Great Read

San Diego homebuyers get an unwelcome feeling

Jerald Rice typed his wife's name into an Internet search engine. A series of unsettling stunts had perplexed him.

Advertisements for sex with his wife popped up. "Adult entertainment of all types when my husband is not home," the ads said. "Not for the faint of heart. Come see me during the day while my husband is at work and we can get our freak on."

Some ads contained the couple's address and a photograph of the home they shared with their two children. Some had his wife's photograph, he said.

Alarmed, he called his wife at work and then spoke to an FBI agent. He installed security equipment and pleaded with the online sites to remove the ads.

Janice Ruhter, Rice's wife, had just given birth to their second child. "I was scared," she said.

Since buying their home in San Diego's upscale Carmel Valley, the couple had been plagued with strangers at their door, deluges of books and magazines they had not ordered, solicitations they had not sought.

Someone wanted them out of the house.

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Kathy Rowe, 53, needed a home for her severely disabled daughter and ill husband. Rowe worked full time and slept every night in a chair in her daughter's room. In 2006, her dedication won her a spot on a list of San Diego's 50 best moms in a local contest.

Rowe said she knew exactly the kind of house she needed. She wanted to be in Carmel Valley, a planned community, and needed a single-story house and private garden for her daughter and a pool for her husband so he could exercise.

"Our needs were so specific that I handed out fliers to every single one-story house in our area, saw every single-story house the same day it went on the market, and spent considerable time trying to find a new home that met our needs so we could finally have our forever home," Rowe said.

Rowe said she visited the house as soon as it came on the market. It had three bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, a pool and garden and a red-tile roof.

"I knew the minute I walked in that it was my new home," Rowe said in a statement filed in San Diego County Superior Court. "Having it right in front of us was like a dream come true."

Rowe said she made an offer and assumed she would soon get the keys, but Rice and Ruhter got the house.

She offered the couple $100,000 more than the $779,000 they paid, but Rowe said she did not hear back from the couple.

"Losing that house was devastating to my family and broke our hearts," Rowe said. "Every time my husband would say, 'If only we got that house,' or my daughter wanted to go outside to play, it would just tear at my heart."

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Rice and Ruhter received the keys to their new home in September 2011. Within weeks, strangers were ringing the doorbell.

Unbeknown to the new owners, someone had listed the house for sale on the Internet.

"I didn't know what was going on until after the second or third person," Rice said. "I asked, actually, a real estate agent. She told me it was posted on Zillow for sale."

In December, the crush of Christmas mail suddenly stopped. When Rice went to the post office, he found out that someone using his wife's name had put a one-month hold on the mail.

Then the mail arrived in torrents: thousands of dollars of magazines and books that someone had ordered without their permission and junk mail addressed to Jacques Arse.

In February, someone sent Valentine's Day cards to the couple's female neighbors. "Thinking of you," said the cards, signed with Rice's initials. He learned of them from the husband of one of the women.

"I wasn't quite sure what was going on until he showed me the envelope, and it was addressed to his wife," Rice said. "And it was from me."

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Two FBI agents met with Rowe a year after she didn't get her dream house. She initially was evasive, the FBI agents said, but then admitted to having played "childish pranks to let off steam and ease the pain."

One of her sex ads attracted the attention of two men, according to prosecution evidence cited in a defense appellate brief and an appeals court ruling.

"Just stop by any Monday-Friday 9am-3pm," Rowe said, according to the ruling. "I like the element of surprise."

"Location?" the man, identified in the appeals court ruling as JM, emailed back.

Rowe gave him Ruhter's address, the ruling said.

JM went to the house, but the front gate was locked. He returned an hour or so later but saw Rice and said he had the wrong address. He told Rowe about it in an email.

"Once in a while my husband drops by during the day to see if he can catch me in the act," Rowe replied. "He knows about my men.... Are you into threesomes?"

She did not answer his other emails, the ruling and appellate brief said, and she said he never returned to the house.

She told the other man, GM: "I love to be surprised and have a man just show up at the door and force his way in the door on me, totally taking me while I say no." She said she particularly liked anal sex.

She sent GM a photograph of Ruhter. GM asked for her address, which the ad he answered did not contain. But Rowe didn't email it to him. She said she "freaked out" after GM sent her a photograph of himself naked, according to a defense appellate brief and a defense pretrial motion.

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C. Bradley Patton, Rowe's lawyer, said she began her campaign in hopes the couple would move out. He said she thought they might ask themselves, "Do we will really want to live here when all these weird things are happening?"

"That was the initial motivation," Patton said. "And the later stuff was her sitting up in the middle of the night with sleep deprivation and kind of fooling around."

He said the stress of caring for her family drove her to a breaking point, but she has accepted responsibility and regrets her actions.

After she was caught, Rowe apologized to Rice and Ruhter and reached a confidential, out-of-court financial settlement with them, her lawyer said. She has no prior criminal record.

Rowe said in court records that she never intended her actions to be "scary." "These things were all stupid pranks, which I can see now would be frustrating to the family if they were aware of them," she said.

San Diego County prosecutors charged Rowe with two felony counts of solicitation of rape and sodomy and misdemeanor counts of harassment and using another's personal information. A trial judge threw out the solicitation charges, finding the email exchanges were for consensual sex. An appeals court reinstated them on a 2-1 vote.

"At the least, this evidence creates a reasonable inference Rowe intended the men to take indecent liberties with, lay hold of, or kiss the victim against her will when they made contact with the victim," the appeals court said. The California Supreme Court declined to review Rowe's appeal.

But Rowe and her lawyers said she never sought to have the woman raped, and both men admitted in court that they understood the sex was to be consensual. If convicted, Rowe would have to register for life as a sex offender.

"Her issue is not whether she is guilty of the misdemeanors," Patton said. "She has acknowledged all of that. It is the two felony charges she is challenging."

San Diego County Deputy Dist. Atty. Brendan McHugh said Rowe faces a maximum sentence of nine years and six months in prison for her "very bizarre" behavior.

"It certainly was a long duration of harassment," McHugh said. "It is pretty horrible to not feel safe in your own home and for no reason."

A trial date has not yet been set. Rowe said in court papers that if she goes to prison, there will be no one to take care of her cancer-stricken husband and daughter.

The house of her dreams has become her nightmare.

This story is based on briefs filed by Kathy Rowe's lawyers, an appeals court ruling and a transcript of a pretrial proceeding, and interviews with defense lawyers and prosecutors. The couple's statements came from court transcripts, and Rowe provided a lengthy, written explanation of the events to the court and to prosecutors. Rowe, Jerald Rice and Janice Ruhter did not speak to The Times. Rowe's lawyer said his client was under too much stress to do an interview, and Rice and Ruhter did not return telephone calls. Rowe and her lawyers acknowledge that she engaged in "pranks" over 10 months.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

Twitter: @mauradolan

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