Man blames neighbors for spread of fire, documents show history of violations

Posted at 10:24 PM, Jul 23, 2013
and last updated 2013-07-24 00:24:10-04

TOOELE, Utah -- It's been two weeks since a fire destroyed two homes in Tooele, and one homeowner blames his neighbor - saying there was so much junk in the yard, it caused the fire to spread.

A FOX 13 News records request reveals that homeowner was hit with ordinance violations for years, but the property remained a mess.

Ben Jackson’s home was destroyed in the fire, and he said he thinks his neighbors could have done more to prevent the blaze from spreading.

“There was trash in their yards, there was flammable material in their yards,” he said of his neighbors on July 15.

Jackson believes when his neighbor's house went up in flames on July 9, inevitably, it would spread to his home next door.

Pictures just released by Tooele City officials show the Thomas' house before the fire. You can see weeds, trash and upward of 10 vehicles, some of them abandoned. The city handed down ordinance violations nearly every year dating back to 2006, but despite all those warnings, neighbors saw the same scene month after month, year after year.

“It's kind of been that way for quite a while,” said neighbor James Free.  “There wasn't a big change whenever they moved some stuff around."

Back in 2009, Tooele courts fined the homeowner, Clinton Duane Thomas, $1,000 after he pleaded guilty to maintaining a nuisance. But in the end, he paid $100, and the violations continued. The city was in the process of filing additional charges against him right before the fire. We spoke briefly with the homeowner's son, who said his attorney advised him not to comment.

Tooele city officials gave a similar, “No comment,” concerned about a lawsuit.

The public works director told us off-camera the city educates ordinance violators to try and get compliance without fines. However, after seven years of education with the Thomas family, neighbors are discouraged nothing changed.

"It was a while, I mean there's a certain extent to how many times you can talk to a person about the same stuff over and over again,” Free said.

"You have no recourse," Jackson said. "I don't want to get rich here. I don't want to get legal. I don't want have to hire an attorney and sue them. I want them to treat me equitably."

Jackson currently lives in Washington state. He moved before the fire but plans to fly back to Utah and attend a Tooele City Council meeting in August.  He’s asking the city to pay his mortgage because he can’t sell the damaged the house.