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Jim Kenyon: Junkyard Justice in Unity

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Steve Janelle was due at the Sullivan County courthouse in Newport on Tuesday morning for a hearing about his “junkyard” that the town of Unity has waged a 15-year legal battle to get cleaned up. But Janelle, 65, was a no-show.

Later in the morning, I stopped by his mobile home, just outside Unity’s village, 15 miles from downtown Newport. “I just couldn’t make it,” he told me. “My feet were swollen so bad. I’m sorry. They’ll probably come after me now and arrest me.”

Don’t laugh.

Unity officials are so determined to see the property cleaned up and collect legal fees to boot that earlier this year they asked a judge to put Janelle behind bars for failing to comply with previous court orders.

On Tuesday, Unity’s attorney, Michael Courtney, of Concord, reminded Superior Court Judge Brian Tucker that “nothing has changed” since they were in court three months ago. “The town is getting frustrated,” Courtney said.

No doubt some judges would have sent a posse to bring in Janelle. Or at least fined him for failing to appear.

On Tuesday, Tucker, who is relatively new to the case, said that he sympathized with the town, but “fining (Janelle) isn’t accomplishing anything. Years ago, it might have been different, but not where he’s at now.”

Janelle’s case is a glaring example of what happens when there’s a “crossing of mental health and legal issues,” Newport attorney Lanea Witkus told me on Tuesday.

The system discovers that it doesn’t necessarily have the tools to deal with defendants not in control of all their faculties.

To make matters worse, Janelle hasn’t had an attorney in years. He insists on representing himself. Witkus, who has practiced for 40 years, only became involved because she felt obligated.

“When a person has a serious mental health issue and is not complying with a court order, I have a duty to bring it before the court,” said Witkus, who has represented Janelle’s sister, Linda Whitney, for several years, after the town dragged her into the legal fight. (This year, Tucker agreed with Witkus that Whitney, even though she has an ownership stake in the Unity property, can’t be held responsible for her brother.)

Since I began looking into Janelle’s case in August, I’ve visited his place three times. Each time, he walked around outdoors without shoes or socks. Going barefoot eases his gout pain, he said. He blamed his most recent foot troubles on work boots that didn’t fit.

Janelle’s problems, however, go far beyond his aching feet. He has “only a third grade education, cannot read and has very limited ability to write,” according to court documents. (His sister said he finished eighth grade.)

After meeting Janelle during an earlier court appearance, Tucker wrote, “there is reason to believe Mr. Janelle lacks the mental capacity to fully understand his obligation to comply with the order.”

As I wrote last month, Janelle lives alone in the aging mobile home next to the vacant 150-year-old house with boarded-up windows that he grew up in. He inherited the five-acre parcel from his parents, who have both been dead for more than a decade. Whitney, who lives in Tennessee, is his only remaining sibling.

Janelle lives off Social Security and his pension from working more than 35 years at Sullivan County’s nursing home in Unity, where he started out in the laundry as a teenager.

Now that he’s retired, Janelle has more time than ever to add to his property’s collection of broken lawn mowers, rusty barbecue grills and other miscellaneous items covered by tarps. An old pickup, the cab stuffed with Janelle’s winter clothing and boots, sits in the small yard next to the two-lane state highway known as Second New Hampshire Turnpike.

In 2002, a Superior Court judge agreed with the town that the property, with its unregistered vehicles and motor boats, was an illegal junkyard under state law.

When Janelle failed to clean up the property to the town’s satisfaction, a private contractor was hired to do the job. A judge, who handled the case prior to Tucker, awarded the town $13,000 in clean-up costs and legal fees.

Janelle and Whitney repaid more than $7,000 of the court judgment. But over the years, Janelle has brought in more busted power tools and other machinery, some of which he hauled in from the Unity dump and transfer station without town officials voicing any objections.

The town maintains that it’s still owed more than $11,000, including interest, in clean-up costs and legal fees. Compounding the problem: The property is still a long way from being cleaned up.

What’s the answer?

Witkus is working with Whitney, who listened to Tuesday’s hearing by phone, to find Janelle a legal guardian. Generally speaking, a court-approved guardian can “protect a person from their own poor decisions and from being taken advantage of by third parties,” Witkus told me.

In court, Witkus said she hoped a guardian could be in place within a month or so, leading to an agreement with the town. Could that mean the protracted legal fight, as futile as it’s been, might soon be nearing an end?

“I’m not certain we’ll have an agreement, but we can hope,” Courtney told the judge.

“The goal is to have someone who can take on his affairs,” Tucker said. “Why don’t we continue on this path, as slow as it might be.”

All in all, a pretty sad affair — except for the prominent role a judge’s common sense is playing.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.