Nearing the end of the six-month extension, Harchol and Masaoka were just weeks from finishing the house. In a written statement dated Oct. 7, 2003, licensed contractor Carlomagno Falcon wrote that the house was about 70 percent complete.

"I saw no building-code violations, the work that was performed was in a good, workmanlike manner, and Mr. Masaoka and Mrs. Harchol appear to be making good progress and time liness toward completion," he wrote.

But the six months expired, and with the house still not finished, Harchol decided to file for bankruptcy in hopes that the city wouldn't be allowed to carry out the demolition.

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

However, Bobak says, the city filed a motion in court that allowed them to circumvent the bankruptcy by saying that demolishing the place was a police power issue because the house was a public nuisance, and therefore immune from bankruptcy protection.

On Jan. 13, 2004, a crew hired by the city of Tustin bulldozed the nearly finished house that Masaoka and Harchol spent their entire savings, their parents' second and third mortgages, and borrowed money to try to complete.

*     *     *

It was shortly after the demolition that Masaoka was finally convinced by friends to seek psychological treatment. He obviously had his quirks. He sleeps only four or five hours per night. He's been continually enrolled in college classes for 30 years, but he rarely finishes any programs; he once tried to become a pilot, a civil engineer, a chemist and a lawyer.

"If I accidentally graduate, then I graduate. If I don't, I don't," he says.

Harchol chimes in: "He has a love of learning. He just keeps going."

But in 2006, in his late 40s, Masaoka was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a form of schizophrenia that often includes such manic symptoms as racing thoughts, talkativeness, decreased need for sleep, increased goal-directed activity and grandiosity. While Masaoka says he takes a cocktail of eight different medications, he's still extremely focused on the struggle against Tustin, as evidenced by the 21 pending lawsuits he's now managing without the help of a lawyer.

Harchol also has undergone psychiatric care. She says the ongoing struggle caused her to sink into clinical depression.

"I sleep long hours," she says. "If I have court dates that are close together, it just wipes me out. I . . . I can't. Because I don't expect to get anything there, which is a sad thing to say. But we don't have an attorney, so we have to do it ourselves, and there's a lot of damages all around. It gets really hectic, and I've never been in the court system. I try to . . ."

Masaoka interrupts, "And she sees me getting hit by the cops and getting put in jail—that really sets her off."

"Yeah," she agrees.

Frank Carleo, Masaoka and Harchol's former attorney, says Masaoka is a mixed bag. Carleo successfully fended off a lawsuit filed against him by the couple seeking $400,000, according to documents.

"I think [Masaoka] seriously may have some problems between the left ear and the right. He's reasonably bright. I think he went to sections of law school. He prepares papers that make sense, and then he does some crazy things," Carleo says.

"But this is one of those rare situations where [Masaoka's] a total jerk—yet I think what happened to him was wrong."

Carleo, a former engineer himself, says the city of Tustin set off the whole chain of events by breaking the law. Behrouz Azarvand, Tustin's "acting building official" who originally condemned the home, was a plan-checker, not a licensed civil engineer.

"It's a big mess until you see the key. The core of this is the practice of unlicensed engineers," Carleo says. "Thousands and thousands of dollars and man-hours went into this thing, and all of it started because Tustin didn't want to hire a licensed engineer."

Williston Warren, a Newport Beach licensed civil engineer whom Masaoka and Harchol hired to inspect the house during its construction, wrote in a 2002 declaration that Tustin engineers didn't know what they were doing: "It is also my opinion that the Structural Hazards identified by the City were by inexperienced individuals attempting to practice engineering without a license." Warren says Azarvand applied "erroneous structural findings" to declare it as unsafe.

Warren also criticized the city for micromanaging the project and setting unrealistic deadlines, adding that part of the reason construction was slow was because, as a structural engineer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he was unable to assist on the project for several weeks. He was busy participating in emergency response after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Warren says the city's inflexible push to make the couple complete the project in one year "identifies [Tustin's] ignorance of professional responsibilities and time scheduling for a professional scope of work."

Tustin's Lois Bobak says that, although they now have hired a licensed civil engineer to head code enforcement, there is no law requiring its building inspectors to have a license. She says Masaoka and Harchol have no one but themselves to blame for their misfortunes.

"In my opinion, the city bent over backwards to try to not demolish the house," she says. "If he had done what he agreed to do from the beginning, then none of this would have happened. He and his wife would still have a house in Tustin, and presumably, they'd be living there happily."

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