Published September 28, 2008
GAHANNA, Ohio – John and Jamie Petree couldn't believe their luck. The home they bought in this Columbus suburb was near family and quality schools. Its huge backyard promised years of afternoon fun for their 2-year-old daughter and about-to-be-born son.
They spent about $25,000 on remodeling — a deck, fresh paint, new hot water tank.
They planned more — but instead they installed a security system, including outdoor video cameras and door alarms.
They accuse the previous owner, who had lost the house in a bank foreclosure, of trying to scare them away. Charges of menacing by stalking and other offenses involving two separate incidents were filed against Andrew Zukowski, then dropped after he was ruled mentally incompetent.
Now the Petrees have moved away, ending their eight-year struggle.
They and their neighbors say Zukowski went from door to door, handing out fliers and urging people to sign a petition to have "his" home returned.
The Petrees say he also photographed visitors, wrote down license plate numbers and at one point blocked the driveway with his pickup truck, refusing to allow a friend to leave.
"It never ended," said neighbor Ken Weimer. "You'd think he's gone, he's finally given up and then a month or two later he'd be back. And he'd just stop and stare at the house."
Zukowski, 62, a native of Poland, says he drove by the home only once after the foreclosure and never threatened the Petrees or handed out fliers or petitions.
He still hopes that someday he'll again walk through the front door.
"I lost my house but maybe God will take different option and maybe somebody will evaluate this situation and change their mind about my good standing, my good reputation because I am not a violator," he said.
Unhappy with the way the house was built, Zukowski had demanded that the county reassess its value for tax purposes. The Ohio Board of Tax Appeals eventually ruled that he wasn't exempt from property taxes, board records show.
Then, with little savings and no job, Zukowski couldn't keep up with the $532 monthly mortgage payments, and the house sold at auction for $125,000.
"They started the auction: $100,000 ... 105 ... 110 ... 120. I stand up and I say 'I am Andrew Zukowski. What are you doing here? This house has not been foreclosed because I have a pending appeal,"' he said.
A few days after he was evicted in 2000, Zukowski was arrested on charges of criminal trespassing and felonious assault, accused of swinging a pipe at the investor who bought the house.
Four charges of menacing by stalking were dropped when a judge found him mentally incompetent to stand trial.
"Mr. Zukowski does have a persecutory mental disorder, delusional disorder," Dr. John Randall, a forensic psychiatrist, said in a 2001 hearing before the 10th Ohio District Court of Appeals. "Mr. Zukowski has repeatedly acted on delusions and beliefs in a way that have resulted in the fear and intimidation of others, particularly the current residents of the house."
After the Petrees bought the house from the investor, Gahanna police warned them to watch for the former owner.
That fall, John Petree noticed a truck slowly going by the house.
"I thought 'You know what, that's a red and white pickup truck. I wonder if he's hanging around.' So I started walking toward the truck, and it took off," said John Petree, 41.
Zukowski often parked where he had a clear line of sight through fenceless backyards to the back of the house, the couple said.
In May 2003, Zukowski and his wife, Teresa, were at the Petrees' front door. He said they thought the house might be empty.
"I was thinking that this house will be ours," said Zukowski, who now lives in another Columbus suburb. "I don't know. Maybe somebody wants to give back this house because they made a mistake."
Jamie Petree pushed her panic button, setting off the home alarm, and called 911. A dozen police cars blocked the street.
Zukowski was charged with menacing by stalking and resisting arrest. Those charges were dismissed, after three years, when an appeals court found that he hadn't been given a proper mental evaluation.
A probate judge's refusal last year to order Zukowski either committed to a mental hospital or closely monitored — meaning he was no longer considered mentally incompetent — persuaded the Petrees to give up. They say they have lost more than $100,000, including lost income and a lower home value.
"We're not letting our house go because we can't pay," John Petree said. "We're letting our house go because it's unsafe."
In May, they moved into a nearby rental home.
"It became challenging. We thought, 'He's not running us from our house,"' Petree said. "But over last summer, I just got mentally tired."