Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
It’s been almost nine years since Jared Malvic and his roommates discovered a stranger had been living in their basement, but the psychological effects are still lingering.
“I would never leave a door unopened now, that’s for sure. Even if it’s a utility closet, I need to know what’s in there,” Malvic tells A&E True Crime. “I feel like I am less trusting of landlords. It has not made me hostile, but it’s definitely made me more on edge, more cautious.”
The crime of individuals secretly living in someone’s home is known as “phrogging,” a reference to how frogs leap from place to place. (It’s pronounced “frogging.”) Phrogging can take many forms, from transient intruders to more permanent ones, in occupied homes or ones where the owner is not in residence. Victims often sense something is amiss, but easily doubt themselves and hesitate to seek help, at least at first.
[Stream episodes of Phrogging: Hider in My House in the Lifetime app.]
Malvic, then a junior at Ohio State University, lived with nine other people on the second floor of an off-campus house. Another group of people lived on the first floor. And in the basement, behind a locked door that the landlords had dismissed as a “utility closet,” lived a graduate student named Jeremy.
The roommates had experienced bizarre occurrences, like waking up to a slew of open cupboards in the kitchen, Malvic says. To this day, he’s not sure if that was Jeremy’s doing, or if another roommate was playing pranks, he adds.
Jeremy was found out when one of the roommates ran into him by chance. The “closet” was about 10 feet by 10 feet and was furnished with a mattress and a chair, and a bunch of Jeremy’s belongings, including a guitar.
The police and the landlords were called, and Jeremy made a polite but hasty exit, Malvic says. As it turns out, Jeremy had moved in at some point with the consent of the old tenants; when those tenants moved out, he quietly stayed behind.
After the discovery, “Some people said they saw him, once or twice, afterwards on campus,” Malvic says. “I never knew what he looked like.”
Phroggers Find a Hiding Spot
While not widespread, phrogging cases have been reported across the country dating back decades. But due to the more recent popularity of the crime portrayed in movies, it has people wondering whether it’s real—or just an urban legend.
“Is phrogging real? You bet your life it is,” retired Massachusetts detective Tom Lane tells A&E True Crime.
Lane investigated a case in 1986, long before the term was coined, involving 17-year-old Daniel LaPlante, who was obsessed with fellow teen Tina Bowen. LaPlante managed to sneak into the Bowen home, where he found a hiding place in a wall cavity next to the bathroom. He started taunting Tina and her family by emitting strange noises, drinking leftover milk and changing TV channels. One day, he took Tina, her sister, her father and a friend hostage with a hatchet. Tina was able to escape and run to a neighbor for help.
LaPlante fled, but returned to the Bowen home a few days later. He was spotted through the window by Tina’s father, who called police. Lane credits the work of officer Steven Bezanson, now also retired, who used his skills as an avid hunter to home in on LaPlante’s hiding spot.
LaPlante was arrested. Two months later, while out on bail, he committed a horrific crime.
He broke into the home of Priscilla Gustafson, raped her and killed her and her two young children. He was captured after what Lane says was “Massachusetts’ largest manhunt in 20 years at the time.”
LaPlante was convicted of the three murders and is serving three consecutive life sentences.
Lane says this was the most bizarre and disturbing case of his law enforcement career.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we are dealing with a cold, calculating individual,” Lane says. “He took pleasure in the voyeurism initially, but that wasn’t quite enough.”
Would LaPlante have killed Tina and her family? Very likely, Lane says. “Tina prevented that by escaping. She was the hero.”
LaPlante’s crimes came at a steep price for the Bowen family, which endured lasting trauma, Lane says. Until his early death, Tina’s father felt guilty that he didn’t believe his daughters when they told him strange things were happening at home.
“Even we, the police, had some thoughts of, ‘Is this really happening?'” Lane recalls. “It was so unbelievable…but it was real. As a cop, you can’t dismiss it.”
A Phrogger Could Be Someone Close to You
Connecticut detective Kerry Lovallo investigated a stalking case in 2017 involving a man who tormented his estranged wife, while staying in her home, in an unhinged attempt to rekindle their marriage. While not a typical case of phrogging, it has many of the same elements, Lovallo tells A&E True Crime.
The woman had a child from a previous relationship, and her husband sometimes stayed in the home a few days at a time to take care of the child while the woman was away on business.
The woman began to notice strange things: banging on the roof, missing jewelry, clothing and underwear, and beer cans and cigarette butts strewn on her property. She found her kitchen cabinets wide open and her car tires slashed. “That’s terrifying,” Lovallo says.
Police eventually determined the culprit was the husband, whose palm print matched one on a threatening Christmas card that had been sent to the woman.
“He told me he wanted to be her hero,” Lovallo says. “He was terrorizing her, hoping that she would call him to make her feel safe. It was his way of getting back into her life.”
The husband pleaded guilty to threatening and reckless endangerment.
The woman, who asked for anonymity to protect her and her child’s privacy, says that all along, her husband played the supportive role while committing the crimes from inside her own home.
“This was not a stranger in my attic,” she tells A&E True Crime. “It happened in my home and under my nose, and it was designed to make me question my sanity.”
The woman says she and her child were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and got therapy. The woman continues to have persistent bad dreams, obsessively locks doors and windows and suffers from an enduring mistrust in her own judgment.
“There’s a lot of shame associated with it and [thoughts of], ‘How could I not know this?'” she adds. “I never, in a million years, thought I could be such a poor judge of character, but that’s what sociopaths do [to their victims].”
This case was especially perverse, because it came from someone close to the victim, Lovallo says.
“The abuser is witnessing the trauma that they are creating in the victim. You have to wonder if that gives them some sort of bizarre level of excitement,” she says. “What kind of person does that, especially to someone [they] love?”
Phroggers Who Target Empty Houses
Padre Island, Texas, is a community that, more than most, has experienced cases of phrogging at the hands of strangers.
The barrier island on the southern coast of Texas has lots of homes that serve as vacation residences and attract phroggers who look for temporary work in industries like construction, says Dale Rankin, editor of The Island Moon local newspaper, tells A&E True Crime.
“They just go around at night and they look for a house where there are no lights on, and they find a way to get in,” he says. “The only way you know they are there is if you see them coming and going—and they are very careful about that.”
Unlike squatters who occupy empty properties, phroggers take the risk that homeowners might come back any day. On one occasion, about three years ago, a local man who worked as a contractor in Saudi Arabia came home early to find two men and four young people living in his home. In another case, a woman came back to find a family had moved in, clothes and dishes and all, Rankin says.
Such cases happen once or twice a year, sometimes more, he says. “They don’t generally trash the place. They are just trying to hide.”
Outfitting properties with cameras doesn’t necessarily work, Rankin says. In the case of the contractor, the phroggers had figured out where all the cameras were located and successfully avoided being caught on video, he says.
Of course, finding strangers living in one’s home can be very upsetting for victims.
“It’s a feeling like a burglary,” he says. “It’s not so much that there is stuff missing, but the feeling of being violated, of your space being intruded upon.”
Lovallo and Lane say victims should never hesitate to contact police if they suspect they might be victims of phrogging or stalking.
“[My] advice is to absolutely document everything, and don’t second-guess yourself, especially if you’re concerned about safety,” Lovallo says. “Talk to someone, whether it’s the police, or a victim advocacy [group], or a friend or family member.”