Neighbors blamed after Aurora couple finds personal items removed from home
Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org July 22, 2012 2:31PM
The home where Mike Stapelton and his wife Susan Kendall were in the process of moving out off when neighbors, who thought the home had been abandon, went through and removed items. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 23, 2012 6:06AM
We’ve seen it too much, even in our own neighborhoods: Hard working people falling on tough times, losing their jobs, their homes — often their dignity.
Mike Stapleton got sucker punched extra hard. After heart surgery in 2007, he was diagnosed with throat cancer two years later, and has struggled with life-threatening complications from radiation ever since. Now on disability, his wife Susan Kendall, lost her job at SciTech. Then their daughter and son-in-law got pink slipped, forcing the young family with four kids to move into the Stapleton home in the 1000 block of West Downer Place in Aurora.
It was all too much to shoulder. They made arrangements to turn their two-story brick home back to the bank. Then, on July 7, the family moved to Topeka, Kan., where Susan found employment as an administrator with the YWCA. Losing their house, Mike Stapleton said, had been “the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me.”
But things got more humiliating when he and his wife returned to Aurora one week later — July 14 — to remove that last truckload of possessions and clean up the property. That’s when they discovered some neighbors — thinking the Stapletons were gone for good — had beat them to it.
Not only did folks on the blocks enter their house without permission, Stapleton said, they walked off with about $3,000 in property that included his lawn mower, hedge trimmer and many other gardening items. The neighbors also removed personal items such as photos and family heirlooms. Then, after picking over what they wanted, he added, neighbors called Wayside Cross to haul away what was left.
“I am hurt and I am humiliated,” Stapleton said. “These are the same people who came to visit me in the hospital a few months ago when I was so ill... who have helped us out. But right now, I feel betrayed.”
Stapleton became more upset when he learned that Rick Lawrence, Aurora’s Fourth Ward Alderman, was also in his house soon after the neighbors had gone inside — all of which occurred only a few days after he and his family left for Kansas.
Lawrence admits he was in the house, but only after he received a call from a neighbor worried about the trash and junk left behind. They did not realize the family planned on returning, he said, and they wanted to clean up the property because it was such an eyesore.
“I thought the neighbors were in communication with the family,” Lawrence said. “And what I saw, it absolutely looked like it was abandoned ... there was a lot of garbage left in the yard. Not to make excuses, but I can see how the neighbors would react this way.”
Here’s how Stapleton, now back in Topeka, reacted when he heard that justification.
“The air conditioning was still on, utilities are still in our name. We would never leave our house in that condition and just walk away,” he fumed. “Besides, I don’t care if a family of rats was waving at them from my front door, they had no right to enter my home for any reason and take what didn’t belong to them.”
Downer Place runs east from downtown Aurora to the city’s Far West Side. For more than a century, the street has been filled with large homes that belong to some of the city’s most prominent residents. It is the centerpiece to the city’s West Side historic district, where many of the homes have been restored to pre-1900 condition.
In the last few months, Lawrence has racheted up the call to arms in his Ward. He noted the area is filled with beautiful historic homes but some residents have seen property values decrease by as much as 50 percent.
“People are scared,” he said, when the only thing they see rising are abandoned homes, vandalism, graffiti and other similar crimes.
Lawrence notified the city, asking that a cleanup order for the outside of the house be expedited. A complaint had already been registered about the property, according to the Mayor’s Office. And on Thursday, the city, believing the home was abandoned, removed a “significant amount of trash from the outside,” said Aurora Chief of Staff Carie Anne Ergo.
According to city policy, owners of unoccupied structures and vacant lots must be notified — via newspaper notice — that the city can remove junk and trash without further notice. A courtesy letter is also sent outlining the costs associated with the cleanup after the service is completed.
Since learning the property had not been abandoned, officials said Stapleton will not be charged for city’s clean up. Also, after learning neighbors had gone inside the home and removed items, the Mayor’s Office notified Aurora police, and a criminal investigation has been launched. As of Friday, no charges have been filed.
Lawrence said neighbors told him the door was unlocked, but Stapleton strongly denies that claim. He said he let one homeowner know about the key left under the porch plant, to be used in case of an emergency. Stapleton insisted both he and his 19-year-old granddaughter checked all locks before driving away. He also said a city inspector warned neighbors against going into the house.
Some neighbors returned items they took. One couple gave Stapleton $700 to cover the cost of his fruitless trip from Topeka. Another neighbor brought back a crock pot he’d taken and put in his own house. Another returned an extension cord.
Residents who entered Stapleton’s home refused to comment for this story. But one woman who was not involved called it “an embarrassment to the entire neighborhood.”
There’s no doubt this mess is all about good intentions going way south. It’s also “an example of what can go wrong when people take matters into their own hands,” noted Ergo.
“People need to give government the opportunity to work,” she said.