Belongings Gone, Tenant May Sue

Bed bug infestation was ‘traumatic for everyone’
Andrew Malone sat in his apartment at Windmill Village II on one of the donated chairs he was given after his belongings were removed. Johnette Howard

Andrew Malone said he knew exterminators were coming six weeks ago to remove everyone’s belongings in the six-unit apartment building at Windmill Village II, the senior housing complex where he lives, to get rid of bed bugs. But exactly what happened then is in dispute and has left him threatening to sue the nonprofit management company that runs the complex. 

Mr. Malone, 92, is a longtime resident of East Hampton who once owned an auto body repair shop on Springs-Fireplace Road and has long been active in local Democratic politics. He admits he has occasional memory lapses, such as not knowing the exact dates the events in question occurred or not remembering the name of Windmill Village’s social services director, Michelle Rothar.

Nearly two months later, however, Mr. Malone is upset that nearly everything —  clothing, shoes, curtains, upholstered furniture, a mattress and box spring, refrigerated food, boxes of belongings, lamps, and his clock radio — was destroyed. In particular, he said among the items removed was a jigsaw puzzle worth $25,000. The puzzle depicted a Willem de Kooning painting that Mr. de Kooning, then a resident of Springs, had signed at the behest of his daughter, Lisa, who gave it to Mr. Malone as a gift. 

The sequence of events began when Ms. Rothar scheduled a Sept. 5 meeting with Mr. Malone after a foreman at Windmill Village visited his apartment and reported it in undesirable condition. Ms. Rothar said part of her job is connecting senior citizens with services so “they can live independently as long as possible.” 

In addition to Mr. Malone, Arthur Burns, his caseworker at Adult Protective Services, Linda Norris of the East Hampton Town Housing and Urban Development Department, and Francis Bock, a town housing inspector, attended the Sept. 5 meeting. It was near the end of the session that Mr. Malone mentioned he had some bug bites on his body. “That was a big red flag for us,” Ms. Rothar said. Mr. Bock and Mr. Burns visited Mr. Malone’s apartment after the meeting and discovered bed bugs.

When a technician from Premier Exterminators came to assess the problem the next day, Gerry Mooney and Kathy Byrnes, the co-managers, said he told them it was the worst infestation he had seen in 20 years.

Windmill Village officials said when two other residents then reported possible bed bugs — one had found a bug; another said he had a bite — they decided to have the entire six-unit building emptied, cleaned, and sprayed, with two treatments scheduled a week and a half apart. 

All the residents, including Mr. Malone, were displaced for about five hours during the first  treatment. Their belongings were removed, cleaned if possible, and stored on site until the second treatment was completed.

In an interview last week, Mr. Malone said there were so many bugs in his one-bedroom apartment that “one day, I put 20 or 30 of them in a cup and flushed them down the toilet. But I didn’t know what they were.” He said he kept numerous unpacked boxes, an unassembled bed, personal papers, and other files in the living room since he moved from Windmill I to Windmill II some years ago. He confirmed that he knew everything from his apartment, as well as the other five units, had to be removed so exterminators could do their work. He also recalls that Windmill Village officials told him “they think the bed bugs started in my apartment.”

The reason he intends to sue, Mr. Malone said, is that although he was asked to leave so that exterminators could do their job, he was told when he returned that all of his belongings were permanently gone. “I kept saying, ‘Where is my stuff?’ ” Mr. Malone said.

“We’re not an assisted living housing, we’re not a nursing home,” said Mr. Mooney. “Occasionally, some of our residents need more help. We try to work with them.”

Windmill Village officials have said Mr. Malone remembers the sequence of events incorrectly.

“He was told even when they were cleaning out his apartment that everything needed to go,” Ms. Rothar said. “His caseworker from Adult Protective Services, who was standing there with him, asked if he understood. Andy said yes. But Andy can’t seem to remember that.” 

Mr. Malone said he is looking for an attorney to argue his case. In the meantime, he has accepted the help of Brontie O’Neal, who has known Mr. Malone for over 30 years, and said he would write a civil complaint for Mr. Malone to pursue in court.

Mr. O’Neal, speaking by phone last week, said he was recently released from Attica prison, where he studied to be a paralegal. He said the complaint he wrote for Mr. Malone was filed on Nov. 1 and Windmill Village was “served with the papers by U.S. marshals” as of Friday. “We haven’t received anything, to our knowledge,” the Windmill Village management team said on Friday.

Tom Ruhle, the director of the East Hampton Housing and Community Development Office, said it was his understanding that Windmill Village “acted on the advice of professional exterminators, and it was their professional opinion” that Mr. Malone’s items were destroyed because the infestation was worse in his unit.

“As they picked up Andy’s clothes, eggs would just fall out of everything. Everything was infested. And that was stated in front of Andy,” Ms. Rothar said. Ms. Byrnes, the complex co-manager, said, “The bed bugs were just everywhere. You couldn’t open up a folder and not find them.” 

One thing Mr. Malone and the Windmill Village staff agree on is that this has been painful. Mr. Malone is known in the community as a genial, smart, well-liked man with a long history of public service. Windmill Village officials insist they run a caring facility for senior citizens, most of whom use federal Section 8 vouchers.

“Having to displace everyone for the exterminators to come in was traumatic for everyone here,” Mr. Mooney said. “I’ve known Andy 30 years. We all like Andy. We’ve tried to help him. Now he has gone to the papers about this, and we’ve even gotten calls from the Democratic Party about him. This story has been bandied all around town. It’s kind of hard to go to the hardware store and have people ask you, ‘Hey, what kind of place are you running over there?’ ”

As a rental facility, Windmill Village is not obliged to furnish tenants with anything beyond appliances and utilities. But the management, along with Marge Harvey, a board member, helped locate some used furniture for Mr. Malone as well as a TV, and St. Michael’s Lutheran Church provided him with a $500 gift certificate. Mr. Mooney said he took Mr. Malone to the East Hampton Ladies Village Improvement Society thrift shop to buy some clothes. “The L.V.I.S. has nice stuff,” Mr. Malone commented.

Other progress has been slower. Mr. Malone was sleeping on a low-slung cot until his bed was replaced only last week by Adult Protective Services.

He said he deserved to be treated with more dignity. He contends he was unfairly singled out, though Windmill Village, town officials, and his caseworkers have said that wasn’t the case. “It was a health and safety issue,” Ms. Byrnes said.

“And so what do you do?” Ms. Rothar asked. “What do you do for the Andy Malones?”