Gail Andrews waits for county inspectors to visit her home on St. Andrews Circle in south Fort Myers Monday. Andrews is waiting for the county to decide whether or not her home is to be demolished. Dennis Culver / news-press.com / Dennis Culver / news-press.com
Nearly three years after a body was found buried beneath piles of trash inside a south Fort Myers home, it remains uninhabitable.
The St. Andrews Circle home once sheltered a family; now it’s just a shell. There is no running water, electricity, paint, and no floor fit to walk on.
The home’s owner, Gail Andrews, 64, lives with a neighbor, but does just enough to keep code enforcement from trying to take her house. However, unpaid property taxes may mean she’ll lose the home anyway.
Kay Haering, who led a group of volunteers who helped Andrews fix up the home in 2010 when Lee code enforcement was days away from tearing it down, said Andrews is wary of the media because of coverage in the past.
Andrews declined several attempts for comment.
Media converged on the otherwise well-kept neighborhood for weeks, camping out on lawns and sidewalks after the body of Andrews’ mother, Gladys, was found June 11, 2010, and as volunteers helped Andrews bring the home up to code. Their work came to a halt and remains unfinished after it came to light Andrews had continued cashing her dead mother’s Social Security checks — adding up to $73,000.
Everyone eventually left, but what happened has left a stain that is fresh to at least one neighbor.
Tina DeVecchis, who has lived behind the Andrews home for 20 years, said while the smell is gone, she has to deal with wildlife Andrews continues to feed.
“My kids are growing up in the front yard,” she said. “I won’t let them go into the backyard. I don’t like to go back there.”
She said Andrews feeds cats, opossums and raccoons, many of which make their way through her yard on their way to Andrews’.
“We’ve repeatedly asked her to stop, but she hasn’t,” DeVecchis said. “She has no accountability. None. She’s gotten away with everything.”
DeVecchis called Andrews a “pain in the butt neighbor,” and said she, along with other neighbors, have tried to help Andrews, but to no avail.
Andrews accepted help from people who stepped up when code enforcement stepped in. Colonial Roofing put on a new roof, and others helped her clear the trash in and around the home.
Colonial President Chris Rakos said his company got involved after the “friend of a friend” told him about Andrews’ situation.
The company supplied materials and some of the labor. Rakos estimated the retail value of the new roof was at least $3,000.
But Rakos didn’t find out about all of Andrews’ legal trouble — and her dead mother — until the roof was on.
“You try and do the right thing for the right reasons, and you hope the people you’re helping need it, but you can’t always be sure,” he said.
Despite the work, 2½ years later, Andrews can’t live there. The home was assessed at $213,000 in 2006, according to property records. It was assessed at $24,806 last year. By comparison, most homes in the neighborhood are assessed at over $80,000.
Records show Andrews owes property taxes for the past two years, and a tax certificate on the property was sold at auction last May.
Tax certificates are issued on properties when the owner fails to pay the property tax, essentially placing a lien on the property. In Andrews’ case, $716.90 was due for 2011. She will have to pay the certificate holder the past due tax, as well as fees and interest, by next April if she wants to keep the home from being auctioned. A certificate will likely be issued this month for 2012’s past due taxes.
Haering called Andrews a “very beautiful human being that fell into a state of despair that she couldn’t recover from.”
She lost her father, Andrew, in 1999, 15 years after he suffered a stroke. She had quit her job as a teacherto provide him with round-the-clock medical care.
The problems began before his death, with home maintenance falling by the wayside, and mounted afterward, when she began to focus on taking care of her aging mother, and a cousin dying from bone cancer.
The problems for Andrews worsened after her mother died. She was sent to a mental health facility, the result of hoarding. After her release, she stayed in a neighbor’s tree house until people came forward to help. Then came the federal charges of Social Security check fraud.
Last May, Gail was sentenced to three years of probation in the case and ordered to pay $16,952 in restitution.
Among the terms of her probation: 200 hours of community service, mental health treatment and debt counseling.
Attorney Mark Youngblood, who represented Andrews, said Andrews “inspired great confidence in me that she would satisfy the terms of her probation,” and he believes she’ll complete it without problems.
No jail sentence awaits her if she fails to abide by the terms, but William Daniels, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said the government could take the home if she doesn’t make restitution.
Andrews’ house looks like any other on the outside, but inside, it’s missing everything one would need to call it home.
Haering said it’s ready to be rehabbed. A permit was issued in September for the interior remodel, but has yet to be picked up.
“It was stripped to the bare walls,” she said. Some materials were left behind, but “there wasn’t enough help to complete it.”
DeVecchis said she has wrangled with code enforcement over the state of Andrews’ property, but “it is what it is. I love my house. I grew up in this neighborhood. I raised my kids here. She isn’t going to chase me out.”
Joan LaGuardia, with Lee County Community Development, said no code violations have been issued on the property sinceJuly.
“The code enforcement officer assigned to that area does check on it as he goes about his regular duties,” she said.
As for DeVecchis’ complaints about Andrews feeding rodents, LaGuardia said there are no land development codes about people feeding rodents, so “we look around for other systematic violations.”
DeVecchis, who describes herself as a Christian, said she isn’t judging Andrews, but wouldn’t be sad to see her longtime neighbor go.“I wish she would abide by the rules or get out,” she said.