‘Problem Home,’ Chapter 3: The ‘criminal tarp offender’ goes to court over weeds and lawn parking

Julie Marie Richardson was again battling breast cancer.

She was first diagnosed in 1987, but the cancer recurred in 1994. Doctors gave her a 5% chance of living two more years.

Julie defied the odds until May 23, 2000, when, at age 54, she closed her green eyes for the last time in a Fountain Valley hospital. Her husband, Phillip Leland Richardson, had borrowed against their house to pay her medical bills.

Julie spent some of her hospitalization in Duarte. Each time her husband visited, he grabbed a rock near the hospital and placed the reminders in their Costa Mesa front yard, where Julie would garden.

As the rocks piled up, so did problems with Costa Mesa City Hall.

Though the Daily Pilot could find few records, Richardson said code enforcement began ticketing him in the late 1990s for trash in his yard and overgrown landscaping. Richardson contested the $35 fines, believing the city was making up “its own opinions about what the law should be.”

Recent paralegal training boosted his confidence. He once successfully cited an almanac to refute a police officer’s testimony that it was dark outside at a particular time on a particular day. He helped clients beat red light fines.

“Most of the time, the law is about following procedure,” Richardson said. “It’s not about truth, justice and the American way.”

That’s why, he added, he fought paying fines.

“If we don’t stand up for our rights, no one else will,” Richardson said.

By 2001, after years of fighting the citations and enduring Julie’s death, Richardson had no fight left in him. The widower, left with three children to raise, quit sailing and gave up on the Corona del Mar church where he and Julie wed.

When taking communion, the pastor split wafers in half for spouses. When Richardson returned to the church alone, he received an entire wafer and cried.

That year, depleted, Richardson agreed to a civil compromise with Costa Mesa.

In what he calls his “treaty,” he agreed to remove litter from his lawn, keep inoperative vehicles from view, trim overgrown vegetation and repaint his peeling facade. To pay tribute to his alma mater, UCLA, Richardson coated the front baby blue and left the sides yellow.

A lawn, or a parking space?

With Richardson’s civil compromise with Costa Mesa signed, he believed his City Hall problems were over.

They weren’t.

In January 2004, the city started a complaint investigation log for 276 E. 19th St. On the log, space for whoever made the allegations was left blank. Richardson contended no neighbors complained, only the city.

“The city has never proved any of their complaints,” he said.

That month a code enforcement officer recorded “lawn parking,” a tarp on a recreational vehicle and newspapers strewn about Richardson’s front yard and on vehicles. Various items, including an ice chest, littered the porch, the report said.

Richardson was given a deadline to remove the debris, mow the grass and kill the weeds. He didn’t, the city said.

That fall, the Costa Mesa city attorney prosecuted Richardson for unlawfully parking on his lawn and keeping the lawn in poor condition. The misdemeanor complaint alleged that the rubbish was “detrimental to the health, safety and welfare” of anyone living at the house.

The city tacked on a count of “unlawfully [maintaining] tarps on an inoperative vehicle and recreational vehicle.”

Thus began his life, Richardson said now with a slight smile, as a “criminal tarp offender.” Unbeknownst to all, the criminal proceedings would drag on for more than four years.

The ‘nuisance case’ goes to court

Richardson defended himself in court.

“This is a nuisance case, and the expense of an [attorney] is not in the budget,” he explained in a court document.

He pleaded with the court to dismiss the case, which he labeled “uncertain, ambiguous and unintelligible.” The judge didn’t.

A two-day jury trial began in January 2005. The prosecution relied on photographs taken by code enforcement and testimony from city officials. The prosecution didn’t offer testimony from residents.

The only complaints, Richardson has long argued, “came from the government.”

He called the trash count “ambiguous.”

“They did not say there were old newspapers or other items accumulated by name,” Richardson recalled. “It was never defined, and without clarity, how can there be a cure?”

Richardson called the tarp count “totally fabricated.” He testified that he used legal car covers, not illegal tarps.

He challenged the lawn-parking charge, testifying that he parked on pavers, an extension of his driveway, not on his lawn.

The jury found Richardson guilty of the tarp and lawn rubbish charges. They couldn’t reach a verdict on the lawn parking charge.

Judge Everett Dickey sentenced Richardson to three years’ informal probation, fines and restitution and gave him 30 days to clean up the property.

Juror Claudia Gambino, a retired schoolteacher from Mission Viejo, remembered the panelists wondering why the case had made it to criminal court.

“It just didn’t make sense,” she recalled. “To think that you take up the court’s time and the people’s for something like that — pavers and a tarp.”

Gambino said the jury felt sympathetic to Richardson, who gave the impression he was being harassed by government overreach.

“He didn’t get belligerent or anything,” she said, “but he sounded like he was angry at the city, which I’m sure he was. Very.”

In Chapter 4, Richardson fights his criminal conviction while facing a new courtroom adversary, who has challenges of his own.

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

ALSO

‘Problem Home,’ Chapter 1: How a little house in Costa Mesa triggered a 20-year war between its owner and the city

‘Problem Home,’ Chapter 2: A history of challenging local government

‘Problem Home,’ Chapter 5: ‘The home can be brought back to its former glory’

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