Aftermath: Lies and Deception
Half the truth is often a great lie.
Throughout the spring of 1989 there was no escaping the awful feeling of injustice. Here we were, ordered to move out of our home at a $160,000 loss, while Cooper was receiving an exorbitant rent and preparing to take another profit on the dwelling. Cooper had gained the upper hand because he had chosen to not respond, had in fact totally ignored us and our contract with a claim of "no re-sponsibility." We could not (and still cannot) fathom how the law can penalize buyers of a defective home and, at the same time, re-ward a developer like Jake Cooper. Could Cooper now fix the house only part way, and sell it to some unsuspecting family at another profit? Based on the way houses are inspected for occupancy the answer was yes, he could. Unless the proper authorities knew what had happened to us, Cooper could profit from selling a defective home twice. How could we prevent this from happening? And why did we care? Our losses were final, the case was over, nothing we said or did could reimburse us even partly. But reimbursement was no long-er the point. We felt obligated to do something for the rights of homeowners, especially whoever might end up with our old house. The law may not be able to reach men like Cooper but perhaps something else could: publicity.
On June 23, 1989 I sent a long, heartfelt letter to the mayor and council members of Emerald Heights, telling them what happened, why we were moving, and begging them to please not let this sorry episode repeat itself . Also, to clarify any mis-understanding about our reasons for moving I sent a copy to friends living on the street. My letter alone should have sufficed to ensure that Cooper properly repaired the house. But I realized other people needed to also know. After all, Emerald Heights might claim it had no responsibility to inspect a used home, or that the legal judgment superseded local responsibility for the house. I also sent a copy of the letter and the Judge's opinion to the Plain Dealer (Cleveland's major daily) and two suburban papers. The reaction was quicker than expected, almost immediate. Shortly after we moved out we were phoned by Brent Larkin, a widely-read columnist for the Plain Dealer, and also by reporters for the suburban weeklies. Larkin's column, published early in July, beautifully captured the essence of our case.
This column, plus a suburban newspaper story that appeared on July 6, created intense publicity for awhile. (It seemed that everyone in Cleveland had read Larkin's column.) In response, Cooper and Nelson (but not Murdock) held a news conference at our old house! Their comments were published in two long articles in the suburban weeklies (apparently no one from the daily newspaper had attended their conference). Cooper and Nelson? That's right. Cooper was using Nelson to help make the structural repairs. The same architect who screwed up in the first place! And what did Nelson have to say for himself? The following quotes and comments from Nelson were published in a suburban newspaper on July 13, 1989.
This is an incredible statement, not least because it is completely untrue. Nelson neglected to tell the reporters that the area in question was in the unfinished portion of the basement, an unlikely place to ask that a beam be removed. In any case, Nelson had never used this excuse before, in any letter, in deposition, or in court. Did he invent this excuse to salvage his reputation? If so, it was incredibly lame to blame me for his design inadequacy. Nelson also:
Nelson's design defects were much more major than he was ever willing to fix. The Judge assessed them at over $18,000, a fact Mr. Nelson did not mention at his news conference. Nelson is also quoted as saying:
What came out in court is that Nelson didn't properly investigate something obvious to practically everyone else but him: sloping floors. And he was the architect! In any case, the sloping was far greater than 5/16 inch. Finally, the "surveyors' equipment" was brought in by Mr. Cooper's expert, not by anyone we hired. Nelson did get one thing right, however:
So Nelson blamed me for his design mistake and lay the other structural problems on Murdock. Then, for the reporters, he tried to make it look like we wouldn't let him fix what was wrong with the house. So much for the integrity of our architect, who not only designed the dwelling but was hired to inspect it during construction! And what did Jake Cooper claim? The following is also from the suburban newspaper articles of July 13, 1989.
Despite having received a total of nine letters from us and our lawyers Cooper claimed he never heard from us. And the "builder... gave me copies of their letters"? ALL THE LETTERS WERE SENT DIRECTLY TO HIM! What else did Cooper claim?
What a baseless assertion! The builder was demonstrably incompetent to fix our house and never made any attempt to repair it properly and Cooper knew it. The court case proved this singular fact. To imply that I would drag my family through three years of hell and risk loss of my home for a monetary gain is simply monstrous. This comment, perhaps more than any other, shows the true character of the man we had done business with. But there was more.
And quoting Cooper directly:
Cooper was "not unhappy with the house" because he knew he had been handed a windfall by the court: the house and lot at 1985 prices (in a rising market) and money to make the repairs. In the aggregate, Cooper's and Nelson's comments showed that we didn't have a chance in hell of getting our house fixed properly during the litigation. Even after the trial and our experts' testimony and the Judge's written opinion, neither Cooper nor Nelson admitted to the defects or displayed any understanding of why we went to trial. Nor, of course, did they have the slightest remorse for what they had done to us.
According to our attorney, Cooper's lies and blatant distortion of our motives were not sufficient grounds to sue for slander. Although my friends knew Cooper was lying I nonetheless had to set the re-cord straight. I countered with a letter to the editor (see Appendix B). Tom also sent a strong letter to Cooper's attorney, serving notice that his client should stop distorting the case or face a possible lawsuit. Did the lies end there? Not at all. Cooper proceeded to deceive prospective homebuyers. On August 3, 1989 he put the house up for sale, advertising in the classifieds:
This ad appeared well after Cooper publicly stated "you just don't get $400,000 on this street." Also, it is interesting to note that three different experts estimated it would take at least three months to fix our house properly. We moved out June 22 and Cooper's ad ap- peared less than six weeks later. Cooper did not sell the house `by owner' so he signed up with a large real estate company. Perhaps to explain how the house came to be vacant, the realtor had Cooper write a letter to show to prospective purchasers. Cooper's letter is a masterpiece of deception and revisionist history .
Cooper's letter was shown to prospective buyers throughout the summer and early fall. Try to read this letter two ways: first, as an interested buyer who knows nothing about what happened; then, as someone who knows the whole story (which you do if you've read this far). In the former context you would probably find the letter not unreasonable, even plausible. In the latter context, statements that the house had only minor problems and that we had a personality conflict with the builder become obvious for what they are: lies. But the bigger lie in Cooper's letter is what was left out.
Our lawyer agreed that Cooper's outrageous letter should not go unanswered. On September 29, 1989 he sent a strongly worded letter to the president of the realty company, with a copy to the individual agents involved in marketing the house (See Appendix B). While all this was going on Cooper found a buyer, a couple with two kids moving from Florida to Cleveland. They were shown Cooper's letter. Cooper met with them. He led them to believe that he had bought the house back from us because we were moving out of town. He didn't mention the lawsuit, the trial, the experts' reports, the newspaper publicity. He told them only one area of the house was defective (the area under the mudroom floor, about 10% of what we proved in court) and that it had been fixed with some new posts. This out-of-town couple bid $368,000 for the house and it was accepted.
Then they found out we were still in town and called us. We told them the simple truth. The house had major defects. There was a lawsuit. A trial. A judgment. They got a copy of the judgment and were appalled, not as much by the judgment itself as by the disparity between the true story and what Cooper had led them to believe. Needless to say, they backed out of the deal. (After they backed out Cooper's lawyer called them and asked repeatedly if they talked to us and what we said; he was apparently looking for some excuse to sue us. It probably never occurred to him that the deal fell through because Cooper had not properly fixed the house and had lied.) A similar scenario was repeated two more times over the next few weeks. People who had seen the house and been shown Cooper's letter (presumably before the end of September) called us. We heard the same story as with the first couple. The nature of the defects and the reason for Cooper owning a vacated house were misrepresented. Cooper said the defects were only minor, confined to one section of the house, and that everything had been fixed. No mention of the trial, the legal judgment, or the fact that all three levels of the house not just the basement area were proven structurally defective. On both occasions the interested party sought a copy of the judgment (a matter of public record), read the truth, and backed out.
I am sure you have questions. Why didn't Emerald Heights make Cooper fix the house according to the legal judgment? Why did the Judge award Cooper money to fix the house and not take measures to assure that it was properly repaired? After all, the Judge did not grant us funds to make repairs because (as he wrote) if we fixed the house and later tried to sell it we would be selling another lawsuit. How did one of the largest real estate companies in Ohio allow Cooper to misrepresent the house? Why didn't the media follow up on the story? How could Cooper continue to treat people this way and get away with it? These are good questions but I don't have any good answers.
We doubt Jake Cooper intended the case to end this way. We don't think he ignored us with the conscious expectation of going to trial and getting rewarded for reneging on his contract. From the time he sold us the house his intention was just to make a quick profit without any risk or obligation. In my opinion, once he became aware of the defects his antisocial character structure led him to believe, since he had not actually built the house, that he had no responsibility; to this end he fabricated a whole series of lies and became extraordinarily vindictive. His `quick-profit-no-responsibility' plan backfired, but really only for a while. He didn't make the quick second profit he probably expected when he bought the house back, but I am confident he didn't lose any money either (especially considering the $50,000 profit made the first time around). Nor, I feel certain, did he lose any sleep in the three years between our first letter asking for his help (December 1986) and the time he re-sold the house (March 1990).
To men like Jake Cooper litigation such as we experienced is only a minor annoyance, like a mosquito at a picnic that you finally brush away. Unhappy homeowners, angry letters, lawsuits, trials all part of doing business as a builder and developer. No big deal. The defendants in our case had it easy. Their home wasn't disrupted, their dreams weren't shattered, they were not ordered to move out at enormous financial loss, they did not feel the awful sting of injustice. What Jake Cooper and his two cronies did to us has left a scar on our lives. We hope time will ease the pain.