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The homes of Richmond Drive are framed with cheery pink camellia bushes and boxwood hedges in a neighborhood tucked away on the northern edge of the Santa Rosa Junior College campus.

It’s a neighborhood of roofers, winemakers and social workers; they are nurses and teachers, people who work at delis and hardware stores; those spending their golden years where they raised their children.

And they’ve felt under siege for decades.

Toward the western end of the two-block street of modest single-story homes, 550 Richmond Drive stands out for the grime, the garbage and the troubled people in orbit around the house owned by the Vincent family since the neighborhood was built in the 1950s. The home has been a refuge for drug users, thieves and lost souls since the mid 1980s, police and city records show.

Neighbors talk about finding human waste in their yards like it’s a regular feature of suburban life. They trade stories of calling police about people passed out in the grass outside their windows, the frightening late-night fights and the break-ins. A neighbor once drove across town before realizing someone was asleep in the bed of his pickup.

And so over the years, residents along Richmond Drive have built higher fences, added locked gates, put in motion-sensing lights and kept police officers on speed dial.

“I don’t feel safe,” said Doris Thompson, 84, who remembers days long ago when she let her young children ride in the street on their tricycles.

For the past 35 years, the city failed to stem the crime and nuisance that have haunted the neighborhood. But what residents call their neighborhood nightmare might be coming to an end.

On Monday, the city installed a 6-foot chain-link fence around the Vincent home and locked it with a padlock to keep the owner, John Vincent, and all others out. The city sued Vincent for creating a public nuisance and allowing his home to be used as a haven for drug use and sales.

Assistant City Attorney Adam Abel said it’s a new strategy for the city, and possibly other cities as well, to use California’s Drug Abatement Act to sue property owners. The law holds property owners accountable for drug crime on their premises, regardless of whether they are suspected of any criminal activity.

Petaluma also is exploring using the act for the first time to address a long-blighted property on Weaverly Drive. Earlier this month, Petaluma City Council members voted to spend city resources to sue the owners and ask a judge to shutter the property and award the city as much as $75,000 in fines.

Abel said he modeled the lawsuit after the $1.1 million judgment the city collected in 2011 against former owners of the shuttered Llano Hotel, once a notorious haven for prostitution. It used a California law called the Red Light Abatement Act, which proceeded the Drug Abatement Act. The laws allow cities to seek payment for the costs of investigating the property and taking owners to court.

On March 3, a Sonoma County Superior Court Judge reviewed a trove of evidence kept over the years and heard testimony from police, code enforcement and a neighbor. His conclusion: 550 Richmond Drive must be shuttered and sold.

In his lengthy, excoriating order, Judge Rene Chouteau asked Vincent if he understood the “terrible, really terrible” impact he’s had on the neighborhood, imploring: “Can you imagine what your neighbors have suffered?”

“Did that ever occur to you how upsetting that might be for people in a residential neighborhood?” Chouteau said. “I have to say, you know, this is the most shocking condition I’ve experienced as a judge and an attorney in this town, and I think my ruling should be clear: Your premises and everything thereon is a public nuisance. You are prohibited from going on the property. The building is to be boarded up.”

About 10 neighbors sat in the audience, holding hands, some in tears.

The city doesn’t own the property, but the property must remain shuttered and vacant until the owner sells it. If it remains abandoned, Abel said the city will seek a receivership order to take control of the property’s sale.

“This is just unbelievable, this is coming to an end,” neighbor Phil Dwight said earlier this week as he watched city staff unlock the fence and let Vincent gather some belongings. “What’s unbelievable is how powerless people were to stop it. It was a snail’s pace with a boat anchor attached.”

Dwight echoed a question asked by many in the neighborhood, who praise police and city code officers for always responding even though they seemed powerless to make the problems end: Why did it take the city so long to shutter a home with blatant criminal activity and horrendous conditions?

Abel, who joined city staff about a year and a half ago, said the city took the issue as far as it could using policing and code enforcement.

“In my opinion, the city did all it could,” Abel said. “He’d do the bare minimum to bring it up to code.”

Three decades of violations

City records detailing trouble at 550 Richmond Drive date to 1986 with a report outlining code violations including an illegal auto repair business, cars parked on the front lawn, shacks for living purposes in the backyard, six to eight neglected dogs, heaps of garbage, “numerous unsavory individuals” and a “disturbing odor.”

Records kept over the years show the problems didn’t stop. Years of police reports show methamphetamine and heroin were the drugs of choice for those who frequented the house, some staying for years and others only minutes for quick transactions. Police would find two dozen people living in the house on mattresses strewn about the floor and in the rafters. For SRJC police investigating stolen bicycles, Richmond Drive was often the first place they’d look.

Police and neighbors said they went to the property daily. Statistics spanning five years show police were called to the property on average five days a week, according to calls for service records between May 1, 2011, and May 1, 2016. Of the calls that resulted in a report, which often means someone was arrested, the vast majority were related to drug crimes and stolen property.

“In my career, I know of no other address that’s drawn more police resources,” Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder said.

Code officers have inspected the property more than 35 times over the past 10 years. The city has repeatedly supplied 20- and 40-yard dumpsters for Vincent to rid the property of decaying food containers and other garbage.

Vincent has been prosecuted by the city’s administrative code department twice and ordered to make immediate repairs and pay fees. Two different groups of neighbors have taken him to small claims court and won, including a $35,000 judgment in 1995 and another in 2009.

With each action, the city and the neighbors prevailed, yet it didn’t stop the problems. Vincent would make repairs and improve conditions “just enough to get by” to enable him to stay in the home, according to code enforcement officer Mark Maystrovich, who has been dealing with the property for more than a decade.

“He knew how to play the system,” said Maystrovich, who said he was once confronted by a knife-wielding man at the property and since asked for police escort.

No criminal record

At the center of the chaos is Vincent, a hapless 72-year-old man who inherited his childhood home after his mother, Effie Vincent, died in 1982. Vincent has a white beard, straw hat and kind eyes. His belly hangs below his T-shirt. A floral sash tied around his cellphone hangs from one pocket, and twine tied to a key hangs out of the other.

Vincent has no criminal record, and he said he doesn’t do drugs other than smoking a joint now and then. He thinks of himself as “answering the needs of people who are homeless and dispossessed” by giving them a place to stay.

People have taken advantage of his generosity and he’s long felt out of control of his property, he said.

“For ages I’ve told people to clean it up,” Vincent said.

By all accounts, Vincent has always let police and city code enforcement officers inside, never demanding a warrant. He’s cooperative and responded to code violation notices with the bare-minimum fixes. Vincent said he’s lived in the backyard since childhood and prefers to sleep outside.

City staff and others described signs posted on the outside of the home advertising a shower for $3 (“bring your own towel”), or a night’s rest in a chair for $2. Vincent admits these anecdotes are largely true.

When asked about the impact on his neighbors, how the fights have frightened people and lowered the quality of life in the neighborhood, Vincent deflects responsibility. He said he has been unable to evict problem tenants and received bad advice. He blames police for not helping him. He blames his inaction on a health condition he described as chronic fatigue syndrome — “I call it the Rodney Dangerfield of illnesses” — and what he calls “the black dog of depression.”

“People moved in and I wasn’t able to control what they did,” Vincent said.

Vincent said out of the hundreds who have lived with him over the years, he can recall only one man who hit him once and a woman with gang ties who may have been dangerous.

“To a major degree, the people who come by are low-level screw-ups,” Vincent said. “I understand the neighbors are concerned, but I didn’t hear anyone from my house threaten my neighbors.”

Vincent’s brother, Osman Vincent, 75, of Berkeley said he gave up any ties to the property years ago and hasn’t been there in more than a decade.

“He means well. He’s basically honest,” Osman Vincent said. “He doesn’t use drugs but he has a bunch of friends, too many friends, who are in the drug world and aren’t like he is, and I think that is where most of the problems are. I really don’t know the details.”

Homeowners given notice

John Vincent has been living out of a van in a north Santa Rosa parking lot for the last year since the house was red-tagged as uninhabitable. He could still spend his days at the property but was supposed to leave at night until the chain-link fence went up this week.

He talks about how someday the home will be a historic landmark once he becomes a famous writer. He describes taking up a healthy macrobiotic diet while living in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the 1960s and developing a philosophy based on the teachings of Gandhi, Jesus and “the Golden Rule.”

He talks about unrequited love interests that dog him still.

But the activity around his house has forced home buyers to sign disclosure documents saying they are aware of the nuisance property before buying a home. Renters must sign similar disclosure forms before moving in, neighbors said.

“Nothing anybody tells you prepares you for what it’s like,” said Kevin Holt, 56, a winemaker who signed a disclosure document when he and his wife bought their house about three years ago.

The constant parade of people, day and night coming and going from the home, were there every time he walked out his front door or looked out a window, Holt said.

Many neighbors have never been inside.

The conditions inside 550 Richmond Drive are horrific. The home smells of human waste. Cartons of rotting food sat atop mounds of clothing, shoes and junk in the rooms. Black paint was smeared over the windows in one bedroom. Some had blocked the bathroom window to shut the light out.

On Monday, an escort of city staff including Abel allowed Vincent to visit his home and collect some belongings. Maystrovich warned against opening the refrigerator as Vincent grabbed an old shelf and disappeared into the kitchen. Suddenly the loud grinding of a hand-held saw broke the eerie silence, then Vincent re-emerged from the back door onto the rickety steps with half the shelf and began stuffing old books and papers into it.

He walked among discarded appliances, old radios, a crutch, orange peels, milk cartons, clothing, shoes and a dream catcher strewn about the yard around several makeshift shacks. The ground is layered with damp trash, including at least one hypodermic needle. Green water stands in the empty shells of old furniture. An overdue VHS copy of “Natural Born Killers” from Blockbuster Video was pressed into the dirt.

Vincent said he’d sometimes stay with a friend in Petaluma who kept a clean and tidy house to get relief from the chaotic mess.

“That is the way it should be, it’s so much easier,” Vincent said, adding that the disrepair of his home “makes for a Helter Skelter life.”

City seeking restitution

During the trial, Vincent gave power of attorney over the property to a friend, a Cloverdale woman who has told the city she is trying to find a contractor and buyer willing to do the amount of cleanup required. Abel said the city will first bring in a hazards crew to address immediate problems inside, such as rotting food, remnants of drug use and other potential toxic materials.

At a later court date, the city will seek an estimated $50,000 judgment to cover its costs, although the costs of dealing with the property for 35 years are unquantifiable, Abel said.

“I didn’t do this to get the city’s money back. I just want the neighborhood fixed,” Abel said.

For Vincent, he talks about wanting to track down an old flame in Oregon, even as he seems in disbelief he won’t be able to return to his home someday. But he’s thinking about buying a motor home once the property is sold and he’s paid off all liens.

“I’m looking forward to seeing Santa Rosa in my rearview mirror,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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