Two property managers accused of stealing tornado relief supplies meant for an Ooltewah mobile home park are now facing a $4 million lawsuit accusing them of turning away help in order to hide health code violations and charging residents for non-existent homeowner's insurance.
Kimberly West, 49, and Steven West, 64, were arrested in late April and charged with theft and conspiracy to commit theft after Hamilton County Sheriff's Office detectives seized more than $60,000 in relief items meant for the residents of the park who were affected by a deadly EF3 tornado that tore through late on Easter Sunday.
Kimberly West was arrested again the following week and charged with two counts of coercion of a witness after allegedly asking residents to sign a document stating that the Wests had provided them with aid after the storm.
Kimberly West, 49, told the Times Free Press on Friday that the two were unaware of the lawsuit or any health code violations, and declined to comment otherwise.
Since the storms hit, the Times Free Press has obtained rental documents and spoken to 15 current and former residents of the park who shared accounts of having been manipulated by property managers who threatened deportation and eviction if they didn't pay certain fees and sign questionable documents.
The lawsuit, filed on Thursday by attorney C. Mark Warren on behalf of former resident Hilda Yanes, whose home was destroyed to the point she had to seek shelter elsewhere, echoes much of what residents told the Times Free Press.
The suit claims Yanes and at least 44 other residents owned their mobile homes and paid $20 per month to insure their homes. But the Wests "failed to purchase homeowners insurance. Instead, [they] converted the money for their benefit," the lawsuit claims.
According to a lease provided to the Times Free Press by a former tenant, insurance was supposed to be obtained by the residents. Many of them didn't know of that requirement and told reporters that they paid the Wests, not an insurance company, for coverage.
But of the residents interviewed, no one had seen any documentation from or representatives of an insurance company either before or after the storm. And no resident knew which company was allegedly carrying insurance for their homes.
A representative of the property, who declined to identify herself, refused to tell the Times Free Press what company the park uses for insurance but said that insurance agents have been "all over" the property since the day after the storm.
Warren said he requested a copy of the insurance contract from the Wests but never received one. He has asked for one to be produced in a request for discovery now that the lawsuit has been filed.
The suit also alleges the Wests tried to hide health code violations on their property, "including open sewers that ran underneath some of the mobile homes on their property," by denying access to relief agencies and volunteers who were attempting to help with tornado damage cleanup.
At press time, the Hamilton County Health Department could not confirm any violations or complaints against the Wests or the property, but noted that such complaints were formerly handled by the county's Building and Zoning Groundwater Protection Division.
The lawsuit also accuses the Wests of demanding May's rent — which wasn't yet due at the time — be paid "immediately or face deportation" and attempting to charge double rent if a family's mobile home was destroyed and they moved in with another family. Several other residents made the same complaint to the Times Free Press in the days following the Wests' arrest.
"This lawsuit became necessary because they failed to communicate with my clients regarding their homeowner's coverage," Warren said. "I think that [the Wests] actions are just deplorable I mean, years of abuse of the homeowners at Auburn Hills. So it's the first step in a long road."
The Tennessee Attorney General's Office has since joined an investigation to determine whether there has been a violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act, a law that protects consumers and businesses from unfair or deceptive business practices.
The Wests are expected in court on Aug. 4.
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