Junky yard puts woman in jail
MOUNT PLEASANT -- Linda Ruggles sold her blood, scrounged for scrap metal and volunteered for medical experiments to cobble together enough cash to save her home from the clutches of foreclosure this year.
She paid off the bank in the nick of time, but lost her freedom in the process.
The 53-year-old photographer spent the past six days locked up in the Charleston County jail because she was too poor to maintain her home or pay the $480 fine she received after neighbors complained about her messy property.
To hear Ruggles tell it, her story boils down to compassion versus curb appeal -- with her on the losing end. Town officials and neighbors insist that she is just reaping the result of thumbing her nose at authority for the past year.
"I feel like they want to make an example out of me," Ruggles said Wednesday, tears streaking her face as she sat in a striped jail jumpsuit. "This should be an embarrassment for the town of Mount Pleasant. And it should be an embarrassment for my neighbors who called the code enforcement officer, because no one offered to help me -- no one."
Ruggles said her photography business hit the skids in 2008 when the economy went into a nosedive. Jobs dried up and she fell behind on her mortgage and taxes.
She lost her studio in a foreclosure, then faced the possibility of losing her Longview Road ranch home as well. The house fell into disrepair as she shoveled every cent toward the mortgage and back taxes, she said.
Several packages of shingles Ruggles bought to fix her leaky roof sit unopened atop the house because she couldn't afford to pay someone to install them. Likewise for the columns leaning against the facade.
And her driveway is filled with scrap metal and other odds and ends she collects to sell for extra cash.
Ruggles' neighbors in the Candlewood subdivision weren't thrilled by her growing collection or the stacks of unused shingles that recently celebrated their third anniversary on her roof.
Folks complained to the town's code enforcement officer, Mark Sargeant, who cited Ruggles in December 2010 for a "clean lot violation."
A municipal court judge found her guilty of the charge that same month. The sentence: pay a $480 fine or go to jail for 10 days. She didn't pay the fine within 90 days, as she was told, then ignored court appearances and repeated warnings from the town, officials said.
"The town bent over backward for her," Sargeant said. "We did everything we could to accommodate her, but she didn't reciprocate."
Ruggles said she repeatedly told town officials she couldn't pay the fine or fix up the property because she was broke and battling to save her home of 15 years from foreclosure.
"I told everyone, 'If I had $480 to pay the fine, I'd fix the roof,'" she said. "My house was in foreclosure. I'm not going to give the town of Mount Pleasant money for nothing."
Ruggles said she works part time as a supermarket cashier, sells blood plasma twice weekly at a clinic, participates in paid medical studies and collects cans off the side of the road to scrape by. She also sold her jewelry, car and family silver to pay the bills.
She said she is doing the best she can given her financial predicament, but she said the town insists on persecuting her to appease nosy neighbors who lack compassion for her plight.
Not so, town officials said. Code enforcement officers, police and court officials said they all tried to work with Ruggles, but she took no steps to remedy the situation.
Police Chief Harry Sewell said he even knocked on her door personally, hoping to find a solution that would avoid the need for an arrest. He figured that he might be able to round up some kids from his church to help Ruggles clean up her yard.
But no one answered his knock or contacted him after he left his business card in the door, he said.
"We went well beyond what we were required to do," Sewell said. "We really did take a compassionate approach."
In the end, Sewell said, police had no choice but to enforce the court's sentence and take her to jail. That occurred Jan. 5, when a team of officers arrested Ruggles as she left work at a Harris Teeter supermarket in town.
Her next-door neighbor, Marty Vermillion, said no one wanted to see Ruggles end up behind bars. They simply wanted her to clean up her property.
He and other neighbors fear that the packages of shingles will become airborne missiles if a hurricane blows in. And the junk in her yard drags down their property values and discourages potential buyers, Vermillion said.
"This is not something that just cropped up. This has been going on for years," he said. "This person had multiple chances to avoid all of this. ... Offers of help have been rejected and rejected. It's affecting our property values and that's not right or fair."
Neighbor Ryan Kaufmann agrees. "She's had ample time to take care of this."
Ruggles was expected to leave jail early today with a few days shaved off her sentence. She will return home with nothing changed on her property and her neighbors' gripes unresolved.
What's more, Ruggles is toying with using toilet bowls as planters in her yard or installing a host of ugly lawn ornaments she can find to give her neighbors something new to look at.
Sargeant, the code enforcement officer, isn't sure just how to proceed at this point. He has had only one other person go to jail for code violations in the 21 years he has worked for the town.
So does he write more tickets to Ruggles or find some other way to resolve the situation? "I don't know," he said. "We're sort of in uncharted territory here."
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or on Twitter at @glennsmith5.