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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
But Masaoka believes that day still might come. He says he's already nearly finished building a replacement house in an Anaheim location with free materials he's been getting on Craigslist.com. When he's done, he says, he'll transport it to the Tustin property and rent it out.
Bobak doesn't think Masaoka is being realistic.
"The debts they have far outweigh the value of the property," she says. "The city would just like to try to resolve these issues as easily as possible and be in a position where we're not just facing these repetitive claims from Harchol and Masaoka. At the end of the day, the city will hopefully be made whole."
Making the city whole again might mean the property will be developed once the city finally wrestles it out of the couple's hands. According to Masaoka and Harchol's lawsuit against the city, in 2004, the zoning on the property was changed from R-1 single family residential to R-3 medium-density residential, paving the way for a developer to build apartments.
Making the city whole again, for Masaoka, means watching the couple's assets get liquidated in bankruptcy court. Masaoka's truck-repair business and his parents' home were the first two casualties.
The third, he says, was his father, George, who died earler this year.
"[My father] didn't know if he was going to get thrown out on the street," Masaoka says. "He had all kinds of medical problems. The foreclosure sale happened in July, he was not told until Sept. 12, and then he has a major heart attack in December, and he dies in January."
When a March 12 settlement reached between the bankruptcy trustee and the city goes through, as it likely will, Bobak says, the city will acquire the property.
"It's a taking machine," Masaoka says of the city of Tustin. "It's a finely tuned taking machine. They've got it down to a science. I read a story about Nazi pillaging back in the '40s. It's the same stuff, different era."
Harchol adds, "That was our pursuit of happiness, you know, for our family. That's the most important kind. And people have savings that they invest in that."
* * *
In a phone call to the Weekly received just before press time, Masaoka says Harchol was seriously injured in a car accident at approximately 8 p.m. on March 13. Harchol was transferred to Western Medical Center in Santa Ana after striking a light pole at the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Bear Street in Santa Ana. She was wearing a seatbelt, but she has two broken ribs, a broken sternum and a broken hip, Masaoka says. As of this writing, she was in serious but stable condition, according to Masaoka.
Also, after the bankruptcy agreement reached on March 12, Masaoka says he was told that after all of his assets are sold off, he will still owe $450,000 in non-dischargeable debt, meaning he has to pay it back even though he filed bankruptcy. Masaoka says he also has to pay the bankruptcy trustee $73,000 for his services, and he owes $30,000 to the IRS.
He says he has "no idea" what he will do.