By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
House of Pain
Arther Masaoka fought to stop the city of Tustin from bulldozing his home and lost. But were his problems of his own creation?
Masaoka, a wiry man who speaks quickly and precisely, bites off the end of each sentence and pauses only for a beat before catapulting into his next thought. Harchol sits next to him, her face in a perpetual frown. Her eyes appear to be focused somewhere in the distance; she seems detached, only sometimes joining the conversation to back up a point Masaoka makes, usually in a somewhat rambling, unemphatic way. If she drifts off-topic, Masaoka sometimes gives her a small pinch on the arm and blurts "irrelevant" in a matter-of-fact tone. Then she looks down at the floor.
Masaoka peers coldly through his squarish wire-framed glasses during an interview in a Santa Ana sandwich shop.
"If I was sane and didn't have my medical condition," Masaoka says, "I would have just got two tons of ammonium nitrate and bombed (Tustin) City Hall right there on the spot. I would've, I kid you not. I had the equipment and the ability to do it."
Harchol wants to make her husband's point clear. "You don't understand that because you've never had something like this happen to you," she says.
The "something like this"—the force in this married couple's life that causes Masaoka to fantasize about acts of vengeance while Harchol withdraws—was the loss of their home.
Their story began well before the current real-estate crash hit Orange County and the nation. But what kind of story is it? Perhaps the tale of two people who fought for what they thought was right and had their dreams—and their savings—dashed into a million pieces in the maw of a Tustin city bulldozer. Or, possibly, the story of a delinquent property owner who would sacrifice everything just to save his pride, with Masaoka's unbending belief in himself and Harchol's unwavering support for him becoming their own worst enemies as they tried to match wits with a tougher, better-financed opponent.
However you want to spin it, the saga has had very real consequences. Masaoka says his fight with the city has put him—a heavy truck mechanic—$1.3 million in debt, landed him in jail several times and cost him his business. He also blames the battle for claiming the life of his father, and he says that it led police to beat his legs with batons.
Incredibly, Masaoka believes he's down, not out. He's bankrupt. His wife is bankrupt. His father, George, just months before his death in January, went bankrupt. His mother, June, is bankrupt and will likely lose her home as well.
"The city's having a field day with all this stuff. It's costing me more money than I ever imagined," he says. "I'm in a world of hurt; I have no control over what gets liquidated and how they're going to settle these cases."
He has with him a large box containing about 20 pounds of court documents pertaining to his 21 pending lawsuits against the city of Tustin, contractors, creditors and even his own attorneys. With the possible windfall those lawsuits could provide, plus a hope that the Orange County district attorney will take up arms in the multiyear war of attrition with Tustin, Masaoka thinks he could prevail.
Tustin officials paint a vastly different picture. They say Masaoka is just a litigious basket case. After countless attempts to get him to clean up his property, one that it deemed a safety hazard and a lost cause, city officials decided to raze the house. And because Masaoka decided to make things so difficult, the city wants him to pay $350,000 in legal and other fees it spent fending off his "frivolous" lawsuits.
And if the couple can't produce the $350,000? Well, that happens to be about the estimated value of what's left of their former home, now an empty, weed-infested lot on South A Street.
"At the end of the day," says Tustin City Attorney spokeswoman Lois Bobak, "Amy Harchol [and Masaoka] will lose the property, one way or the other."
* * *
On South A Street, the overgrown lot in the middle of a row of houses serves, like a missing front tooth, as a gaping reminder of a battle lost.
Near the street, a lone orange tree sticks out from a thicket of overlapping weeds, some as tall as 5 feet. The plot is a long rectangle, only about 50 feet across, but about 150 feet front to back. A path splits the thick brush, leading to a flat, concrete slab at the rear.
Next door is an old house with chipped blue paint and what looks like an old horse stable in the back. Shingles seem to be falling off the few places on the roof where there still are shingles.
According to a 1990 City of Tustin Historical Survey, the house that once sat on A Street was built in 1910 and belonged to Sarah A. Eddy, a blacksmith's wife. The survey described it as a "U-shaped . . . single-storied Craftsman Bungalow" and said it "contributes to the Tustin Cultural Resources District." The survey was conducted by the city's community-development department as an attempt to protect homes considered to be part of Old Town Tustin from developers. But inclusion in the survey doesn't carry the same protective weight as when a building is added to the National Register of Historic Places.