Jaleesa Jackson and Chiedozie Uwandu headed out of town in June for a week of rest and relaxation in Southern California.
As medical residents in anesthesiology at big, busy hospitals in Boston, Jackson and Uwandu live under constant stress, each putting in 14-hour shifts five or six days a week while regularly being on-call around the clock.
They figured traveling 3,000 miles to lounge on the beach would allow them to unwind. So they found a small guesthouse in Los Angeles on Air-bnb. It had excellent reviews and a host who had so impressed Airbnb that the popular short-term rental company had ranked him one of its best — a “super host.”
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When the couple arrived, they found a chilled bottle of wine and a welcoming note from JJ, the host. He asked if everything was satisfactory.
Until their nightmare began.
At about 5:30 on their first morning, Jackson awoke to loud banging at the door. As she stumbled out of bed, she heard a gruff, male voice shout, “I know you’re in there, Kevin!”
Jackson opened the door just wide enough to see an obviously agitated man in full rant. She told him to go away and slammed the door.
Jackson immediately dialed JJ for help. The phone rang on the other side of the door.
“Yeah, that was me,” JJ told Jackson of the knocking incident. “Sorry about the confusion. Life’s too short for me to give you an explanation. Have a nice time in LA.”
He hung up.
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It was the first day of their vacation, and Jackson, 29, and Uwandu, 28, who met at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tried to brush off the bizarre behavior.
“Maybe things are just different on the West Coast,” Jackson recalled thinking.
They did have a wonderful, low-key time at the beach later that day. Just what the doctors ordered.
Then the vacation took a truly frightening turn.
They were asleep at about 2 a.m. when a man came crashing through a large window in their darkened bedroom, sending shards of glass everywhere and leaving him sprawled on the floor, face down.
“I had no idea what was happening,” Uwandu recalled. “But I reacted like we were under attack.”
Uwandu, who is 6 feet, 230 pounds, bolted out of bed and jumped on the man, getting a knee into his back to pin him down. He screamed to Jackson to call 911. His mind was racing: What does this man want? Does he have a weapon? Are there others about to come into the house?
Jackson, still in bed, struggled to understand what was happening: Am I dreaming? Am I watching TV? Am I delirious? She grabbed her phone and crawled under the bed.
The man wore a gray sweat shirt with the hood pulled over his head. But when Jackson got a glimpse of his face, she recognized him: It was JJ, Airbnb’s vaunted “super host.”
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As Uwandu loosened his grip to brush broken glass from his feet, which were bleeding, the man broke free and disappeared out the door.
Jackson told police on the phone they had been attacked by their Airbnb host and needed help right away.
“Your Airbnb host attacked you?” she remembers being asked in a skeptical voice.
Jackson and Uwandu armed themselves with the biggest knives they could find in the kitchen as they waited for help.
Soon, they heard the sound of a helicopter overhead. Then, the courtyard between the guest house and the main house was bathed in blue light.
It didn’t take long for police to bring a man in handcuffs back to the property. One of the officers told Jackson and Uwandu he had been babbling about Airbnb cleaning fees. “He told the police that Airbnb had ordered him to evict us, over cleaning fees,” Uwandu recalled.
At about that time, an elderly woman came out of the main house. “Who are you?” she asked Uwandu and Jackson.
The woman said she was the owner and that JJ rented the guest house from her but that he wasn’t authorized to rent it to others. “But he rents it all the time,” Uwandu and Jackson told her. “Didn’t you notice all the people coming and going?”
“I thought those were JJ’s friends visiting him,” she said.
Still shaking, Jackson called Airbnb in the middle of the night. Airbnb said it would refund the $708 they paid to rent the guesthouse, but the credit didn’t show up on their card until last week — after I made my first call to the company.
Airbnb had offered to relocate them to another Airbnb property — at no additional cost. But Jackson and Uwandu wanted nothing more to do with Airbnb and checked into a nearby Hilton hotel. They say they spent $2,300 for the room, parking, and other expenses.
They have asked Airbnb for $5,000, fair compensation, they believe, for the terror they experienced. After days on the phone with the company, Airbnb’s final offer was $2,500.
As a bonus, it offered five therapy sessions to “overcome the trauma.” No thanks, the couple said.
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Airbnb is worth $38 billion, with more than $2 billion in annual revenue, according to Forbes magazine. The company says on its website that, on any given night, 2 million people stay in homes on Airbnb in 81,000 cities around the world.
Airbnb knows its business model — connecting people willing to offer their homes to people wanting to rent them — rests on trust. It proclaims “your safety is our priority,” while acknowledging that “no screening system is perfect.”
Airbnb would not answer my questions about Jackson and Uwandu, or about JJ (who hung up when I called), except to say “negative incidents are extremely rare” and JJ “has been removed from our community.”
What Jackson and Uwandu went through was truly horrific. Airbnb needs to do more.
Sean P. Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.