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Wednesday, August 8,2012

Death and foreclosure

The tense final days of Steven Rigby and the posthumous fight over his possessions

by Andy Balaskovitz

We’ll never know how Steven Rigby would have wanted this to go down. We do know the Ingham County treasurer and his relatives disagree on how it should.

Rigby’s home and his personal possessions have ignited a bitter debate between relatives and the Ingham County Treasurer’s Office over who gets what following Rigby’s suicide this spring. At stake are prime real estate property valued at a quarter of a million dollars on Lake Lansing, personal possessions and peace of mind following Rigby’s death, whose body went undiscovered for up to 34 days — during which time the family says it missed the chance to pay the delinquent property taxes and avoid foreclosure — in his 70-year-old, white one-story house near a cove on the northwest side of Lake Lansing. He was 58.

Rigby was no ordinary taxpayer, no ordinary neighbor and no ordinary relative, the 12 people interviewed for this story say. Employees of the county Treasurer’s Office remember Rigby out of several hundred others who are at risk of losing property to foreclosure each year. He was a property tax delinquency regular, you might say. Treasurer Eric Schertzing even remembers dealing with the Rigby family from when he was the chief deputy drain commissioner in the mid- and late-‘90s.

Neighbors describe a fickle-tempered man who one day could carry on a friendly conversation and the next day kick you off his lawn. A couple who loaned him money to pay off property taxes last year said Rigby approached them after three years of no contact, threatening to kill himself if they didn’t loan him $14,000 to pay off delinquent taxes.

And then there’s the family. The two attorneys working this case against them strongly suggest they’re only coming around now that nearly $250,000 worth of real estate is available. One attorney, Pat Gallagher, called one of Rigby’s cousins, Gordon Small of Lansing, a “money grubber.”

But heirs say Rigby purposely estranged himself from them, avoiding contact at all costs.

“Stevie was very odd,” said Kristan Small, Gordon Small’s daughter.  “We couldn’t push his door down. He did not return our phone calls. He did not return our letters.”

Gordon Small, who is 80, called Rigby “very withdrawn and introverted. He would kick neighbors off the grass.”

Rigby had told neighbors he’d be leaving town for a while. He told some neighbors Pennsylvania, others Florida, still others New York. When his grass grew abnormally long (he kept it in great shape, neighbors say) and his beloved cats’ meowing grew louder, they knew something was up.

The heirs to Rigby’s estate — cousins Gordon Small, Beverly Bach of Ohio and Dennis “Jerry” Rigby of California (and possibly more) — say they were never properly notified of cousin Steven’s death, which was discovered by Meridian Township Police on May 3, after Rigby’s body lay decomposing in his house for up to five weeks. It was another five weeks, on June 10, when relatives first heard he was dead, after a neighbor tracked down cousins Small and Bach. Meanwhile, the Ingham County medical examiner estimated Rigby’s suicide to have happened “on/after” March 29.

Rigby, who had regularly waited until the annual deadline to pay his delinquent property taxes — statutorily set as March 31 —may have died within mere days of this year’s deadline, which was April 2 because March 31 was on a weekend. As the death certificate states, he could have died before the deadline. It could have been after.

The family says that had they known before the deadline, they would have paid the taxes. Dead men don’t talk.

Meanwhile, the Ingham County Treasurer’s Office says it pursued the foreclosure process in standard fashion — relatives would say unreasonably. Gallagher was appointed by Ingham County Circuit Judge Richard Garcia as the personal representative of Rigby’s estate, which handled the material belongings within the house. The Treasurer’s Office padlocked the doors and nearly sold the home at a July 24 auction. However, Ingham County Circuit Judge Clinton Canady III intervened a week before it was to be sold, putting the ownership on hold and allowing the family to pay off three years’ worth of back taxes and penalties, or $38,207.49. But the county’s not backing down. It plans to appeal Canady’s July 16 decision. The money is being held in escrow.

That’s where the case stands today: Some of Rigby’s possessions have already been sold at an auction and resold at local yard sales; others are still strewn about the house. And it’s uncertain who will ultimately own the property. At the heart of this story, though, is Ingham County’s tax foreclosure process. Rigby’s death presents an unlikely and unique case as to the timing of paying off delinquent taxes, death and who owns property — in this case valuable property because of its location. And perhaps a principle over whether a Circuit judge can override a statutory deadline because, as Canady reportedly said in court, it was the “equitable” thing to do.


Paying late

Rigby’s story really began in 2001 after the death of his father, Ellis “Todd” Rigby. Records show Ellis is still listed as the owner of three parcels at 6200 Columbia St. in Haslett, even though Steven lived on and maintained the property following his father’s death. Court documents show that Steven had a history of nearly losing the property to foreclosure year in and year out. Some years, he worked out a payment plan with the Treasurer’s Office; others, he borrowed money from acquaintances. On March 30, 2011, Mark and Donna Ellis loaned Rigby money to pay off his 2008 delinquent taxes, says an affidavit signed by Ingham County property tax coordinator Karen Conroy after his suicide. “Mrs. Ellis told me that Rigby had come to their house requesting help and had told them that he would commit suicide if they did not loan him the money to pay his taxes,” the affidavit says. 

Donna Ellis said she and her husband, who was friends with Rigby since junior high, were under the impression the roughly $14,000 they loaned him would cover taxes from 2008, 2009 and 2010 — not just 2008. “He was in dire straits,” Donna Ellis said, confirming that Rigby told them he would commit suicide if they didn’t loan him the money. The Ellises hadn’t seen Rigby for three years when he approached them about the loan. “Mark and I could not have lived with the guilt knowing we could have helped him and did not,” she said. It was a tough decision — the Ellises had to cash out a certificate of deposit early to get him the money — and one they agreed couldn’t be done again the next year. She said Rigby did not approach them for more money the next year. On the day after Thanksgiving 2011, she said,  “We decided to remove the 900-pound elephant from the room and said it’s not going to happen again — don’t ask.” That was the last time the Ellises spoke to Rigby.

Each year, the Ingham County Treasurer’s Office publishes a public notice of tax delinquents three times in December — for the last few years in City Pulse — and notifies owners and parties of interest of what properties are at risk of foreclosure. In February, the properties are foreclosed on if the taxes haven’t been paid, but taxpayers have a redemption period until March 31 — April 2 this year because March 31 was on a Saturday, said Charles Lawler, the attorney in Clark Hill’s Old Town office representing the Treasurer’s Office. Generally, properties not paid off by the end of the redemption period are sold at one of two auctions later in the year. The county is willing to give extensions, but usually only if a payment plan is worked out before March 31. By March, the county had offered 200 payment plans, information provided by Lawler shows. Following that date, the Ingham County Circuit Court ordered about 20 extensions, mostly if not entirely by Canady, most of which the county “acquiesced” to, Schertzing said. One of those extensions was for Rigby’s property, and it’s one on which Schertzing strongly disagrees. Lawler, who says the law is clear that only the Appeals Court can decide whether to break the statutory deadline, is preparing a motion to reconsider. If, as is likely, Canady rejects it, then Schertzing intends for Lawler to appeal.

For Schertzing, his concern is about maintaining the integrity of the foreclosure process as outlined by state law — not necessarily obtaining a uniquely valuable property to be sold, though that does play a part, he said. The assessed value of the Rigby property is $244,200, property records show.

“What I’m always looking to do is fairly and equitably exercise the statutes that we’re given,” Schertzing said. “Sometimes that means bad things happen.

“The challenge here is that the courts come into play and Circuit Court judges exercise a great deal of authority in these processes,” he said, adding that can throw kinks into a 25-month foreclosure process. “I appreciate that a property that is lost to tax foreclosure that has value, people would like to come back and have a second bite at the apple. But folks with less means or properties that are a blight in the neighborhood — no one’s ever coming back for those.”

Canady did not return requests to be interviewed about why he granted the extension.


‘Where were they?’ and personal possessions

If the family — and others before who have tried to obtain foreclosed properties after the payment deadline — wants the property so badly, Schertzing asks: “Where were they?” before and immediately after Rigby’s death?

“I think it’s just too late in the process for somebody to come in,” he said, adding that “we go above and beyond to notify families, neighbors and the public at large through publication and advertising…to make sure people are aware.”

For the family, the question of “Where were they?” is met with “We didn’t know he was dead.” Also, Rigby had estranged himself from family members and didn’t want anything to do with them.

Kristan Small, a Wexford Elementary teacher and the daughter of Rigby’s first cousin Gordon Small, is nearly brought to tears by the question of: “Where were they?”

“We came forward the next business day after we learned he died,” Small said. “Because my father was not close to Stevie does not mean he wasn’t close to that land and the contents in that house. It does not mean they can judge my family’s relationship.

“I’d say to the county: Did you enjoy interacting with Steven Rigby? How dare the county say that?”

Following a recent day in court, 80-year-old Gordon Small recalled growing up on the lake. His grandfather built the cottage in the 1940s. “I was out there every summer. I have a lot of memories there,” he said. Gordon Small added that he saw Steven “often” in his “formative years,” but far less so later in life.

“I’m just totally disillusioned about how we were treated,” Gordon Small said of the county. “I hope other families aren’t treated this way.”

Gordon Small also says that had he known about Rigby’s death when it occurred, he would have paid off the back taxes.

But the property taxes are only one part of the story. There’s also Rigby’s personal possessions, many of which have already been sold. After Rigby’s death was reported by the medical examiner on May 3, Probate Judge Richard Garcia appointed the Gallagher Law Firm in Lansing Township to be the estate’s personal representative to handle all of Rigby’s possessions.

Pat Gallagher, who oversaw the process, said after the body was cremated on May 23, he proceeded with publishing the notice of the estate in Ingham County Legal News, saying that was sufficient notice, it fit the impending timeline and didn’t incur extra costs (genealogy search firms can be “quite expensive,” he said). A neighbor found the relatives in about three weeks using ancestry.com. 

Around this time, Gallagher also contacted local auctioneer Mel White to do an inventory of the home’s contents, which were worth about $6,500, Gallagher said.

Gallagher said Gordon Small first contacted him on June 11, saying he wanted to be the estate’s personal representative. “We said great, file a petition with the court because you’re the cousin,” Gallagher said. As of last week, Gordon Small still hadn’t been named the estate’s personal representative because it was found there might be more heirs around the country who have not been contacted. Also, even though contents are still messily scattered throughout the house, a letter from the Ingham County Treasurer’s Office from June 12 states the personal property must be removed by July 12 or “it will be considered abandoned and the property of the Ingham County Treasurer.”

Meanwhile, White had auctioned off most of the contents to “an antique dealer” to resell. White would not identify the buyer. White said the antique dealer was responsible for the disheveled look of the inside. Also, the neighbor who located relatives — Nanette Meier — inquired about getting Steven Rigby’s father’s ashes that sat in a box on a piano as the house was being cleared out. The movers produced the ashes in a plastic bag within a cardboard box along with photos and other papers, she said in an email. Other personal documents were taken right to Gallagher’s office and later picked up by Kristan Small. Still others — like old report cards, social security cards and a college I.D. from Lansing Community College — were purchased by one of Gordon Small’s friends at a yard sale recently. “That’s our family business,” Gordon Small said. “It has no business being out on the street.”

White and Gallagher both side with Schertzing, saying the county is entitled to the property and that the family came forward too late. Meier, the genealogist neighbor, said the relatives are being treated unfairly with “no respect” from the county and attorneys. 


Are all properties created equal?

The case of 6200 Columbia begs the question of whether the county would pursue a property so doggedly if it were worth, say, $30,000. The Rigby property, three parcels in total, have an assessed value of  $244,200, county property records show.

“It appears the county is acting in pursuit of the profit and not in pursuit of land rights,” Kristan Small said. “It’s the idea that because one piece of property is worth so much, this group of people is having a different experience.”

While Schertzing said the county’s pursuit is about upholding the law and not making exceptions for those who have the means to do so, he acknowledged that a more expensive property that could be auctioned off would help offset the costs of the entire countywide foreclosure process. To that, Schertzing said, he is looking out for taxpayers.

Neighbors disagree among themselves as well. A line has been drawn between those who say the county is being unfair and the relatives are the rightful heirs to the property and those who say the family is only in it for the money and that they should have been closer with Rigby if they expect to get the property. 

Neighbors and friends describe Rigby as a complicated man. He likely was bipolar, they say, had it been diagnosed. The Rigby family grew up on that property and Steven, after his father’s death, maintained it immaculately, those who knew him say.

“He was extremely protective of the house and the yard,” said Donna Ellis, who helped Rigby pay off delinquent taxes in 2011.

Meier, who lives a few doors down from Rigby’s property and found the family online, first met him five years ago. They shared an interest in gardening and he would join her while she walked her bichon fries, Biff, around the neighborhood. While she never experienced it personally, “He would just unfriend people at the slightest things,” she said. Another neighbor, who thinks the county ought to get the land and asked not to be identified, said Steven’s father, Ellis Todd Rigby, was the same way.

Of those interviewed for this story, some believe dealing with foreclosure is what finally led Rigby to commit suicide in the house he protected so closely. Others, including Gordon and Kristan Small, declined to speculate on that possibility.

“Dealing with this for 11 years is probably ultimately what put him over the edge,” Donna Ellis said. “He lost hope. He had nothing and no hope of saving the house.”

“That’s a hard call,” Gordon Small said, adding that he could have sold one of the adjacent lots for money.

The final days of Steven Rigby will remain a mystery even after judges offer their opinions and ultimately decide who owns the property. But, as some claim through Rigby’s unpredictable and difficult personality, his ability to turn on friends quickly and his resolve to never formally take ownership of the property from his deceased father, maybe he wanted it that way.

“He made things as difficult as possible,” Ellis said, “even in death.”

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