Just a little more than 10 years later, the city was spending hundreds of man-hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure the house was demolished.

Harchol and Masaoka purchased the home for $114,000 in 1997. According to a declaration by Laura Morgan, an attorney contracted by Tustin, the couple kept the place in a state of disarray, and complaints from code enforcement began in early 1999.

Some of the violations listed were the presence of inoperable vehicles; a dilapidated fence; and junk, debris and car parts in the yard.

Amy Harchol with Arther Masaoka on the lot where their house once stood
Russ Roca
Amy Harchol with Arther Masaoka on the lot where their house once stood

Masaoka, a do-it-yourselfer by nature, says most of the materials in the yard were being used in his personal project to rehabilitate the aging house on a shoestring budget of $65,000.

The city sent him multiple letters, which only got temporary results, according to Morgan's declaration. But finally, in 2001, after electrical lines were disrupted at the property, the city was able to condemn, or "red tag," it.

In April 2001, city employee Behrouz Azarvand, who had the temporary title of "acting building official" but was not a licensed civil engineer, ordered the 91-year-old house demolished within 60 days. In his report, Azarvand noted the place was unsafe to live in because of inadequate foundation and ailing support beams. If Masaoka and Harchol didn't demolish it, then the city would—and then send the couple the bill, the order states.

The order sparked Masaoka and Harchol to get their own lawyers, and a back-and-forth battle ensued. According to a declaration by Morgan, she drafted the first of several misdemeanor complaints against the couple to prosecute them criminally for code violations. The city eventually dropped the first misdemeanor complaints and settled a subsequent lawsuit against Masaoka and Harchol in 2002, when the couple agreed to finish construction within one year.

Azarvand's report said that down to the foundation itself, all the structure's important supports needed replacing. In effect, the house was to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Masaoka says the city further stipulated that he use only one of five preferred contractors, all of whom wanted several thousand dollars in advance. The only way he could afford to undertake such a project with his limited resources, he says, was to do the work himself. However, he believes a calculated harassment campaign by the city intentionally thwarted him at every turn.

Bobak, the attorney for Tustin, disagrees. She said the city moved deadlines back on more than one occasion, but Masaoka never kept up his end of the bargain.

"Amy Harchol and Masaoka agreed to repair the problems in a certain amount of time, there was a time line, various things at various times," she says. "The judgment said if they don't comply, the city can demolish the place—they signed that judgment."

But Masaoka says the city kept arresting his helpers. Every time he got a group of workers together, he says, Tustin would alert immigration and customs-enforcement agents and have them arrested.

"They'd arrest two or three at a time: I'd go out and get some new ones; they'd arrest them; I'd go out and get some more new ones," he says. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding. I'm the owner and the builder, and if I want to hire these guys off the street corner or out of the Home Depot, I can do it.'"

Bobak says she has never heard of that happening, and if it did, there are any number of people, such as neighbors, who could have called immigration.

Eventually, however, Masaoka couldn't find anyone else to work with him, he says. They were all scared away.

The city didn't want another unsafe building in place of the old one, Bobak says. "He was doing all the work himself, and he's not a contractor."

According to Morgan's declaration, Masaoka refused to sign citations police tried to give him while he was working. He erected a 15-foot wrought-iron fence around the property and locked it so no one could serve him a citation. After the city kept complaining about construction materials being scattered on the property, Masaoka built a storage shack, for which the police cited him, since he didn't have a permit.

Then city code-enforcement officials had Masaoka arrested for working on his house without the proper permits. In total, he was charged with 24 misdemeanors from 2002 to 2004. Masaoka has several photographs of his legs covered in welts and bruises, which he says he received during one incident with Tustin police.

When Masaoka failed to do community service or pay his fines related to the charges, he ended up in the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana, and then in a work camp.

Masaoka tried to sue the city for what he saw as interference with his project, but Bobak says the city filed an anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or anti-SLAPP, motion against him and had Masaoka declared a "vexatious litigant."

Masaoka claims the city's persecution caused him to miss the June 2003 deadline on finishing the house.

Bobak says the city gave Masaoka and Harchol one last chance to finish the job. If the couple could borrow $100,000 from Masaoka's parents, the city would give them a six-month extension. They could pay a contractor to finish the job and pay the remainder of the money to Tustin for legal fees. The city convinced Masaoka's parents, George and June Masaoka, to refinance their home a second and third time to come up with the money. Masaoka says his parents ended up in an untenable financial situation, which led to their losing all their home equity, missing mortgage payments, and then filing for bankruptcy.

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