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The Story of Local ‘Hoarder’ Spencer Harris

Chapter 2: Is What Was Done to Him Legal?

If you're just discovering this story, here is part one, which will set the scene for the current debate.

Spencer Harris' friends and family question the legality regarding actions of local police and the building manager, and wonder why Harris was treated with such disregard when he was served with an eviction notice.

They claim officers were rude, and feel the eviction notice that gave Harris only 24 hours to vacate his home led to his depression, and ultimately, his suicide, less than a week later.

“We feel it was handled very poorly," says Lynn Huidekoper, Harris' downstairs neighbor. "A lot of people feel that if it wasn’t for the police and the apartment property manager being so mean, he would not have killed himself.”

Unknown Consequences of Harris’ Eviction

Friends and family believe Harris wanted his best friend, James Goodell, to find his suicide note. Harris e-mailed the note to himself on May 12, roughly five days before taking his life by gunshot. A few days before his death, Harris gave Goodell the password to his account, and asked him to log in because “there were a few e-mails in there he wanted him to see.” Goodell had assumed at the time that the e-mails were about financial matters, since Harris often called upon his best friend for financial advice. Instead, Goodell found a note that explained his friend’s death.

Goodell says the forced entry into Harris’ apartment and subsequent eviction notice rattled Harris because of a compulsive and emotional attachment to his things. By evicting him with only 24 hours notice, the police and property manager robbed Harris of his ability to make a living, since he worked out of his home, according to Goodell.

Harris was the longtime author of a formerly lucrative catalog entitled “Who Audits America,” which he published twice a year for 30 years. It was a comprehensive listing of auditors across the country. Top companies and agencies subscribed to Harris’ catalog, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and Stanford University.

Publishing the catalog required compiling considerable data—data often sent to him in the mail, which required Harris to keep as many as eight post office boxes just to manage the influx. Goodell believes much of Harris’ hoarding can be attributed to the large amount of data, papers and documents Harris needed to write the catalog.

For many years, Goodell says Harris commanded a large staff of employees in offices in downtown Menlo Park, who helped him put out the biannual catalog. However, with the invention of the Internet, the value of Harris’ catalog had been diminishing rapidly over the past decade. Today, Goodell says, most people look up auditors online. Soon, Harris was forced to give up his staff and offices and work by himself out of his home.

The day he was evicted from his home, May 11, Harris was just weeks away from completing the mid-year edition of his catalog, due out in June. Goodell says that by forcing him to vacate his apartment, disconnect his series of computers, and do away with many of his papers and documents, officials essentially killed any chances Harris had to release his next catalog.

“That means, he doesn’t get paid,” Goodell explained.

Though he didn’t take his own life until May 17, Harris’ suicide e-mail was composed May 12, the day after the eviction.

The Bottom Line: Was it Legal?

The San Francisco-based law firm Bradshaw and Associates specializes in tenant/landlord disputes and eviction lawsuits. Patch asked attorney Drexler Bradshaw his professional opinion on two things: Was entering Harris' apartment legal? And is evicting someone with 24 hours notice legal?

Bradshaw said that, based on accounts of the story reported by Patch—details revealed to us by neighbor Lynn Huidekoper—it appears the property management company and property manager Shirleen McDougal may have acted illegally.

Bradshaw said evictions with less than 30 days’ notice are not permitted, except in “nuisance cases.” However, even in nuisance cases, the tenant must be given at least three days notice to vacate and fix the problem within the apartment. Furthermore, only a sheriff acting under the orders of a judge can order the eviction in those cases.

Bradshaw explained that if the property manager or code enforcement officers wanted to declare Harris’ apartment a nuisance case, they would have had to appeal to a judge, and a hearing would be held in which both parties—including Harris—would be given the opportunity to plead their case.

If the judge then agreed Harris’ apartment was a nuisance, the judge would order a writ of execution to evict him, which could only be carried out and enforced by a sheriff.

“Certainly, you can’t accomplish any of that in 24 hours or less,” Bradshaw said. “The 24-hour eviction sounds completely illegal.”

Patch has twice made contact with McDougal, an employee of Whitley Property Management in Redwood City. Both times, McDougal said she does not wish to comment on the matter of Spencer Harris and his eviction.

As for whether or not McDougal and Menlo Park Police Officers Felicia Byars, Steve Shaw, Burke Bruttig and Sgt. Kevin Paugh acted within the law by entering Harris’ apartment while he was gone—though Huidekoper says she reached Harris on the phone to verify he was alive and well and on vacation—Bradshaw said he can see how what they did falls within the law.

“The police can enter an apartment, under the civil code, in cases of what may be considered an emergency, and a welfare check can be considered an emergency,” he explained. Police officers said they were conducting a welfare check when they entered Harris' home.

Regarding the phone call Huidekoper claims she made to Harris while authorities entered the apartment, the police would have no way of knowing whether the voice on the phone was actually Harris, or if perhaps Harris was being held against his will, according to Bradshaw.

Though the was not directly involved, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman was asked about the 24-hour eviction notice served by Police Code Enforcement Officer Liz Fambrini, since much of the basis for the eviction was on potential fire hazards Fambrini identified in Harris’ apartment.

Schapelhouman says the fire department was not notified in advance of the entry into Harris’ apartment and the eviction notice, and the only knowledge he has of the matter is what he read in the police report filed by officers who entered the apartment on May 5, and Fambrini’s assessment of the apartment on May 11.

“The code enforcement office does have the right to enforce elements of the fire code,” he explained.

Though Schapelhouman said he recognizes the difficult and delicate issues with Harris’ hoarding, depression, and suicide, he says he has worked with Officer Fambrini for years, and has always found her to be a caring individual who makes sound decisions.

“We’ve never really experienced any issues (with her or with the office of code enforcement), and we have full confidence in Liz,” he said. “She has a very good relationship with my staff.

“Liz, who I know since I have dealt with her over the years, is very good at her job. I trust her judgment. I was not there and no (fire department) staff was there, but I have to trust she saw an immediate threat. As for the 24-hour notice, we have to trust her judgment call.”

According to Menlo Park Police spokesperson Nicole Acker, Fambrini wanted immediate eviction because she identified fire hazards in Harris’ apartment, including the excessive use of extension cords, mounds of grease on the stove, too many boxes, and stacks of papers piled in front of heaters. Acker said Fambrini stated a fire in Harris’ apartment could have spread to other apartments in the building, putting other tenants in danger.

Schapelhouman says if that was true, then the burden of responsibility lay solely on Fambrini.

“If a code enforcement officer sees an immediate threat to other tenants in the building, she has to abate that threat,” he explained. “If tomorrow the building catches on fire, but we gave those tenants seven days notice, the code enforcement officer assumes the liability. They’re on the hook for that decision. How long do you allow that to exist?”

Patch has not been allowed to speak with Officer Fambrini directly. Questions and answers have all been relayed through police spokesperson Nicole Acker.

A Gap in the Legal Process?

Wes Harris, Spencer’s brother, is a retired lawyer now living in San Diego. Though he understands there are always two sides to every story, it appears to him that the entry of his brother’s apartment and subsequent 24-hour eviction were illegal.

Goodell, with the assistance of Wes Harris and Huidekoper, is currently spearheading an effort to gain answers from Menlo Park Police and the office of code enforcement.

“My thinking is, what was the urgency? Why couldn’t they give him 30 days, or 60 days?” Goodell asks. “I think he was basically bullied by the police and this building manager.”

Huidekoper agrees. She remains firm in her belief that if his hoarding—a recognized form of mental illness—had been treated with sensitivity, he might still be alive today.

“What they should have done is give him 30 days, not one day,” she says. “Just remove the immediate public health hazards. His clothes weren’t a hazard. His bookcases weren’t a hazard. McDougal just wanted to kick him out,” Huidekoper says.

After his friend’s death, Goodell launched a personal campaign to try and appeal the decision made by code enforcement officer Liz Fambrini. He feels his appeal was met with a good old-fashioned run-around.

Goodell was frustrated when he saw no instructions on the eviction notice tacked to Harris’ door—shown in the photos that accompany this article—suggesting how he could ask questions about, or dispute, the eviction decision by Fambrini. Even traffic tickets come with such instructions, he argues.

Goodell started out calling the police department. asking how a ruling by the office of code enforcement could be contested. The first person he spoke to said he would have to talk to Officer Fambrini’s supervisor, since Fambrini is the one who made the eviction decision. Goodell says he called the supervisor and left a message.

It was 12 days before his call was returned.

The person who called Goodell back was Officer Fambrini’s immediate supervisor, Sgt. Eric Cowans. Goodell was told he could fill out a form and a hearing would be scheduled, much like when a person contests a traffic ticket. Goodell called the San Mateo Superior Court and was told it would take 45 days to get a hearing.

Goodell kept calling the police department, asking questions. Basically, he says, no one knew the answer to his question, and no exact procedure appeared to be in place. He says he was repeatedly re-directed back to people with whom he had already spoken.

Finally, Officer Fambrini called Goodell back. Goodell says Fambrini suggested he call her supervisor’s supervisor, Commander Lacey Burt. Goodell did, and says he was told by Commander Burt that no appeals of the eviction decision would be entertained, because Burt was the authority on such matters, she knew Officer Fambrini personally, thought she did good work, and trusted her judgment.

Goodell was angry.

“We’re a nation of laws, not people,” he said, of the decision to deny him a hearing based on Burt’s opinion of Officer Fambrini. “You should be able to appeal anything. I’m finding this very difficult, and not finding the police to be very helpful at all.”

Wes Harris and Goodell visited the when Wes was in town for his brother’s memorial service recently. They wanted a copy of police report filed by the officers who entered Harris’ apartment, and the code enforcement report filed by Fambrini. They hoped to see, in the reports, official accounts of the events of May 5—the night Harris’ apartment was entered—to compare it to Huidekoper’s account.

They say they were denied full copies of the reports—only brief summaries were provided—even though Wes is an immediate family member. However, Wes was told by traffic sergeant Sharon Kaufman that he could write a letter to the City Attorney to try and request full copies of the reports. Though he has returned home to San Diego, Wes said he plans to make the request by mail.

In the meantime, Goodell and Huidekoper say they plan to continue their educational effort among enforcement officials and Whitley Property Management. They hope there will be better understanding about treating people with mental illnesses with sensitivity, to prevent future tragedies like this one.

“Let’s go forward and prevent this from happening again,” said Huidekoper.

Family and Friends Remember Harris

Friends and family say they will never forget Harris.

“He was just a wonderful person,” says brother Wes. “He was a very extroverted kind of guy. He really loved people. He will be missed.”

In fact, a visit to the Peet’s Coffee on Santa Cruz Avenue reveals an outside bench with a new look; an anonymous passer-by paid to have a plaque attached to the bench, memorializing Harris. Locals say he loved to sit there while drinking his coffee, reading the newspaper and chatting with anyone and everyone.

“Nobody knows who put it there, but it’s wonderful,” Huidekoper said of the plaque. “Many of us talked about doing it, but someone went ahead and did it.”

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