Jean Farmer, a Louisiana transplant dogged by a federal fraud charge, followed her husband Robert Cowan on a job lead to Lupin in late 2008. For the equivalent of $8 an hour, Cowan would take care of landscaping in exchange for a place to park his RV.
The couple fell in love with Lupin, named for the California flower that blossoms into a spear of purple petals. Founded as Elysium by Euro-phile naturist George Marcellus Spray in 1935, the resort offers a panoramic view of mountains and redwoods. It feels remote—with wandering deer and the occasional mountain lion. Still, it’s a quick drive from both Silicon Valley and the coast, suspended in what Glyn calls “a creative vortex” between valley industry and Santa Cruz earthiness. Some 60 or so people live on the grounds in an assortment of cabins, yurts, tents and trailers.
But there’s a saying among Lupinites: “You fall in love with Lupin, but Lupin does not fall in love with you.”
Cowan stopped working after months without payment of any kind, he said. His wife picked up a job at the clubhouse restaurant, a three-month trial starting with the holiday rush in return for rent and a membership. Farmer said she never got paid either, despite long days running the kitchen. She complained, got laid off and then sued Lupin for $70,000 in back pay and overtime.
While the lawsuit played out in Santa Clara County Superior Court and a parallel claim through the Labor Commissioner’s Office, Farmer said, her trailer’s electricity and water were shut off as retribution for alerting the authorities. The Stouts settled out of court, avoiding trial. But the case pointed to trouble in Lupin’s hallowed naturist paradise.
Records show that the Stouts have increasingly relied on tenants who barter work for rent and food, only to fire and evict many of them on short notice. “You start to feel like it’s more of a transient place,” said a former member who lived for decades on the grounds and asked to withhold his name. “People have to wonder whether they can sustain a way of life there.”
Musician Little John Chrisley says he moved into the Sleepy Hollow cabin in 2006, though his eviction papers filed by Lori Kay say he arrived in November 2010. Per his contract, he would work for $8 an hour in Lupin credit, good for meals with room and board. Chrisley, a South Bay-raised blues prodigy who played in his early days with Huey Lewis, Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker, agreed to also host occasional concerts. Over time, his responsibilities shifted to tending the property and helping Glyn.
But a year later, in 2011, Chrisley quit and hid away in his cabin. He said that Lori Kay instructed kitchen staff to withhold meals, forcing him to salvage rice and boiled eggs from Glyn’s fridge after a full day working in the hills. Broke and paranoid, he said he felt imprisoned in a moldering cabin with a rotting-out sink and no toilet.
“Lupin traps you up on that hill,” Chrisley said. In May of last year, he was evicted for not paying rent.
“What they did to Little John was reprehensible,” said Russ Klein, a 30-year real estate broker who’s rented a cabin at Lupin for six years and said he acted as mediator between Chrisley and the Stouts. “They picked on somebody who couldn’t fight back.”
Lori Kay countered that the only time people are denied food is if they don’t have enough credit because they either stopped working or stopped paying. “No one is starving up here,” she said.
Twenty former live-ins allege similar treatment in a dozen eviction cases filed since 2009. Coraleen “Corky” and Steve “Butch” Fontanetti said they couldn’t apply for unemployment benefits after they left because work hours weren’t properly accounted for. Military veteran Adam “Army of One” Sanders and girlfriend Danielle Perkins said Lupin demanded an increasing number of work hours without overtime or holiday pay. Mildred Baker and her family said they were kicked out after alleging sexual harassment. Many of these people had no recourse due to verbal lease and work contracts. Another ex-tenant asked not to be named because he said the one thing he did sign was a nondisclosure agreement.
Maura Byrne moved into the Baytree cabin in 2010 and got kicked out three years later. Like many of Lupin’s jilted tenants, she claimed in court that the Stouts retaliated against her for summoning the county Department of Planning and Development after repeated requests to eradicate rats and replace a wall heater. Joe Hughes, the housing inspector who responded to her complaint, found a host of violations: inadequate foundations, a rat nest in her daughter's bed, lack of sewage disposal and a nearby tool shed illegally converted into living space.
Adding insult to Byrne’s legal injury: her car got towed at Lori Kay’s behest and she was too broke to pay the $800 to get it back. In an email dated April 18, 2013, Lori Kay told Byrne to move her car to the “Back 40,” a former storage area and now a plot of derelict trailers hidden from view to most visitors. “[W]hat you did was illegal and immoral,” Byrne wrote back. “It surprises me, given my knowledge of all your shady business practices, that you would go the route of retaliation.”
Over the years, Lupin shunted more and more staffers to the Back 40, recently renamed The Terraces, which lies off the margins of a map given to visitors and beyond a sign marked “Maintenance Area.” Rows of dilapidated trailers abandoned over the decades sit next to plastic chairs and propane tanks, tilted awnings and leak-shielding tarps. There is no plumbing or septic, only makeshift electrical wiring.
“It’s shocking to think that a place that looks like the Back 40 is so close to Los Gatos,” a Lupin tenant said. “Most people there are recovering from some setback in life. They don’t know any better.”
Largely through word of mouth or “help wanted” Craigslist ads beckoning people to “come live in paradise,” residents claim, Lupin has hired people “in transition”—transitions from prison, probation, broken relationships or drug and alcohol addictions. According to both court records and internal company documents supplied by former employees, many worked for the equivalent of minimum wage in “Lupin Bucks,” basically a credit on their account to pay for lodging, meal tickets and membership fees.
“Many times we work more on a barter system rather than traditional models,” Lori Kay explained. “Over the last 80 years this has served Lupin and many of its members very well. Unfortunately it does not work for everyone.”
The property subsequently fell into disrepair and ran into trouble with regulators over labor and safety violations, as well as illegal grading and construction. One such violation, in 2010, involved a propane tank explosion that sent a burn-blistered tenant to the hospital for five days. The U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the management company, Lupin Heights Inc., $12,000. “If it ain’t broke, wait a week,” Lupin dwellers often quip.
Though not certified as a sober-living environment, Lupin has also presented itself as a place to get back on one’s feet. “They deliberately look for people who are in a desperate situation,” said Klein, who almost moved out several times because of what he calls rampant and passively accepted methamphetamine use on the grounds. “They have a twisted notion that they’re some kind of a rehab.”
Lupin’s membership materials appear to support that claim. “Over the years, Lupin has been a haven of sobriety for many who have learned that their lives depend upon avoiding alcoholic consumption,” a handout states. Felony drug use, it continues, results in automatic dismissal. In practice, however, that wasn’t the case.
A couple years ago, the county’s Department of Family and Children Services took custody of newborn twins from their meth-addicted mom, a chef at Lupin’s restaurant. The mother, identified in court papers only as J.A., told the judge that she lived in a “zero-tolerance” community at Lupin. In its response, the county discredited that notion, pointing out that Lupin holds a liquor license and only bans alcohol from the pool and spa.
Still, many former and current residents said that they came to Lupin looking for some measure of healing, only to get swept up in a cycle of codependency by relying on the Stouts for housing, food and work. One couple said they had to sign up for public welfare because the Lupin credits they earned didn’t cover for enough meal vouchers. Former Cabrillo College instructor Robert Eckert, who moved into the Tiger Lily yurt in 2009 as a paying tenant before getting evicted a year later, said he would sometimes give staffers rides to the food bank so they could eat.
In a phone conversation with San Jose Inside, David Benfell, a graduate student who lived at Lupin from 2002 until he moved out on his own accord in 2008, said he became disheartened by the stark socioeconomic divide between paying members and the live-in workers.
"I saw people 'down on their luck' brought into a place where, yes, they were surrounded by incredible natural beauty, but where they were still 'down on their luck,' and hopelessly trapped in an abusive condition," he wrote on his blog in 2013.
There’s another adage in the camp that Lupin employees are more likely to have an outstanding warrant than a valid driver’s license. The Stouts dispute the assertion, saying the club performs background checks and sometimes drug tests to screen employees, though a criminal conviction won’t necessarily disqualify a person from moving in. In fact, a considerable number of resident-workers came to Lupin with checkered pasts—commonly with domestic violence, drug and theft convictions—and often brought their troubles with them. Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. James Jensen said that in the past two years deputies were called out to Lupin once every eight days on average.
Thirty-eight-year-old Mike Buckland, one of the two resident workers caught up with the Stouts on water theft charges last month, came to Lupin with a mile-long rap sheet and nowhere else to go. The Stouts gave him work, a trailer to live in and food from the kitchen—which got temporarily shut down for vermin by county health inspectors last month.
Eviction records state that Lori Kay’s half-brother, Ricky Mendoza, began working at Lupin in 2008. Court records indicate he was an ex-con battling addictions to meth and heroin. Already a wiry 5-foot-5, Mendoza began wasting away from drugs—in virtually every arrest report, police said he was coming down from some kind of high. During his stay at Lupin, police say they caught him with drugs, blank checks and stolen cars.
The week between Christmas 2008 and the New Year, Mendoza, high on meth and heroin, stole a 2002 Mitsubishi Gallant and high-tailed it past the Great Mall in Milpitas, according to court records. Police described him as thin and rank, with a shaved head and a goatee. Panting and drooling, he curled up on the ground in a fetal position and said he felt like his heart would explode.
“My stomach’s hurting,” he told the officer, admitting he’d been using drugs all day and, in a panic, had just swallowed a gram of meth. “I’m going to die.”
Mendoza’s sister, Lupin owner Lori Kay, formally evicted him from his trailer in 2014. By then an exodus was occurring for many longtime members. Some defected to other clubs, fed up not just with the drugs but also the all-night raves and fetish parties that they felt flouted the wholesome ideals of naturism.