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Suicide Is Behind Homeowners’ Suit
A Mission Viejo family battling mold says the previous owner’s death scene wasn’t properly cleaned up. Defendants deny the charges.
By Claire Luna
Times Staff Writer
November 21, 2004
They had been told that a prior owner had killed himself in the backyard, but Troy and Maysoun Fletcher did their best to forget about it when they moved into their Mission Viejo home.
It wasn't until a month later, when a mold inspector poking through the garage stepped into dried blood and what appeared to be human tissue near the water heater, that the couple realized there was a lot they didn't know about their first house.
The Fletchers feared that every time they turned on the heater or air conditioner, toxins were being spread through the house. "It was beyond disgusting," said Maysoun Fletcher, 29.
The Orange County couple have since filed suit, claiming they were not told that a previous occupant had killed himself in the attached garage and that the decaying tissue left behind had spread toxic mold throughout the house, which was built in 1981.
In addition to suing the company that had been hired to clean up after the suicide, the couple is suing the widowed prior owner, her real estate agent and the company that conducted the pre-purchase home inspection.
The Fletchers said they were deceived when they were informed that the suicide took place outside. Had they known it happened in the garage, Maysoun Fletcher said, they would not have purchased the property.
The Fletchers are seeking an undetermined amount in damages for emotional distress and negligence. The couple said they and their daughter have suffered breathing difficulties since moving into the house, but that is not among the charges in the lawsuit.
Although one expert confirmed the couple's theory that such organic matter left to fester can cause harmful mold, others familiar with property law said that proving any case involving mold would be difficult.
The couple said they grew uneasy two weeks after they moved in Dec. 30, 2003, when a neighbor who welcomed them with a plate of cookies told them that the suicide had happened in the garage.
Fletcher, her husband and their 20-month-old daughter still live in the 2,512-square-foot, four-bedroom house, bullet holes piercing the brown carpet in an upstairs hallway. They can't afford another home, they said, although they would like to leave a house they find increasingly uncomfortable.
In court documents and interviews, the defendants deny the claims. Also, the agent has sued the widow, alleging that she lied about the location of her husband's death.
"My client made no misrepresentations whatsoever regarding the sale of the property," said Michelle A. Hancock, lawyer for real estate agent Shawna Rogalla. "She should not be part of this lawsuit."
Both Hancock and the lawyer for the widow, Teresa Carpenter, say the Fletchers have failed to prove their claims.
"Suspicions and feelings do not equal evidence," Hancock said.
Said Carpenter's lawyer, Kevin McLean: "The plaintiff has come up with a ridiculous theory, that the mold resulted because of a bad cleanup."
Crime-scene cleanup experts disagree, saying that toxic mold is one of the main dangers of shoddy service. A gunshot's energy can propel matter into different rooms and closed cabinets, making thorough cleanup essential, said Neil Smither, owner and founder of Orinda-based Crime Scene Cleaners Inc., considered the country's largest such company.
California property law says that a death on a property doesn't need to be mentioned if it happened more than three years before a sale, unless the circumstances might affect the purchase decision. Whether a death matters is subjective, so most agents try to disclose everything and let the buyers decide for themselves.
But once something like a suicide is disclosed, said California Assn. of Realtors general counsel June Barlow, it is up to the buyer to diligently explore the circumstances, including the cleanup.
Barlow said she has never heard of a poorly cleaned suicide scene causing mold, but she added that case law dealing with property mold is still developing.
"People are very quick to assume sniffling means they have mold, but there's no exact science to proving how bad mold is," she said. "There are all sorts of experts and no certification."
The Fletchers said they had looked at houses for almost a year when they found a gem just off Oso Parkway. It had a grand entry with an overlook from a second-floor office, a spacious kitchen and a big backyard perfect for the herbs and fruit trees Maysoun's father loved to plant.
They offered the full asking price ? $629,900 ? and within two months were deep in escrow. A few days after their inspector finished his report, which didn't list mold, they got a late-night call from their agent telling them the prior owner's husband had shot himself in the backyard.
"I didn't want the house anymore," Maysoun Fletcher said.
But after looking at more houses, she and her husband agreed they would buy the one in Mission Viejo.
But when the neighbor told them that Michael Carpenter had killed himself in the garage, just under what was now the baby's bedroom, their mood soured.
"All the excitement and energy of buying our first house was gone," Maysoun Fletcher said. "It was like hearing that news took that big bubble and just popped it."
Still, the couple didn't look in the garage, and it wasn't until a few weeks later when Maysoun ? a lawyer who stopped practicing when her baby was born ? attended a legal education seminar on toxic mold that things started to click. By then, she said, baby Yasmeen had bronchitis and needed an inhaler.
A worker from a mold-removal company came out two days later and established that toxic mold was present in the house, the suit contends. A month after they moved in, the Fletchers moved back out for two months while drywall was replaced, the furnace taken apart and cleaned and the downstairs repainted.
The April 24, 2003, suicide took place on Teresa Carpenter's 43rd birthday, the widow told lawyers during her recent deposition. She recalled that her husband had brought her a Diet Pepsi and given her good-night kiss.
The sound of a gun woke her, and she said she started screaming, "Michael, no!" She searched the house for her husband but could not find him. Police later recovered the body.
Her sister hired a cleaning company, and the widow maintains she never knew exactly where her husband died. She put the house on the market six months later.
When the Fletchers and Teresa Carpenter met during a deposition session relating to the lawsuit, Maysoun Fletcher said her feeling toward the widow softened. "She has been through hell," Fletcher said.
Carpenter's lawyer said his client's considerable pain has been compounded by dealing with a lawsuit they feel is unjustified.
"She appears stoic, but she's really pretty upset about everything," he said.
Still, the Fletchers don't want to back down. Whether it was the seller or her agent, they feel they were deceived.
"We were blatantly lied to," Maysoun Fletcher said. "The fact remains that we were horribly wronged."