowd. They throw a big party, everyone gets a Sharpie, and they are invited to write on the walls and spray paint."
Krotic said in one recent case partygoers shot arrows through the wall, hitting a room in a neighbor's house.
Banks that own the foreclosed homes are reluctant to pursue the perpetrators, Krotic says, because they don't have the resources to hunt down the miscreants. Even if they're caught, the unwanted publicity from their prosecution would likely incite more parties.
"Usually they leave the damage and just drop the price," Krotic said.