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'They turned my world upside down'

Atherton man says he lost his home in a foreclosure sale after judge kicks him out

James Kristofferson, the Atherton man who in July was barred by court order from his Redwood Way home for a year after town officials had it declared a "drug house," has lost the home in a foreclosure sale, he said.

Mr. Kristofferson said the house, valued on the Zillow real estate website at $2.4 million, sold at auction on his 57th birthday, Aug. 12, for $1.9 million. That was slightly over the $1.8 million he owed the bank. He said he thinks the house, with a little work, could sell for $3 million.

"They turned my whole world upside down over someone selling $20 worth of drugs," he said on Thursday, as he worked to salvage as many of his possessions as he could from his home of 11 years.

"It's not anything like they're saying," he said. "I surely didn't deserve to lose my home."

Mr. Kristofferson, his longtime girlfriend Yvette Simmons, and others living in the house were first ordered to move out in a preliminary court ruling on April 25. On July 16, San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Joseph Scott barred Mr. Kristofferson from the house for a year, and ordered him to pay a $25,000 penalty and $26,223 in legal fees and abatement costs to the town.

Mr. Kristofferson said he will appeal the ruling even though he has lost the house because he can't afford the fine.

The town had claimed the home was a "drug house" and the judge's actions are one of the remedies in the law referring to such public nuisances. Atherton City Attorney Bill Conners said a "drug house" is defined in the Health and Safety Code as "a place where illegal drugs are sold, served, manufactured, stored, used, kept, distributed, or given away."

Mr. Kristofferson said he had been in the process of refinancing the house when he had to move out. Since he had been relying on income from renters with whom he was sharing the property, when he could no longer rent out rooms, "I wasn't able to qualify for the loan," he said.

Mr. Kristofferson said his troubles began when a business deal with a Chinese manufacturer of tankless water heaters went sour. He had spent years, and made more than 50 trips to China, getting the water heaters certified for sale in the U.S. and Canada, he said. He was finally ready to begin importing them when the Chinese company told him it would not ship the product unless he renegotiated the contract. "They were using my first order to extort me," he said.

Mr. Kristofferson said he is now deep in a lawsuit against the Chinese company, which he is confident he will win. In the meantime, however, to cover his mortgage, he decided to take in renters.

He acknowledges that he had six renters, and since all of them often had overnight visitors, there were as many as 14 people in the house.

One of those renters, who Mr. Kristofferson said had lived for five months in a small guest unit behind the garage, was accused of selling drugs to a police informant while on Mr. Kristofferson's property. That led to a raid on the house by the San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force, after which Mr. Kristofferson was arrested on felony charges including possession of methamphetamine for sale and maintaining a house for narcotics use.

The charges against Mr. Kristofferson were reduced to three misdemeanors alleging possession of methamphetamine, concentrated cannabis and drug-use paraphernalia. "The evidence was not sufficient to prove for Kristofferson or any of the other three defendants that the drug possession was for sale rather than for personal use," San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said.

Mr. Kristofferson and his girlfriend say the drugs they were charged with possessing was medical marijuana a visiting friend had left behind. They had found the paraphernalia buried in their yard, and it was still covered with dirt from being dug up, they said.

Two of those arrested at the home, Lauren Weil and Robin Vaka, were charged with felony possession counts. The cases are scheduled to be tried in September and October.

Mr. Kristofferson said in addition to losing his home, he will have to abandon many of his belongings because he has been living in a motel and can't afford much storage space. On Aug. 28, he packed into a rented truck the most valuable of his large collection of artworks, many passed down from his father, keepsakes such as family photos, and tools from his garage.

While the house was in disarray, which Mr. Kristofferson blamed on the police search, and showed signs of a rodent infestation while sitting empty, it appears to have recently been an upscale dwelling complete with leather furniture, a full wine rack and a dining room with china and crystal ready to be set out.

Mr. Kristofferson said he will probably sell some of his artworks so he can rent a house.

A number of things disappeared from the house while it was empty, Mr. Kristofferson said, including several computers, a large-screen television, a humidor full of fine cigars and many collectibles.

When he was initially kicked out of his home, he said, "we had no clothes, we had no toothbrushes; we had nothing."

A lawsuit against Mr. Kristofferson by the town of Atherton includes a number of allegations in addition to those regarding drugs. It says more than 120 police calls were made to the property, and lists unsafe conditions that caused the house to be red-tagged as unlivable.

Mr. Kristofferson said he had let an old childhood friend move in, and most of the police calls came about after it became apparent that the friend was mentally ill. The friend was asked to move out, he said.

The home was red-tagged, Mr. Kristofferson said, because his power was turned off when he could not pay the bill. He was using car batteries to power a few things through an inverter and extension cords. Other work was under way on the property, including repairing the swimming pool and adding a guest unit to the garage. Most of the items the town had asked to be repaired were already fixed when he was kicked out of the house, he said.

"I was doing everything they wanted me to do," he said.

Mr. Kristofferson said he has been a licensed contractor since he was 26, but he has not been able to take on many contracting jobs recently because he has to keep traveling to China to deal with the lawsuit.

Hanging on a wall in his former home is a newspaper article from the May 13, 1990, Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The article shows a 32-year-old Mr. Kristofferson standing in front of a home he had built, which was at the time one of the most expensive in Sonoma County.

The headline reads: "The House That Jim Built 21 rms, mtn view, $2.6 million."

Mr. Kristofferson said he always had good relationships with his Atherton neighbors. "Two of my neighbors are partners in my corporation," he said. "The one across the street I built a house for."

Now, he says, all that has changed.

"Everything's gone," he said. "They just took my world and turned it upside down."

An earlier Almanac story on this case can be seen here.

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