Sometimes Jerry wins
On the corner of 8th and B streets, Jerry Droz cranes his neck back, squints the midday sun out of his eyes and studies a blue, shingled house that's seen better days. The high-complexioned, blue-eyed 56-year-old aims the lollipop stick he's been chewing toward the second floor of the four-unit rental. "You can see there's window work there," he says, pointing to the fresh putty around the frame.
Droz is a burly guy, wearing a Hawaiian-print shirt, khakis and a suede coat - a thrift-store buy, he says - with long fringe that swishes as he walks. He heads to the front of the house and stops on the sidewalk to inspect the place some more. Beckoning toward the open entryway, he mentions the newly installed door jamb and thinks back to when the tenants started destroying the house last year.
"It was just terrible," he says, "the stuff that went on."
Droz has a history with this 1910 Colonial Revival. For almost a year, 804 B St., a well-known drug house, was the bane of his existence. In 2006, Droz led the Clark District neighborhood in a drawn-out legal fight with its owner, claiming that the habitual crime happening in that fourplex severely harmed the quality of life in West Side Eureka.
"We needed them out," he says bluntly. "They were destroying the neighborhood. You couldn't imagine. The worst place in Oakland wouldn't be comparable. I said, 'I don't care if I get killed. I'm going to sue this guy for public nuisance.'"
Stop for a moment. You remember Droz, right? The guy who ran for mayor of Eureka last year. The one who interrupted former Mayor Peter La Vallee's reelection campaign kick-off speech in August of '06, shaking his briefcase like a tambourine and shouting stuff like, "Families are a-scared! In this city! To let their children out of their yard! Because this mayor has screwed up this city so badly!" Jerry Droz -- the guy who could not stop calling Eureka "The City of Lawlessness," and always referred to himself as "Acting Mayor." Said he wanted to control the city. Remember, Jerry did a little jig during the mayoral debate on KEET-TV. Walked right into Peter La Vallee's frame and sort of danced. Yeah, that guy - the one who wore a western hat with a band of bullets. Bloggers had a field day. In the end, he lost the mayoral race by a mile, raking in only 2 percent of the vote.
But Jerry's still around. He owns a house in this neighborhood. Heading back down the alley toward the fresh-looking four-unit Victorian he rehabbed on A Street he talks about the mounds of trash that once spilled from his neighbor's backyard, the abandoned junk cars that lined the street, the loud music, the explosions, the hypodermic needles strewn in the alley. "One guy took a crap in her backyard," he adds, motioning toward a Queen Anne duplex owned by Georgianna and Jim La Peer.
When it became apparent to residents that police intervention alone was not going to put an end to the constant ruckus at 804 B St. (police responded to the house 51 times in 11 months), Droz sued the owner in small claims court. He says he asked other homeowners in the neighborhood to join him in the suit, but they feared retaliation from the troublesome tenants.
Jerry Droz isn't scared of anybody. It could even be to his detriment, neighbors say. He might get shot. "We were all talking about going to court," says West Side neighbor Ann White, "but Jerry was the only one who had the courage."
Jerry's still around, and he's still much the same as he was during last year's mayoral campaign. Unkempt, wild-eyed, grandiose, rough around the edges. Obsessed. But there's another side of Jerry Droz that never quite emerged during election season. Despite everything, sometimes Jerry wins.
For Lisa Ollivier, observing the goings-on at 804 B St. was akin to watching an episode of Cops.On Christmas night of 2005, she says, she saw a man in handcuffs escape from police custody and run down B Street. And she recalled another incident - waking on a Sunday morning to the sound of someone screaming on the street. Below her window a man was waving a gun, ranting about a drug deal. "It got to where sleep was not an option," she said, bopping her 8-month-old son on her knee. The house was a crime magnet. Over time, as things got worse, she didn't feel safe in her own yard. Some of her neighbors moved away.
For months, Ollivier took down license plates and chronicled the comings and goings at the house and gave her journals to the police. She says the police department warned her to stay away from the guy driving the gold-colored pickup truck. He was a felon.
Georgianna and Jim La Peer own the Victorian duplex that flanks the backyard of 804 B St. They bought their house in December 2004, and said that the alley separating the two properties was a thoroughfare for drug dealing and prostitution. People would continually stop in the alley, park, run into 804 and leave minutes later. "It was pretty obvious what was going on," Georgianna La Peer said. "Because this house was such a problem it catalyzed the [neighborhood] group into dealing with it."
Both the La Peers and Ollivier said that several times they alerted the home's owner - Verne Skjonsby of Arcata - to the problems that were occurring at his rental. It did little good.
"We kept trying to give Verne the benefit of the doubt," Ollivier said. "All of us talked to him at one point or another."
In an effort to get Skjonsby to take their concerns seriously, the Clark District Neighborhood Watch called a meeting Nov. 10, 2005, at the police station. The forum was meant as an opportunity to encourage Skjonsby to get a property manager, clean up the house and evict his tenants. But Jerry Droz got a little rambunctious, as he tends to do, and started passing out fliers about how to file a lawsuit. The community dialogue stopped.
"Jerry started yelling and screaming and I finally told him to eff off and walked out," Verne Skjonsby recalled in a phone call last week. "He is not a reasonable man. But I shouldn't have told him to [eff off] because I think that is why he decided to file. But you know, everyone said he didn't have a leg to stand on."
Back in 2005, Skjonsby, 66, hadbeen working intermittently with Eureka Police Capt. Murl Harpham to square away some of the problems occurring at his rental property. The two men toured the place together. Harpham advised the tenants to keep the yard clean and for Skjonsby to buy a locked container for garbage. Junk cars were towed away from the area, and one tenant was evicted.
A real estate agent assured Skjonsby that so long as he could demonstrate that he had been attempting to fix the problems at his rental, he was safe from a lawsuit. Later that month he received a letter from Droz threatening such a suit, but he ignored it.
"It was a letter that was so poorly written that I didn't take it seriously," Skjonsby says. "It was signed 'The People of Eureka' and [the return address] was a Bayside post office box. I didn't find out until later that it was Jerry. I get this absolutely anonymous letter and it was rather scathing, telling me I had better sell the building or get a property manager."
Droz filed suit in November and the two men were in small claims court in January.
Meanwhile, Skjonsby put his house on the market and hired a property management firm to help him evict his tenants. The situation showed a glimmer of promise, but it was too little, too late. "I was working with police, I was working with drug enforcement," Skjonsby says. "What else could I do?"
Skjonsby said he was simply not prepared to maintain a multi-unit complex, and was perhaps naïve to the pervasiveness of the drug activity there. He added that he believes there were drug problems in the house before he bought it. The other tenants, he admits, were not the best people around, but he thought maybe he should give people a chance. One tenant was a construction worker who helped out around the house at first. Capt. Harpham later told Skjonsby that his tenant was one of the most notorious meth dealers in Eureka.
"I guess you could say that my only problem was that I was completely clueless," Skjonsby says.
To make matters worse for Skjonsby's case, 804 B St. was raided by the Humboldt County Drug Task Force on Jan. 25, 2006. A large, color picture made the front page of the Times-Standard.Nine people, ages 19 to 50, were arrested. Police confiscated cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, a stolen car, a revolver and a bullet-proof vest. This was at a time when Droz's suit was still awaiting judgment by Humboldt County Superior Court Judge John Morrison. If Droz didn't already have enough evidence to win his case, this was all he needed.
In addition, though, it appears that Judge Morrison took the time to do some investigation on his own. Morrison wrote in his final judgment that he drove past 804 B St. on several occasions and was approached by people on the porch, indicative of drug activity and prostitution. Even days after the raid, Morrison cruised by the house and witnessed "idle persons, seven to eight in number, hanging around the front porch and sidewalk area."
"The net effect of all this information is that defendant was well aware, for a lengthy period of time, of the many problems that existed on his property," Morrison concluded. "Despite that history, it appears that he began to take serious steps to deal with this neighborhood problem only after this claim for damages based on nuisance was filed on November 18, 2005. ...
"In summary, the evidence in this matter meets the language set forth in the statute describing what constitutes both a public as well as a private nuisance. The entire neighborhood has suffered fear of threats, conduct in the immediate area that interferes with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property, activities that are offensive to the senses ..."
The judgment was filed with the courts on Feb. 9. Meanwhile, the tenants still had not been successfully evicted from 804 B St. Droz was awarded $5,172, but Skjonsby appealed the decision. Then, when Skjonsby didn't appear at the next hearing after mixing up his court date, the verdict once again went to Droz. But Skjonsby petitioned the court to hear the case again, and the court agreed.
When neighbors heard that thecase was headed back to court yet again, they rallied together and prepared to file individual suits.
In a letter to Skjonsby dated June 7, 2006, one B Street resident wrote: "Not only have you directly caused me to desire to relocate in fear of my family's lives, but your negligence has caused the deterioration of my property values. Such behavior is not much better than that of your drug dealer and prostitute tenants."
Another neighbor said: "Over the course of 2005 and into 2006, we watched a daily parade of cars with boom boxes blaring; almost all of them drove up to 804 B Street and parked. We witnessed numerous violent arguments turn into fights, spilling from the front porch of that property to the street; then watched as the police arrived time after time to try to quell the violence. ... In both July and August of 2005, unbelievably, the neighborhood was rocked, literally, by a pipe bomb thrown from a car near the intersection of B and Washington streets. It was beginning to feel like we were living in downtown Baghdad."
And this certified letter, dated June 7, 2006 was signed by 12 people and sent to Skjonsby: "We strongly protest your continued cavalier attitude and complete disregard for the impact that your actions and inactions have had on this neighborhood, and feel that you must be held responsible for knowinglyallowing dangerous criminal elements to persist on your property, inflicting stress, fear and property damage on the surrounding neighbors."
These letters each laid the groundwork for legal action, but it never went anywhere. After Droz won the appeal in July 2006, the litigation stopped.
But the troubles weren't over for neighbors. Lisa Ollivier says that for several months after the lawsuit ended the same old people, looking to score drugs, came by 804 B St. Gradually that went away, too, and Ollivier and other residents now say they feel safe in their homes again.
Everyone's happy. Except for Skjonsby.
After slogging through the lawsuit and having his name thrown in the mud, he says he became depressed. The whole debacle had been a financial disaster, he says. He put the house on the market and eventually sold it to Alan Bobillot,who owns the auto repair shop across the way. Not only did Skjonsby sell far below the appraised value, he collected no rent for the better part of a year and had to make major repairs after his tenants ruined the place.Skjonsby estimates he lost $100,000 when all was said and done.
"I had to cash in two investments and then I had to cash in my insurance policy," he says. "It decreased my net worth by about half. So, I mean, I'm basically at the point where I have no retirement. I have one building [a Eureka rental] and that's about it."
And as for Jerry Droz? "The less I think about him the better," he says.
EPD Capt. Murl Harpham, who just came off a stint as the city's interim chief of police, says there have never been police calls to Skjonsby's other rental unit.
Harpham has worked for the EPDsince the late '50s. He said that in his experience, small claims court lawsuits against negligent home owners or landlords aren't all that common - but threatening a lawsuit is.
Harpham remembers one longtime methamphetamine user who inherited millions, bought a home in one of the best Eureka neighborhoods - houses in the $900,000 range - and proceeded to make her palatial digs into a drug den. "People were five minutes in, five minutes out," he says. "And the neighbors got very upset. So I got them all together and said 'Here are your options.' Then I talked to the owner and told her what might happen if she didn't clean up her act. Well, she didn't. So I met with the neighbors again and told them how to file small claims. These people don't need $5,000. They just want their damn neighborhood back.
"I personally served her the papers. The next day I got a call from her attorney, a guy I know real well. He said, we need to meet. Can we settle this? So we went to his office and met and he basically says, what do we need to do?"
According to Harpham, the woman agreed to shape up - she took her business elsewhere, anyway. "The problem stopped," he says. "We don't get any more calls up there."
Jerry Droz jumps in his truck, leaves his A Street rental unit and heads to Second Street by the Samoa Bridge to look at another property he once considered buying and remodeling. The two-story house is pretty shabby; it would take some work to get it into shape. But it's the Taj Mahal compared to the place across the street - a dilapidated, junk-encased structure surrounded by broken-down cars. "Who would ever want to live next to something like that?" Droz asks. He's got a good point. The place is a total dump.
Droz recounts how he made a deal with his real estate agent last year. He would buy the two-story house if - and only if - he could force the city to clean up the neglected property. Droz says he complained to city staff, Eureka Police, the Eureka Fire Department, the Community Development Department - everyone that he assumed would take action in the matter. But things improved only slightly, he said. The house was never condemned, so he conceded defeat and walked away from the sale.
Kevin Hamblin, Eureka's Director of Community Development Services, said in an e-mail that he only recalled a couple of occasions when Droz filed paperwork with his office. They weren't official complaints, Hamblin said - more like "long and rambling" accounts of the many improvements Droz had made in Eureka.
"I believe," Hamblin wrote, "that he complained about the trash that was accumulating around the City and specifically he complained about the abandoned shopping carts that he had noticed around town. The letters indicated that in his opinion he was doing more to clean up the city than the Mayor."
In signing one of the letters, Hamblin said, Droz gave himself the title of "Mayor of the City."
Capt. Harpham says he's familiar with the house. But the city has its hands tied. They could legally force the owner, an elderly woman, to make improvements on her property, but they'd rather not. Harpham explained the dilemma: "Here is what they could do. They could make a list of things she needs to repair. If she doesn't, they could start abatement processes. We could go in with a dump truck and clean up the place and bill her. The problem is she can't pay. So then the city has to bill her through taxes. Then the taxes become delinquent. Then the property is in the city's name and the city don't want that property. And then she's out on the street. "
"Sometimes," Harpham says, "you have to look the other way."
But Droz can't seem to do that. He's clearly repelled by squalor but also oddly attracted to it, and admits, "I'm obsessed with cleaning things up." But he doesn't want that to be confused with being hard on the homeless. He was homeless once, too, he says - living in his van in San Francisco in the 1980s. He worked as a house painter and slowly saved up some money, moved to Santa Cruz, bought a house, flipped it and did it again. When it seemed there were no more junk houses left in Santa Cruz, he moved to Eureka where he saw a sea of rundown houses and abandoned cars. These days, he can't stop envisioning what Eureka would look like if he could just wipe the slate clean.
"The Times-Standardcalled me a bulldozer" during the election, he said. "And they're right. I want to bulldoze this whole town and start over again."