Hefting black bags of clothes and dirty children's toys, the west Oldsmar tenants trudged from their homes June 19. Their apartments were being powered by stolen electricity, deputies told them. They had to leave that morning.
A week later, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office discovered the same scheme at a clump of Clearwater apartments. Four buildings with similar living arrangements, owned by the same landlord, showed similar thefts.
Deputies managed this situation differently: Instead of having to leave Thursday, the day the power was shut off, tenants were allowed five days to pack. Helping hands gave them ice, water and pizza. When their homes were condemned Tuesday, the county offered a week's stay at a nearby hotel.
The Sheriff's Office contends the Oldsmar tenants were allowed the same opportunities. But residents, who said they knew nothing of the thefts, found what little help was offered amounted to dead ends.
"I'm kind of on my own now," said former tenant Christy Villavicencio, 22. "No one was there to help us."
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The residents of 3616 Meriden Ave. in Oldsmar, said they liked the price landlord Lawrence Ayers was charging. Edward Whiteside, 22, paid $125 a week for a small section of a two-bedroom apartment, splitting a kitchen and bathroom with his roommates. The three units housed 15 people.
The theft ended June 19, when crews disconnected power and water to the buildings and condemned each room. Tenants, including a pregnant woman, a disabled man and a father of a 2-year-old son, were told to move out within hours without fans, air conditioning or lights in the June morning heat.
"At first they told us that Red Cross was coming," said Villavicencio, who lived there with her former boyfriend for six months. "That gave us a little bit of hope. Then they told us they're not coming anymore."
That's because the agency, which mainly deals with emergencies like floods and fires, doesn't get involved in landlord-tenant disputes, said spokeswoman Janet McGuire. She said the case was referred to the county, though Pinellas County Health and Human Services assistant director Cliff Smith said his agency never heard of it.
"What they (tenants) had been offered boiled down to services from the Red Cross," said sheriff's spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda. "They were provided a number where they could reach out to seek out assistance. That's it."
Safety Harbor Fire Marshal Richard Brock, whose fire district includes the Oldsmar apartments, said this week landlord Ayers told authorities he would pay for temporary housing for the ousted tenants. Tenants said they never heard the offer.
With housing options dwindling, residents like Audra Chapman, 26, turned to friends for a place to stay. But others, like Bob Kelly, 51, said they had nowhere to go.
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Florida has no unified policy on ordered evacuations, said State Fire Marshal Chief of Fire Prevention Jim Goodloe. Instead, hazards are assessed case-by-case by city, county or district fire marshals.
At the Oldsmar apartments, Brock said the stolen power, bootlegged through improper exterior wiring, presented an "absolute imminent danger" for everyone inside.
But once disconnected, tenants were still required to leave. The lack of usable power and water presented its own hazards, Brock said.
"You don't have any choice but to close this down," he said. "We have to err on the side of life safety, always."
Other cities like Tampa work off Standard Operating Guidelines that establish a precedent for forced moves.
"It is not the desire of this office to remove tenants from their homes without a viable option for placement at another location," the Tampa Fire Rescue guidelines state. It also states that "removal can be immediate if life safety hazards call for it."
"Remember that the occupants of the building are victims of the ownership," it states. "Let's do our best not to make them our victims also."
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Though Ayers has made himself hard to reach to tenants, deputies and code officials, the violations around his Clearwater property live on in the form of bugs, broken glass and leaking trash bags.
Some things have changed at the four buildings at 15652, 15664, 15676 and 15750 Westminister Ave. Power cables swung between buildings were cut. Illegal pumps that dredged up water from a shallow well have stopped. Officials posted signs on the doors: "Unfit for Human Habitation."
"What he did to us was wrong," said former resident Debra Turman, 47. "Everybody here is suffering."
Ayers has not been arrested, though charges have been referred to the State Attorney's Office.
For code violations found at the apartments, Ayers may face fines of up to $5,000 a day, said county spokeswoman Mary Burrell.
Ayers is scheduled for a magistrate hearing on July 13, the day before the property is scheduled for a foreclosure sale, according to court records.
Ayers has been arrested three times in the past five years for failing to appear in court on trash and electricity violations, according to Pinellas jail records. He has entered into 11 mortgage foreclosure cases.
Villavicencio moved into a small trailer after the eviction. She lives without a bathroom, sleeps on the floor and wakes up with bug bites. Others, she said, have it tougher.
She's optimistic that she'll be able to make enough money with her Hess job to find a new home. But she remains frustrated that help came too late — or not at all.
"They definitely just left us in the gutter," she said.
Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.