On May 31, Alex Pemberton turned on his computer, clicked on the New York Times website and read a front page story about a St. Petersburg couple who had stopped paying their mortgage yet were still dining on steak and enjoying weekends on their "gas-guzzling'' airboat.
Like many readers, Pemberton was incensed by the tale of these apparent deadbeats.
"If I didn't know it was me,'' he says, "I would have been the one digging out the pitchforks and torches and knocking on my door.''
Since the story appeared, Pemberton and girlfriend/business partner Susan Reboyras have received a slew of hostile e-mails, calls and letters from people who got the impression — wrongly, Pemberton says — that they are freeloaders gaming the system.
"SHAME ON YOU,'' one reader scrawled in big blue letters on a printout of the story. "Perhaps you can sell your gas-guzzling toys and pay the mortgage.''
"You are the worst kind of thief,'' raged a World War II veteran from Alabama. "You are amoral and we who pay your way have nothing but contempt for you.''
But Pemberton, 43, and Reboyras, 46, have taken some solace from the blogosphere, where many comments blamed lenders more than homeowners for the nation's foreclosure crisis.
"I am of two minds,'' wrote KG on the website of New York magazine, one of several media organizations that referenced the New York Times story. "They signed up for these mortgages. However the economy has changed. And the banks are often behaving badly, unwilling to work with the homeowners. So I say they get what they deserve.''
The New York Times article — which generated more than 800 comments on the paper's own website — cited Pemberton and Reboyras as examples of the growing number of people whose homes are in foreclosure but who are "refusing to slink away in shame.'' Instead, they stay on rent free, using the money saved on the mortgage to get back on their feet.
But the part that caused particular outrage among readers said foreclosure had allowed Pemberton and Reboyras to "go to Outback occasionally for steak. Take their gas-guzzling airboat out for the weekend. Visit the Hard Rock Casino.''
That part bothered Pemberton, too.
He says he and Reboyras have been out on their old yellow airboat exactly twice in the past 21/2 years. Acquired from his father's airboat business on the Withlacoochee River, it's been for sale for years.
And Pemberton says he mentioned Outback and Hard Rock — where he sometimes plays the penny slots — only when the reporter pressed him for examples of what they might do for entertainment.
"I want people to understand the real story,'' Pemberton says, which is why he did an interview with a Raleigh, N.C., radio station. CNBC and Fox have also called.
Pemberton and Reboyras insist they are actually helping the economy by using money saved on mortgage payments to buy TV ads promoting their A -Plus Restorations, a company that employs 12 people to clean out attics damaged by raccoons and other animals.
Pemberton says he's keeping the business afloat, which means keeping 12 families, including his, off the government dole.
"We're not asking anybody to save our butt," he says. "We're making sacrifices and now all of a sudden everybody thinks we're deadbeats.''
Records show that Pemberton lost another house to foreclosure in 2001. He says he had a chemicals business that failed, leaving him unable to repay a loan he got to repair the run-down house he inherited from his grandmother.
For the past several years Pemberton has lived with Reboyras, her two daughters and a raccoon named Roxy in the 1,400-square-foot house that Reboyras bought for $135,000 five years ago.
She later refinanced for $195,000, using the money to pay off house and truck loans and to buy another truck as the prize in a contest for the animal trapper who referred them the most business.
But as their restoration work slumped, she stopped making payments last June.
"We asked and asked to modify the mortgage,'' Pemberton says. "You know what we got? 'No, no.' ''
The New York Times found the couple through Mark Stopa, a St. Petersburg lawyer representing them and Pemberton's 68-year-old mother, Wendy, whose own house is also in foreclosure.
Stopa says the New York Times story didn't turn out exactly as he expected either. He thought it was going to be about him and how he has helped keep 350 or so clients from losing their homes so far.
But unlike Pemberton and Reboyras, Stopa has received dozens of positive calls.
"I can understand that there's a lot of people in the public who didn't like the article or don't like the concept, but these aren't the people who would be coming to me anyway,'' he says. "There's a lot of people who are hurting and need somebody to help them."
Stopa, who typically charges $1,500 to fight a foreclosure, says he's also heard from other lawyers interested in the "concept,'' as he calls the strategy of staying in a house rent-free until it is sold at public auction.
Since Stopa asked a judge in December to dismiss Reboyras' case, she and Pemberton have heard nothing more from the company trying to foreclose.
They know they will probably lose the house in the end. But for now, they joke about their "mansion'' and readers' mistaken impression of their lifestyle.
"We're not living high on the hog, as you can see,'' Reboyras said as a visitor nearly tripped over an old carpet remnant serving as a door mat.
"If this is high on the hog,'' Pemberton chimed in, "I don't want no part of it.''