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After years of wrangling over unpaid back taxes, one suicide and five years of legal battles between the county and disappointed heirs, the long and troubled saga of the Rigby property in Haslett has banged to a close with the auctioneer’s hammer.
Three lots, grouped into two parcels, of prime land at 6200 Columbia Street in Haslett, on the shore of Lake Lansing, were auctioned off Aug. 26 to Jim Bartow of East Lansing. Bartow and the county closed the deal on the sale last week.
Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing said it was the biggest auction sale of a single plot of land in the history of the Ingham County treasurer and the biggest sale ever by the Ingham County Land Bank, which administered the property. Schertzing also chairs the Land Bank.
Parcel 1, comprised of two lots, is shaped like a slice of pizza, with about 70 feet on Columbia Street and 120 feet on the lake, from 156 to 175 feet deep. Parcel 2 has 35 feet on the lake and 60 on the street, and is slightly deeper.
Here, on May 3, 2012, Meridian Township police discovered the body of the occupant, Steven Rigby, who had been in and out of tax delinquency for several years and committed suicide by drug overdose. His body had lain decomposing for up to five weeks in the cottage his grandfather built in the 1940s.
Rigby had a long history of tax delinquency and near-foreclosure. According to an affidavit signed by Ingham County property tax coordinator Karen Conroy after Rigby’s suicide, a couple who loaned Steven Rigby money to pay off property taxes in 2011 said Rigby approached them after three years of no contact, threatening to kill himself if they didn’t lend him $14,000 to pay off delinquent taxes.
Five weeks after Rigby’s body was discovered, a neighbor tracked down two cousins, Gordon Small of Lansing and Beverly Bach of Ohio, using Ancestry.com. Another cousin, Dennis Rigby of California, joined the subsequent fight to take over the land.
None of the cousins had been close to Rigby, who estranged himself from family and neighbors. Neighbors only alerted police that something might be wrong when they saw his grass had grown longer than usual.
The cousins argued that they contacted the county as soon as they learned of Rigby’s death and were entitled to relief. Ingham County Circuit Judge Clinton Canady III agreed and stayed the foreclosure in 2012.
“I’m not saying that the treasurer hasn’t appropriately followed the requirements,” Canady said at the 2012 hearing. “But I am moved by the fact, why should the treasurer benefit from the value of the property when there were heirs. And as long as Steve Rigby was alive, their hands were tied. And then once they discovered his death … it seems like the heirs took prompt action to try to unravel the situation.”
The county appealed Canady’s ruling.
The case wound its way to the state Supreme Court, back to the Circuit Court on remand, and back to the Court of Appeals.
In an unpublished January 2017 ruling, the Appeals Court settled the case once and for all, finding that the county followed the foreclosure law by mailing a notice to Rigby, posting it on the property and publishing it in City Pulse. More important, the court ruled that the cousins were not entitled to notice.
A three-judge panel pointed out that state foreclosure law clearly lists the records the county treasurer is required to consult to determine who is entitled to notice — land title and tax records held by the county register of deeds, county treasurer and the local treasurer.
Unsurprisingly, the county isn’t required to log onto Ancesty.com and find cousins or distant relatives.
Charles Lawler, an attorney for the Treasurer’s Office, said the relatives missed their chance and should have kept tabs on the troubled cousin while he was alive.
“Where the hell had they been in the last five years?” Lawler said. “Should they get a windfall just because they happen to be related to Steven Rigby? It’s kind of like hitting the lottery.”
Schertzing pointed out that there were several options open to Rigby, such as refinancing the house or selling off one of the three lots to pay the back taxes.
Lawler also cited a little-known service offered by the county treasurer. For $5, anyone can request notification of tax delinquency on any parcel of land in the county.
The information is also available on line.
“You can find out if a relative’s in trouble without even asking or embarrassing the relative,” Lawler said.
By the time the dust cleared, the county spent about $100,000 in legal fees to take over the Rigby property, according to Lawler. Schertzing framed the conflict as a clash of principles and more than a fight for valuable land.
“Nobody hesitates to give us contaminated gas stations,” Schertzing said. “Everything in the capitalistic system is happy to pipeline all of the crap to the government. The blighted houses with the missing roof, nobody is complaining about. Some things that have a little value — the best or the worst can come out in people.”
Bartow’s purchase of the lots brings this turbulent story to a bland, predictable conclusion.
“I bought them as an investment,” Bartow said. “I will be clearing the land and reselling them for anyone who wants to build on it. I think I paid a fair value on them.”
He’s not interested in the drama over the parcels.
“I’ve heard the stories but I’m not going to comment on them,” he said.