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Neighborly clean-up:   What were they thinking?

The home where Mike Stapelthis wife Susan Kendall were process moving out off when neighbors who thought home had been

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 things | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 26, 2012 6:07AM

What a mess.

And I’m not talking about the junk and garbage left behind by Mike Stapleton and Susan Kendall when they moved out of their home earlier this month after losing it because of some bad breaks in life.

I’m talking about the street they live on, which is not likely to win this year’s “Mr. Rogers’ Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood Award”, thanks to a few residents there who, unaware the Stapletons were returning a few days later for a last truckload and to clean their home, did a little cleaning up themselves.

Not only did some of these neighbors go into the Downer Place home without permission, Stapleton says they carted off some of his family’s possessions — including a crock pot, lawn mower and other gardening tools. The family also lost personal items, including pictures and heirlooms.

All of which leads to the one question that seems to be asked by lots of people who hear this story: What in the heck were these neighbors thinking?

I was determined to find the answer to that question, which is why I made four trips to this block in two days. Neighbors who witnessed the clean-up didn’t want to talk because, well, they still had to live there. “This is crazy stuff,” one man told me. “But I don’t want it to turn into the Hatfields and McCoys.” Some of the homeowners there defended those who entered the home, describing how bad the family left the house when they moved out.

Of course, here it must be pointed out the Stapletons had not really moved out, since they returned a week later to pick up the last of their possessions, and according to Mike Stapleton, to clean the place.

“Did you go inside and see how bad it was?” one neighbor asked me. Well, uh, no ... isn’t that called trespassing? And isn’t that the reason we are standing here ... with an ongoing police investigation?

While it was interesting what others had to say, I felt it was important to talk to those who went into the home. And I was happy they agreed to meet with me on Friday. After introductions and friendly exchanges about the weather, I sat myself down, pulled out my reporter’s notebook and ... before I even had a chance to put pen to paper, their spokesman said,

“We wanted to meet with you to tell you we have no comment.”

I hate when that happens.

And so many of us are still left to ponder that one question: What were they thinking? Certainly we believe those who have told us there was no malice intended; that these neighbors were simply trying to be good Samaritans by cleaning up an eyesore in their lovely historic neighborhood. And no doubt those same good intentions belong to Alderman Rick Lawrence, who got himself into a bit of a jam when he admitted to also entering the home after responding to complaints from these neighbors about the home’s horrendous condition.

Now it’s taken a political twist, with opponents calling for his resignation, and a candidate for his City Council seat stepping forward.

And there’s more interesting turns: Police continue to investigate the case, and Stapleton has not yet decided whether to press charges. He says the neighbors who entered his home have called him twice to ask “what will it take to make this go away?” Both times, he told them it was up to them to decide. Then, on Friday Stapleton gave them a number — $20,000, on the advice of his attorney, he said. And suddenly, he told me, the word extortion was being thrown around.

“How can it be extortion when they asked me for a number?” he said. “I don’t want their heads. I just want my stuff back.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, Stapleton said he and his wife are still unpacking boxes so they aren’t sure what all is missing. He puts the loss at “less than $5,000,” but is letting his attorney deal with any final settlements. A few hours later at the City Council meeting, more angry words were thrown out, including one tirade from a Lawrence supporter that was directed at the media, most especially at me.

When Lawrence spoke, however, he insisted “we will heal this neighborhood,” and that all parties are hoping to sit down in a civilized manner and “work this thing out.”

Like I said, what a mess. And not nearly as easy to clean up as a house full of trash.

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