ST. PETERSBURG — When 80-year-old Wal-Mart cashier Ann Lamarche returned home from work about a month ago, she was stunned to discover her clothes and linen stuffed into two large garbage bags and her mattress gone. The sheets, pillowcases and clothing were wet.
The management at Lutheran Residences of South Pasadena, where she lives, had been treating her apartment for bedbugs for several months, but this was the first time they had handled her belongings. They had apparently been washed, she said.
"I was just flabbergasted,'' said Lamarche, who has lived at the complex for low-income seniors for about a dozen years.
Frank Faber, 67, who lives in downtown St. Petersburg at the Columbian Apartments, said he had a similar experience.
He said the Columbian staff filled 30-gallon garbage bags with his clothing, linen and blankets and threw them out with his couch and chair.
"They said I had bedbugs,'' he said.
The tiny critters — often almost invisible to the human eye — have been making news lately.
A few weeks ago, an infestation of bedbugs brought about the temporary closing of a Department of Children and Families facility in Pinellas Park. Recently an Orlando hotel was sued by a guest who claimed bedbug bites left her with 35 permanent scars. And earlier this year, the New York Times wrote about an infestation of bedbugs at the midtown Manhattan office of Fox News.
The health issues associated with Cimex lectularius appear to be minimal. Bedbug bites won't make you sick unless the bites get infected, and there is no documentation they can transmit disease.
Experts say Florida is suffering from an increased population of the creatures.
Phil Koehler, professor of entomology at the University of Florida, said bedbugs began arriving in the luggage of international travelers around 1999, but problems with the bloodsucking insects really started intensifying about five years ago.
Now, he said, they are migrating from one apartment to another, on the bodies of unwitting humans and spreading from old to new mattresses on delivery trucks picking up old bedding and dropping off new ones.
Koehler said they have been found in places such as the New York subway, nursing homes and movie theaters.
"Bedbugs aren't really a matter of hygiene,'' he said. "They aren't going to live any better or worse, regardless of if you scrubbed the floor.'' And they have become resistant to most insecticides approved for zapping them, he said.
"They do work if you spray them directly onto a bedbug. It takes four to six hours to accomplish that for an average-size motel room and then those insecticides don't kill the eggs," Koehler said.
"You have to come back and do the process again at later times. As a result, we have been advocating fumigation or heat treatment."
Koehler recommends that extermination be left to professionals and said UF researchers are working with a firm that uses specially trained dogs to sniff out bedbugs.
Lamarche believes she got bedbugs from a neighbor, whom she visited daily and whose unit was infested.
"They weren't playing fair with me. They threw my bed away,'' she said, adding that she has been forced to sleep on "a little piece of foam about four inches thick.''
Lamarche, who has back problems and wears a body cast, learned late last week that Lutheran Residences will replace her Select Comfort bed.
At Columbian Apartments, Faber says he took his parakeet and left his unit for about four or five hours after apartment managers indicated they wanted to treat his apartment. When he returned, he found his belongings in garbage bags.
"There were four or five other people they said had bedbugs too, but they didn't do anything (to them). I said I didn't have any bedbugs. I didn't have any bites,'' Faber said.
The extermination continued the following day.
"When I came back the next day, all the bags were gone. They threw out a couch. They threw out a chair. My bed was still intact. The mattress, the framework. I was left with only the clothes on my back. I raised Cain about all of my belongings,'' said Faber, who has medical problems and uses a wheelchair and oxygen.
Lamarche and Faber have sought help from Gulfcoast Legal Services in a bid to be compensated for their losses. Those who manage their apartment buildings say, though, that there's more to the residents' stories.
The Rev. Jerry Strazheim, president of the board of directors at Lutheran Residences, said the board has "explicit trust'' in administrators of the complex.
"The protocol was properly followed,'' he said.
George Radhert, a lawyer on the board, said it's important to act quickly when a bedbug problem is discovered.
"In our case, it was isolated and we felt that we addressed it immediately and thoroughly and have properly eliminated the problem. It's unfortunate that she lost her mattress. An infested mattress has to be destroyed,'' said Radhert, who represents the Times on First Amendment issues.
Columbian Apartments manager Sally Robinson denies the complex got rid of Faber's belongings.
She said it was Faber who asked for the bedbug treatment and that she doesn't know who bagged up his clothes and linen and got rid of it and his upholstered furniture.
It's possible the pest control company might have done so or even someone from the agency that provides home health assistance to Faber, Robinson said. Faber disputes that.
In any event, Robinson, who manages the 188 apartments for residents 55 and older and those on disability, has sent two letters to Faber telling him that his lease is being terminated.
The action has nothing to do with bedbugs, said Robinson, whose letters cite Faber's unruly behavior and failure to keep his unit clean.
Robinson said only about five units at the Columbian have been treated for bedbugs in the past year.
"We absolutely don't have an infestation,'' she said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.