County demolished active-duty soldier's Florida home
By PATRICIA MAZZEI | The Miami Herald | Published: July 26, 2014
MIAMI — Fighting for his country in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jesus Jimenez helped fellow soldiers disarm enemy bombs. He made it back safely.
Fighting for his family in Miami, Jimenez was less fortunate. While he trained to ship overseas one more time, Miami-Dade County demolished his home.
His five-month-pregnant wife, Laura, was kicked out, along with his diabetic daughter, hearing-impaired brother and mother-in-law. Most of their possessions, including a beloved upright piano, were still inside.
Four year earlier, Jimenez had asked the county to delay the building-code violation proceedings against him because he was a soldier on active duty.
A Miami federal judge ruled last week that Miami-Dade violated U.S. law by failing to grant Jimenez’s request. Jimenez, now a U.S. Army staff sergeant in Fort Bliss, Texas, will pursue damages against the county and two building officials to compensate for the loss of his family’s home and the hardship they suffered.
“I feel relieved,” said Jimenez, a 49-year-old father of four. “But whatever I recover won’t be enough to do much.”
In the hours the house at 1488 NW 103rd St. was being bulldozed, Jimenez was unreachable in California, preparing for his second Afghanistan deployment. His family hadn’t moved out, despite repeated orders to leave. And while they were able to take some of their belongings, they lost everything else.
“They didn’t care,” said Laura Jimenez, 32.
Miami-Dade officials wouldn’t comment, citing the ongoing litigation. But the county said in court filings that it gave the Jimenezes every opportunity over four years — including between Jesus Jimenez’s deployments, when he was back in the U.S. — to repair or knock down their house, which building inspectors deemed unsafe.
“It is my duty to remove individuals from structures which may cause a potential hazard to the safety and welfare of this family,” building chief Charlie Danger, who has since retired, wrote in November 2007. “This is why I cannot find a reasonable justification to allow the Jimenez family to continue to reside under these severe circumstances.”
Danger wrote the email the day before Jimenez’s case was to be reviewed by the county’s unsafe structures board. A day earlier, Jimenez’s commanding military officer had written the county asking to stay the hearing for 90 days: Jimenez, a combat engineer, he said, was in Iraq conducting training to defuse improvised explosive devices.
The officer cited the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a law originally passed during World War II and reinstated in 2003 that allows for the temporary suspension of judicial and administrative proceedings that may hurt active soldiers’ civil rights.
Miami-Dade argued the law didn’t apply because the county issued the violations while Jimenez was a reservist, more than a month before he was ordered into active duty. And because it took four years to demolish the house, the county noted Jimenez effectively received the stay he sought.
But U.S. District Judge Robert N. Scola Jr. ruled that what mattered was that Jimenez was active when he asked for the stay. And the county and building officials named in the case — Danger and Building Code Support Division Director Ricardo Roig — “miss the point,” the judge wrote in his order granting summary judgment.
“While it is possible that the Jimenezes employed dilatory tactics to avoid remedying the violations on their property and complying with the applicable building ordinances, their behavior does not negate the Defendants’ failure to stay the proceedings for the requisite 90 days,” Scola wrote.
“Plaintiffs’ behavior was by no means perfect,” he added. “But by enforcing the [servicemembers act], this Court has vindicated a national policy of high priority.”
It’s unclear if Miami-Dade plans to appeal. The violations were issued under former Mayor Carlos Alvarez. The house was demolished after Alvarez was ousted in a recall but before his successor, Carlos Gimenez, was elected. The Jimenezes sued a couple of months after Gimenez’s win.
Scola scheduled a September jury trial to decide how much the county will have to pay, but ordered the two sides to first try to negotiate a settlement.
Brad Winston, the Jimenezes’ attorney, emailed Assistant County Attorney Jim Allen on Thursday demanding the county drop all liens, suspend code-enforcement activities and pay $395,000 within 20 days. The family would agree to put up for sale the property and two adjacent homes they own that have also been cited for violations.
Winston said the Jimenezes have lost rental income on the two remaining homes since the county cut off their electric power. (The Jimenezes were renting seven rooms in the two houses, in violation of zoning laws.) Jesus Jimenez grew up in one of the homes and had already paid off the bulldozed house, which he bought in 1989.
“This was going to be his retirement,” Winston said.
Jimenez’s trouble began on May 7, 2007, when the county cited problems with the house’s exterior. The wooden porch beams were deteriorated. So was the wood on the porch roof and on some sheathing. The cover of an electrical junction box and an outlet were missing. A door was damaged.
Jimenez said he began the repairs but without necessary permits, which he said he couldn’t afford.
Six weeks later, Jimenez was ordered to report to active duty by July 19, 2007, for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Jimenez had been in the Army since 1986, including an active-duty stint from 1996 to 2000. He reenlisted as a reservist in 2003 and had been working as a self-employed house painter.
Jimenez failed to make the fixes before he left. He was fined $934. From his Wisconsin training base, Jimenez wrote the building department asking for help.
While Jimenez was away, the county inspected his home more thoroughly and found portions had been built without permits — before he bought it, according to Jimenez. Miami-Dade cited Jimenez for the new violations and ordered the additions demolished.
After meeting with building inspectors, Jimenez’s wife hired an electrical contractor to handle the exposed wiring and other hazards. Meantime, the Jimenezes agreed to live only in the parts of the house the county considered safe.
But the family violated that agreement, according to Miami-Dade. The family received notice that their power would be shut off. By then, Jimenez was in Iraq. His commanding officer asked the county to delay the Unsafe Structures Board hearing. The county said no. His family remained in the home, rigging electricity from their adjacent property, also in violation of county code.
Then began a cycle of vacate-the-premises and demolition notices that continued until 2011, through Jimenez’s return from Iraq and assignment to Fort Drum in New York, and through his first deployment to Afghanistan and return to Fort Drum.
In January 2008, Jimenez wrote to then-Gov. Charlie Crist.
“I want to apologize for taking time away from more important issues, but after four months of attempting to arrive at some sensible approach to what started as a simple repair job has ended up with our house being condemned, my family scattered in different directions and I, facing enemies on numerous fronts,” Jimenez said.
Crist’s office directed Jimenez to the county.
The Jimenezes hired an engineer and an architect to try to bring their home up to code. But the problems were so extensive — the house was below the required elevation, for example — the county said it would be easier to demolish the entire structure and rebuild. The family countered that Miami-Dade was selectively enforcing rules and ignoring other similar neighborhood houses.
Beyond the letter of the law, the treatment of the soldier by county bureaucrats exposed a shocking callousness.
Emails obtained by Jimenez’s lawyer showed county attorneys and building officials venting about the pending demolition. At one point, Roig wrote to Army officials decrying Jimenez’s actions, citing his own experience as a military reservist.
In another email exchange, Roig told a county attorney, “I’m tired of this guy.”
“So bulldoze the place,” Assistant County Attorney Tom Robertson replied. Then, referring to a type of bulldozer, he added: “The sound of a D4 starting up is so nice in front of the right house.”
Robertson said in a deposition later that the comment was intended to highlight how some property owners don’t take county orders seriously. The back-and-forth was called “tongue-in-cheek banter.” So were later jokes about which staffer would drive the bulldozer.
On demolition day, with Jimenez off at training, Laura Jimenez was whisked away by relatives worried about her unborn son, Leonardo, who is now 2 and healthy. She was separated from her mother, stepdaughter and brother-in-law, each left to bunk with friends and relatives. Spanish-language television station América TeVe took an interest in their case; after a story aired, the Jimenezes found Winston to represent them.
The county placed a lien on their property for the demolition cost: $13,713.93.
Now, the Jimenezes say they just want to move past the ugly incident — even if it means never returning to Miami-Dade.
“It’s tough. I thought I would go back. I have my daughters, they’re there, and my family, my father,” Jimenez said. “But I can’t.”
“Bad memories,” his wife said.
Shortly after the demolition, the family put up an impossible-to-miss sign next to an American flag on their razed property.
“Our home was here,” the sign reads in English and Spanish. “This is how the U.S. government thanks the service of an active Army soldier who gives his life for his country. Leaving his family HOMELESS.”
The sign is too big, the county says. It fined Jimenez $10,510.