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Grass is now green, but problems are sprouting up

Joseph Prudente, center, arrives home to his new lawn with daughter Jennifer Lehr, left, and good Samaritan Andy Law.

CHRIS PRICE | Special to the Times

Joseph Prudente, center, arrives home to his new lawn with daughter Jennifer Lehr, left, and good Samaritan Andy Law.

BAYONET POINT — Joseph Prudente's lawn, you'll be happy to hear, is looking not quite lush but still plenty green.

You remember Prudente.

He's the Pasco County senior citizen who ignored his homeowners association's orders to take better care of his lawn and then ignored a judge's orders to follow those orders. This led to two days in jail in October and a news story that started local and went national.

There were three main characters. They were plugged into a too-simple storyline.

There was Prudente, the "poor old man" who probably wasn't as wronged as he was made out to be; there was Bob Ryan, the unfeeling homeowners association boss who certainly wasn't as unfeeling as he was made out to be; and there was Andy Law, the Good Samaritan who led an effort to tend to the lawn and restored everybody's faith in humanity.

Now it's three months later.

Prudente can't believe it all went down the way it did. Ryan really can't believe it. And Law? The helper is the one who now needs the help.

Prudente, 67, is a retired nurse from Long Island, N.Y., who moved to the Beacon Woods community in west Pasco in 1998. He bought a four-bedroom home for $127,500. He lives off Social Security and a pension. By last fall, he was behind on his mortgage, his daughter and her two children had moved in, and he decided that keeping his home was more important than having nice grass.

He turned himself in at the jail in Land O'Lakes Oct. 10.

The headlines screamed:

JAILED OVER DYING LAWN.

JAILED FOR A BROWN LAWN!

Not exactly.

The Beacon Woods Civic Association didn't put Prudente in jail because of his lawn. Circuit Judge W. Lowell Bray put him in jail for not obeying the court. The judge would say Prudente put himself in jail.

The buildup to the dustup was long.

The first letter the association sent to Prudente was in January 2005.

A second letter was sent in March.

A third in September.

A fourth in December.

It's not worth getting into the nitty-gritty. Suffice it to say there were more letters, more reviews, more violations, Prudente saying he would fertilize, Prudente saying he would resod, Prudente not doing those things. July 2007 brought a $1,000 fine. The back-and-forth got kicked to the courts in February 2008.

Prudente didn't go to court.

He went to jail wearing a GRANDPA GONE WILD T-shirt and holding his heart medication in a Wal-Mart bag.

The point here is not the calendar of events, or the slapstick scope of the sequence, but that Beacon Woods is a deed-restricted community. You might think deed-restricted communities are silly, with all their rules, no trailers, no junk cars, no livestock, no gross grass. But the rules are the rules, and Prudente didn't follow them.

"I ignored them," he told the Times in the first story.

That morning is when Law got involved. The 49-year-old ex-Marine handyman and mower of lawns decided he had to help and rallied some neighbors and installed sprinklers and sod.

The lawn was green, the violation was gone — Prudente's time in jail was over.

But the story was just starting. It was about to get Inside Edition big.

The comments on tampabay.com called Ryan and the association communists and Nazis. One poster brought up the Holocaust. Seriously.

The traffic on the Beacon Woods Web site surged — the traffic in the four days after the story hit surpassed all the traffic for the year to that point — and e-mails from all over the world wished Ryan cancer and AIDS. Seriously.

Ryan was so shaken by the ordeal he wrote a 15-page blow-by-blow screed just to get it out of his system. The other day on the phone, he kept saying he didn't want to talk about it, sleeping dogs and whatnot, but he kept on talking.

He said Inside Edition interviewed him for 25 minutes. He was in the piece on the show for zero minutes. That bothered him.

He doesn't talk to Prudente. Prudente doesn't talk to him.

The news folks don't call either one of them much anymore. Some people from Showtime's "weird" and "wacky" Penn & Teller show interviewed Prudente a few weeks ago. He was told the story was to air in March.

For the most part, though, his 15 minutes of fame is over.

He got his mortgage lowered $300 a month, too, which has helped a bunch, he said last week.

As for Law?

He helped out because he wanted to. Because he thought it was the right thing to do. But he also thought it might lead to some more and much-needed business.

Nope.

One woman sent him a $25 gift certificate for food.

What did he get out of it?

"I felt good about it," he said last week. "I'd do it again."

But that's not paying the bills. He said he used to mow 98 lawns regularly. Now he does 29. He used to have real estate companies that hired him to keep their properties looking nice. Not anymore.

He said he made $128 last week.

He has sold some tools. He has sold some furniture.

His girlfriend is asking him to promise her they won't lose their house. He can't.

"I don't see any light," Law said last week.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

Grass is now green, but problems are sprouting up 01/03/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 5, 2009 10:43pm]

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