The stench was overwhelming. Cat urine. And filth. Living next door to the hoarders was a nightmare for Lindsay Reagan.
The stench was overwhelming.
Cat urine. And filth.
Inspectors said there were eight cats. The landlord said 10 to 15. Animal Control reported “over 30” locked in cages, looking sickly. The next door neighbor lost count.
The number, as it turns out, was 91.
Authorities in Orlando discovered the cats panting, lethargic, some with their tongues hanging out, in the back of a U-Haul being driven by former Wellington residents heading north after being evicted from their townhome.
It was 95 degrees inside the truck, and the cats, who had been stacked in cages surrounded by ice, were drenched in melted water, a report by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office showed.
Their owners told authorities they were driving the cats to northern Florida to set them free.
“They honestly, probably, were trying to do something nice, but that’s not how you do it,” said former next-door neighbor Lindsay Reagan, a real estate sales professional whose townhome shared a wall for four years with the cats’ owners — two men, their sister and their mother.
Living next door to hoarders has been a nightmare for Reagan.
Every day, she saw the yard stacked with appliances, furniture, engine parts, granite slabs, pots, bags of garbage and, of course, cats.
“It goes deeper than just the cat hoarding,” Reagan said. “The property owner was let off the hook so many times from code compliance, and that’s part of the problem.”
Issuing code violations did not help
Code compliance records show the landlord, Julio Jorges, who in 2013 paid $80,000 for the townhouse on Westhampton Circle near Village Hall, has been cited 29 times, including 20 in response to neighbor complaints.
Grievances included things like crumbling siding, overgrown foliage, using a pickup bed as a trash dump, and a reported stream of customers coming day and night to buy drugs.
Citations, however, failed to stop more violations.
“There was junk that was spilling out of that unit,” Reagan said. “The wood was so rotted that bumblebees had made a nest there and then came to my side and stung me in the head.”
Records show that Jorges typically complied with code enforcement, although sometimes after getting extensions.
Finally, after almost five years, on Aug. 12, everything came to a head: Village inspectors condemned the house, deeming it “unfit for human occupancy.”
Two days later, Jorges evicted the tenants. That’s when Chris Thurman and his brother packed up the U-Haul and left with the cats.
Situation spiraled out of control
“I just had a horrible situation and I didn’t know what to do about it, and I just wanted to do the best with what I had,” Thurman said. “I loved those cats, but if I don’t have a place to go, what am I supposed to do. Leave them?”
He started with only one neutered cat. But he began taking care of feral cats and bringing them inside to protect them from cars and dogs.
He spayed and neutered many of them, but said he was afraid he would get in trouble for having too many cats, so he quit taking them in to be fixed.
The cats reproduced rapidly and the situation “spiraled out of control,” he said.
Then, he got evicted.
That part, he largely blames on the landlord.
For starters, the air conditioner didn’t work, he said.
“It wouldn’t go below 85 degrees,” he said. “The pipes were leaking and the ceiling fell out and there was black mold. Half the electrical didn’t work.”
The townhome was his first rental and he didn’t know his rights, he said.
“I told Julio about it, and he hired this dude to come repair drywall about a year ago and then about seven months later it fell out again,” he said. “Then the mold was even worse because he never fixed the pipes — he just drywalled over everything.”
Thurman said he was stuck. He did not have enough money to move because he was healing from a broken leg that prevented him from working. And he didn’t know what to do with so many cats.
“I made a bad decision at the time,” he said.
Orange County Animal Services has since placed all the cats with adoption agencies. Thurman still worries about them.
“I saw online that a lot of them have been adopted,” he said. “That’s good. They have family and friends now as opposed to being left in the woods.”
Landlord blames renters
Jorges said inspectors never told him the townhome was condemned.
“No, they gave me a little book about what I had to do to the house,” he said. “We had to tear everything down and get a permit. I hired contractors.”
The village said they rushed permits for Jorges because the house was structurally unsound and because the sight and smell of it disturbed neighbors.
The odor so permeated the drywall, floor and ceilings, it would all need to be torn out and replaced, inspectors said.
Jorges said it was the tenants who destroyed the house — knocked holes in the walls and ceiling and allowed it to sink into disrepair.
“I put on a roof, the kitchen, everything, but they destroyed it,” he said of renovating the house before the tenants moved in.
Beginning in June 2014, photos and citations show a second-floor bathtub resting over a hole in the floor, threatening to crash into the room below.
They show the yard overgrown, the driveway and sidewalks stained, siding in disrepair and Plexiglass in place of windows.
Jerry-rigged electrical wires ran willy-nilly throughout the house, and the plumbing was not up to code. Holes, mold, discoloration, and rotted siding was, in places, simply covered with more siding.
“Right now, what we wanted to do was make sure we bring this to safety and the building does not affect the neighbors,” Jacek Tomasik, Wellington’s building official said of their current efforts.
He said he understands that Reagan is upset, but that code enforcement did not know how severe the problems were until recently.
It was only after Reagan contacted Mayor Anne Gerwig, who went to see the property, that things began to move forward. Now, Reagan is in direct contact with village officials.
“She was wonderful,” Reagan said of Gerwig.
Gerwig and Tomasik said the village is in a difficult position in cases like this because it has limited power over private property.
But it has torn down properties in the past when owners have refused to fix them.
“They need to change the laws to protect people,” Reagan said. “This is a chronic, long-term problem next door with the owner of that unit.”
The village is now cracking down on Jorges. Beginning Nov. 18, they say he may be fined up to $1,250 per day if he does not keep up with the required work schedule.
Hard to breathe
For Reagan, it is all too little, too late.
The cleanup process is as horrible as the last five years have been — just in a different way, she said.
Noxious cleaning chemicals burn her lungs when she breathes.
“They were spraying it, and I got a faceful,” she said of disinfectants blowing into her yard. “The next day I got sick. The following week, I got it in the face again and went to urgent care the following day. I shouldn’t have to live like that.”
Because she has only 40 percent lung capacity from emphysema, Reagan said she can no longer enjoy a stroll down her canal-side path or tend to her beloved blue periwinkles. The odor from next door is just too strong.
And the air is not much better inside.
Urine-soaked drywall remains piled on her neighbor’s back patio, waiting to be hauled away. It is only feet from Reagan’s air conditioner, which sucks up the putrid fumes and pumps them through her home, making her gasp for breath.
She pleaded with the village again on Thursday to have the drywall hauled away, saying she fears she may end up in the hospital.
Barring further extensions, Jorges has until Jan. 27 to bring the property up to code and obtain final inspections.
He said that upon completion, he plans to sell the home. No more renters, he said.
“It’s going to be a brand new house,” Jorges said. “Anyone who buys the house is going to be very happy with it. It will be the best house in the neighborhood.”
Reagan holds no hope that the work will be done adequately or on schedule, if at all. And she doubts if Jorges has any intention of selling.
“Actions speak louder than words to me,” she said. “Pardon me if I have skepticism. The landlord hasn’t done anything he said he was going to do.”
She’ll believe it, she said, when she smells it — or, rather, when she doesn’t.