The overnight chill continued into a recent morning in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, when sheriff’s deputies arrived at 49 Memery Lane. It would have been a perfect fall day but for the unpleasant business at hand: the eviction of Alton King Jr., a 79-year-old retiree who had lived at the address for decades. He’d spent the past few years fighting foreclosure, and in a last-ditch effort to save his sprawling home, he was at the courthouse that morning to ask a judge for a stay. The battle had garnered the attention of local activists devoted to fighting unlawful foreclosures, and a handful of them were outside at his house to protest. The deputies were waiting for King to return when a blue SUV with a landscaping trailer peeled into the driveway.
Rorie Woods stepped out from behind the wheel and walked to the rear of the trailer, which carried a half-dozen wooden boxes. With a pair of reading glasses draped around the collar of her purple fleece, she began to shake the boxes, because with the temperature in the low 50s, it was too cold for the honeybees inside to fly without a little coaxing. A deputy, realizing what she was about to unleash, tried to stop her, but a bee stung him in the face, forcing him to retreat. The maneuver bought Woods enough time to pull on a beekeeper suit with a vented hood that covered her face and roll one of the hives off the trailer and up to the entryway of King’s house. Three more officers marched forward to stop her, but they too were stung by the cloud of bees and fell back. Nearly 30 minutes later, one officer managed to handcuff her as the protesters cheered. “We’re with you, Rorie!” one yelled. She called back to another, telling her to take care of Zekie, her Chihuahua-basenji mix that had been sitting in her vehicle as the chaos unfolded. As the officer led Woods to a cruiser, he told her that he and several officers were allergic to bees. “Oh you’re allergic, good,” she allegedly replied.
After Woods, 55, was charged with four counts of “assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon (bees),” three counts of assault by means of a dangerous weapon (also bees), and disorderly conduct, she was heralded as a folk hero. “This is not about a few sheriffs getting a few honeybee stings,” she said in an interview. “It’s about predatory lending, which is thriving in Massachusetts and beyond.”
Generally, there are three markets for mortgages: prime, subprime, and predatory. Lenders in the predatory market have historically targeted vulnerable borrowers, offering loans with unfair or burdensome terms that can set victims down the road to financial hardship. In 2005, Woods was working as a home-remodeling contractor, and amid the housing boom fueled by easy lending, she took out a mortgage for a four-bedroom Colonial across from the Hadley Town Commons in Western Massachusetts. Soon after, she mortgaged another home, a rental property down the street. The following year, she was injured on a job, fell behind on both of her mortgage payments, and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in order to avoid foreclosure. Woods claims that one of her mortgages was a subprime mortgage dressed up to look like a prime mortgage that was designed to lead to foreclosure. Her other mortgage, she says, was discriminatory because it referred to her as “a single woman.” She’s never filed a lawsuit challenging the loans, only calling them predatory as part of her defense in foreclosure proceedings.
By 2008, the housing bubble had burst, and contracting jobs had dried up, so Woods made a full-time job out of her old hobby: beekeeping. Inspired by the work of Charles Mraz, a Vermont honeybee farmer who was the leading voice for the therapeutic use of bee stings to treat autoimmune diseases, she had begun keeping bees in the early 1990s, hoping that she could one day use them to treat all sorts of ailments. She kept a few hives but considered it a hobby, never really using them for therapeutic purposes. During the Great Recession, she increased her hive production and found that the gift economy among farmers in the Pioneer Valley was bountiful. She’d exchange honey for sausages, thick-cut bacon, or cases of blueberries. “It wasn’t terribly lucrative, but it did afford me an excellent quality of life,” she said. “That quality of life has been destroyed by this wrongful predatory loan, wrongful foreclosure, the wrongful evictions.”
Over the next decade, Woods managed to stall the foreclosures of her properties by filing appeals, challenging the validity of her mortgages, and once again filing for bankruptcy. But in early 2018, Goldman Sachs foreclosed on Woods’s rental property and, five months later, Wells Fargo foreclosed on her Colonial, which a couple bought at auction. Although she fought both foreclosures, that July, sheriff’s deputies forced her out. She would remain homeless for years, sometimes living in a tent. Though most of her beehives weren’t on the property, Woods sought damages related to her bees, claiming the havoc the eviction wrought on her life precipitated the collapse of many of her hives. Throughout the process, Woods, who has a degree in documentary filmmaking from Hampshire College, steeped herself in property law. By her own tally, she’s been involved in 46 cases to date, and she’s represented herself in many of those cases, including an appeal to the Supreme Court. Discussing the cases, she speaks in unbroken paragraphs, calling on case law, mentioning relevant rulings or judges’ names without missing a beat. Once, after Woods made a long, deeply researched argument in front of a judge, even the opposing counsel, an attorney for a moving company that handled her belongings during her eviction, seemed impressed. “Your honor, as you just heard, she is highly intelligent,” he said.
Along the way, Woods linked up with the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending, a statewide coalition of organizations assisting people who have faced foreclosure. That’s where she met King, who was fighting to keep the 9,563-square-foot home he built in 2002. In 2006, King, a financial adviser and entrepreneur, received a construction loan to add an indoor basketball court to the house. According to King, that loan came with a negative amortization rate that he was unaware of until he saw his mortgage payments go from $3,200 to $13,400 over the next few years. “I got sucked into one of the worst predatory loans anybody has ever heard of,” he said, believing he was given the loan because he is Black. Like Woods, King, once he realized he might be evicted, looked to MAAPL for support. He joined weekly phone calls with as many as 20 people to exchange information and ideas about their cases. “We started to realize in our loose organization of people who are the wrongfully foreclosed, ‘Oh, we all were set up!’” Woods said. “We like to show up for each other in court and to show moral support. We often will read each other’s filings just as a second set of eyes to make sure that we haven’t misargued something or stated something twice.”
They were not the only ones in town with a great deal of foreclosure experience. The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department had spent the past year evicting people at a rate of two or three per day, according to a recent New York Times profile of Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi that focused on his efforts to make the process of eviction easier on people during the pandemic. After refusing a notice by deputies to vacate, King received a second notice to leave within 48 hours. Woods accompanied him to look at the facility where his belongings would be taken. The morning of his eviction, he went to the courthouse to appeal for a last-minute stay. He was unsuccessful, and, to his surprise, when he returned to 49 Memery Lane, a sheriff’s deputy told him that Woods had been arrested for the bee attack.
For his part, he said he didn’t even know that Woods kept bees. Grace Ross, co-founder of MAAPL, seemed to tell another story: Woods was always moving her bees around after she was evicted, and “Al had said, ‘Bring them to my house.’ But she certainly shouldn’t have tried to unload them while there were sheriffs at his house,” Ross said, chuckling, before claiming she had video footage that contradicted sheriff’s deputies’ accounts of the morning.
“Never in all my years of leading the Hampden County Sheriff’s Civil Process Division have I seen something like this,” said Robert Hoffman of the sheriff’s department in a press release. “I’m just thankful no one died because bee allergies are serious. I hope that these out-of-county protesters will reconsider using extreme measures in the future because they will be charged and prosecuted.”
Woods, on the advice of her attorney, would not speak about what happened at King’s home. She did, however, assure me that very few people experience anaphylaxis from honeybee venom: One study suggested anywhere from 0.3 percent to 8.9 percent of the population. “Those of us in this fight have been cast as deadbeats, and we are anything but,” she said. “I’ve been cast as litigious and frivolous because of the number of cases, and, in fact, I think that’s just my opponents’ frustrating way of trying to say ‘Why hasn’t she died yet?’”