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A Maine landlord is accused of coercing female tenants into sexual acts and sexually harassing them, the U.S. Department of Justice says in a new lawsuit.
Fred Wheeler II violated the federal Fair Housing Act in at least six different ways, from coercing them into performing oral sex on him, to making unwanted sexual advances, to entering the homes of female tenants without consent, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday by the justice department and Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Wheeler is the sole shareholder of Landscape Center of Maine, which is named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit. The company had an apartment building at 131 to 135 Ash Street in Lewiston, with about six rental units, from February 2015 to October 2022, per the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Maine.
In phone calls on Thursday, Wheeler and his attorney both denied the allegations. Many of the alleged actions happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Wheeler said the accusers are “squatters who were there.”
Wheeler’s attorney, Jeff Edwards, said that he’s been in discussions with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but had not yet seen the lawsuit on Thursday and did not know all its details.
The federal government wants a jury trial and for a judge to declare that Wheeler and the landscaping company violated the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The government also wants a judge to award damages to the people affected by Wheeler’s alleged actions.
The lawsuit alleges that Wheeler’s actions caused tenants and prospective tenants to have fear and anxiety, while also hurting their ability to have housing for themselves and their families. It also says that he caused homes to be unavailable because of sex, discriminated against people because of their sex and interfered with people’s rights to housing.
There are six different examples of alleged sexual assault and harassment by Wheeler outlined in the lawsuit, but the experiences of those five women are “not isolated instances; nor were they the only instances of Defendant Wheeler’s sexual harassment,” the lawsuit said.
In one instance, Wheeler used a euphemism to proposition a tenant, which she knew meant he was asking for anal sex, the lawsuit said. He allegedly said he would forgive $400 of back rent if she did it.
She changed her routine, including walking to work instead of driving, so she wouldn’t have to see Wheeler. After she refused Wheeler’s advances, he started eviction proceedings, according to the lawsuit.
At another time, Wheeler had a different female tenant go to a basement office to do paperwork, but once she was in the office, he locked the door and took his clothes off, the lawsuit said.
According to the lawsuit, on two occasions over a roughly six-month period, he made her kneel on the ground, and she gave him oral sex because she felt cornered and could not get out of the office.
The day after another woman signed a lease with Wheeler, he invited her over to his house to pick up the keys and stay the night with him, according to the lawsuit. After she declined, someone who said they were an agent for Wheeler allegedly said that she could no longer have the apartment.
The woman was then homeless for about a month, the lawsuit said.
The company also owned rental units at 639 Sabattus Road in Sabattus and 44-46 Gage Street in Augusta, per the lawsuit.