When a U.S. Navy veteran traveled from Long Island to Florida for a knee replacement, his house was the last thing on his mind. But now his memory of it is all he can think about.
Philip Williams' home was demolished in the spring by town officials while he spent about six months recuperating from surgical complications in Fort Lauderdale. Back in New York, officials in the Town of Hempstead deemed his modest two-story home unfit for habitation and knocked it down.
The 69-year-old has now waged a legal battle against the suburban New York town. He wants reimbursement — for the house and all the belongings inside.
"My first thought was there was a fire or something"
- Philip Williams
"I'm angry and I'm upset. It's just wrong on so many levels," he said "My mortgage was up to date, my property taxes were up to date ... everything was current and fine."
Williams went to Florida in December 2014 for the procedure, so a friend could help with his recovery. But he developed infections that forced further surgery and heart complications, leaving him hospitalized until doctors deemed him medically able to return home in August.
When Williams pulled up to what should have been a two-story cream-colored cottage with a red door in West Hempstead, there was just an empty lot.
"My first thought was there was a fire or something," Williams said.
But there was no fire. According to town officials, neighbors had been complaining the house was in disrepair and a blight on the community. Hempstead officials, responding to those complaints, sent inspectors and determined the house was a "dilapidated dwelling" unfit for habitation. So they knocked it down.
"The house was in terrible condition for a long time," next door neighbor Keylin Escobar said. "Nobody really lived in the house; the house was abandoned. Everyone who came over to visit, people always say, 'What's going on with this house?'"
Kathleen Keicher, who has lived across the street from Williams for 12 years, said notices tacked to the front door of the home began piling up and the house had holes in the side and appeared unkempt.
"I feel terrible. When we knew a house was coming down, it was sad," she said. "We thought the house was coming down, someone would buy the land, a new house would come up, a new family would move in. ... We don't want anyone to lose their home."
Williams says he was never contacted and believes town officials thought his house was a so-called "zombie home" — a dwelling abandoned after foreclosure proceedings begin, but one not yet seized by the bank — and rushed to demolish it.
"The town basically took everything from me," said Williams, who is now staying with a friend in Florida and has only two suitcases of belongings. "The town does not have a right to take all of my property, all of my possessions."
Williams had lived in the house since he was 6 months old. He said many of the items in the home had been in his family since he was a newborn or had sentimental value, like his late wife's engagement ring, photos of his six children growing up and a model train set he had since he was a child. He lost all of his clothing, a bicycle he'd just purchased, dishes, silverware and other housewares.
Town officials say they tried to contact Williams and provided The Associated Press copies of letters they said they mailed to the home and to banks. They also held a public hearing before going forward with the demolition. But Williams contends he never received any of the notices and said he couldn't figure out why the letters were mailed to four separate banks where he never had accounts.
"I have no idea who those banks are," Williams said. "But they never contacted me in any way, shape or form."
And that's why his attorney believes that town's actions were illegal.
"Under the law, it should not happen," his attorney, Bradley Siegel said. "It's un-American. It just doesn't seem believable."
Williams has filed a notice of claim, the first step in a lawsuit against the town, and also is fighting for public records he believes may show what happened. Williams says town officials wouldn't tell him the name of the demolition company or the date the house was torn down.
The town said in a statement that it "followed all proper procedure with regard to property owner notification." But town officials refused to answer any other questions, citing pending litigation.
Williams has contacted police and the Nassau County district attorney's office and has asked for a criminal inquiry. A spokesman for the district attorney's office said the matter is under review.
"You see people who went through a tornado or a flood and they say they lost everything, but that's not preventable," Williams said. "This was preventable. The town took my house."