Tears welled in Linda Ruggles' eyes as she adjusted her striped jail jumpsuit and waited for a detention officer to take her back to her cell this morning.
For six days, the 53-year-old photographer has been locked behind bars at the Charleston County jail. Her crime, she says, was being too poor to fix up her Mount Pleasant home or pay the $480 fine she received after neighbors complained about the condition of her property.
To hear Ruggles tell it, her story boils down to compassion versus curb appeal — with her on the losing end. But town officials and neighbors insist she's just reaping the result of thumbing her nose at court orders and warnings for a year.
A town code enforcement officer cited Ruggles in December 2010 for having piled packages of shingles on the roof of her Longview Drive home and assorted debris in the front yard and driveway. A municipal court judge found her guilty of a "clean lot violation" that same month. The sentence: pay a $480 fine or go to jail for 10 days.
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.
Ruggles said she can't get rid of the shingles because she needs them to fix her leaking roof when she can afford to get them installed. And the debris in the driveway is scrap metal she collects to help pay off sizable debts she incurred when the economy soured and her photography business hit the skids, she said.
Ruggles insists she is doing the best she can given her financial predicament. She said the town is persecuting her at the behest of nosy neighbors who lack compassion for her plight.
"I feel they want to make an example out of me," she said, tears streaking her face. "This should be an embarrassment to the town of Mount Pleasant and it should be an embarrassment for the neighbors who called code enforcement on me. No one even offered to help me."
Not so, town officials said. Code enforcement officers, police and court officials said they bent over backwards to accommodate Ruggles and help her find a solution, but she repeatedly ignored their efforts and warnings for a year, blowing off court dates and taking 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 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.
"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.
A team of officers arrested Ruggles Thursday night as she left her part-time cashier job at a Harris Teeter supermarket in town. She's been in jail ever since.
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.
The packages of shingles have been on her roof for three years and present a danger if a hurricane blows in, Vermillion said. The junk in her yard drags down her neighbor's property values and discourages potential buyers, he 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."
Read more about Ruggles' story in Thursday's editions of The Post and Courier.