On the morning of Dec. 19, 2012, in a Torrance courtroom, Larry Delassus' heart stopped as he watched his attorney argue his negligence and discrimination case against banking behemoth Wells Fargo.
His death came more than two years after Wells Fargo mistakenly mixed up his Hermosa Beach address with that of a neighbor in the same condo complex. The bank's typo led Wells Fargo to demand that Delassus pay $13,361.90 — two years of late property taxes the bank said it had paid on his behalf in order to keep his Wells Fargo mortgage afloat.
But Delassus, a quiet man who suffered from the rare blood-clot disorder Budd-Chiari syndrome and was often hospitalized, didn't owe a penny in taxes.
One of his neighbors, whose condo "parcel number" was two digits different from Delassus', owed the back taxes.
In a series of painfully tragic events, Wells Fargo relied on its typographical error to double Delassus' mortgage — from $1,237.69 to $2,429.13 — as its way of recouping the $13,361.90 in taxes Delassus didn't owe. Delassus, a retiree living on a $1,655 check, couldn't meet the mysteriously increased mortgage. He stopped paying, and soon was far behind on his mortgage.
Delassus and his attorney did not discover until May 2010 that a mis-entered number had dragged Delassus into this spiral. As court documents obtained by L.A. Weekly show, after admitting its error, Wells Fargo foreclosed on Delassus anyway and sold his condo.
Delassus had to move to a tiny apartment in an assisted-living home in Carson.
Friends say he didn't die of heart disease that day in court, as the coroner found. He was, they believe, killed by a system so inhumane that it could not undo a devastating piece of red tape the system itself created.
"He was very sensitive," says close friend Debbie Popovich, 59. "He was a very good person. He was kind of shy, and he had a really good sense of humor — really, he was a very simple guy who just liked to work and do his thing."
In 1995, Delassus bought condo No. 105 at 320 Hermosa Beach Ave. The building, a white-stucco affair with blue trim, on a busy road with a grassy divider, is unremarkable, but a view of the Pacific glints in through the beach-facing windows.
A neighbor, who gave her name only as Kelly, says Delassus participated in the homeowners association and helped around the complex. But the Navy veteran from St. Louis often was sick from Budd-Chiari syndrome, which made simple tasks difficult and could cause mental confusion.
"Larry loved his home," Kelly says. "He wanted to die in that house."
Delassus got the first odd letter from Wells Fargo on Jan. 29, 2009. It informed him that Wells' tax service provider, First American Real Estate Tax Service, "reported delinquent taxes for the property located at: 320 Hermosa Beach Avenue 105."
Delassus, told that he owed taxes of $13,361.90 for 2007 and '08, was baffled. His attorney Anthony Trujillo, a friend and next-door neighbor, says Delassus was actually six months ahead on his taxes, which he paid directly to L.A. County.
On March 9, 2009, according to court documents, the bank informed Delassus that it was doubling his monthly mortgage payment to $2,429.13 to recoup the $13,361.90 in taxes.
"He came to me and told me what was going on" a couple of months later, Trujillo says. At that point, neither man knew that a bank typo was to blame. In December 2009, Wells Fargo notified Delassus that it intended to foreclose.
Then in May 2010, Trujillo discovered the erroneous fine print in Wells Fargo's original 2009 letter to Delassus — the "parcel number" off by two digits and belonging to somebody else.
In court documents later, Wells Fargo attorney Robert Bailey of Anglin Flewelling Rasmussen Campbell & Trytten LLP admitted the bank's mistake: "Wells Fargo paid the amount it determined was owed to the County Assessor: approximately $10,500. This was a mistake. The $10,500 was the tax amount owed on a neighboring property, not Plaintiff's." (Bailey did not address the discrepancy between $13,361 and $10,500.)
Bailey added: "In September, 2010 Wells Fargo acknowledged its error in paying the taxes on Plaintiff's neighbor's property and corrected it." By then, however, Delassus was so far behind on his mortgage payments wrongly doubled by Wells Fargo that the bank refused to let him resume his $1,237.69 installments, Trujillo says. He faced a sizable "reinstatement" cost — which is often the past due amount plus fees.
In an unsettling new twist, Delassus couldn't get Wells Fargo to tell him how much his reinstatement cost was. Later, in a videotaped deposition, Trujillo asks Michael Dolan, a litigation-support manager for Wells Fargo: "So Plaintiff was never provided with the reinstatement amount after the bank discovered its error, correct?"
Dolan responds, "That is correct."
Delassus and Trujillo — who is a business litigator but not a mortgage attorney — could have sought help from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or from the Comptroller of the Currency in Washington, D.C., says Brian Hubbard, spokesman for the comptroller's office. But neither man knew about this outside help.
On Jan. 19, 2011, Trujillo videotaped Delassus on the phone, quietly speaking to a Wells Fargo representative. (Wachovia merged with Wells Fargo in December of 2008.) "Wachovia's never sent me how much my monthly payments would be, if that includes escrow or anything," Delassus says to the bank. "I'm kind of in the dark here. Reinstatement ... what would that be?"
After being transferred to another representative, Delassus says to Trujillo, "The music's gone, but nobody answers. I think we're disconnected. Shit. Hello? Hello? Dial tone. Fuckers." Six days later, on Jan. 25, 2011, Delassus did hear, clearly, from Wells Fargo: It wanted the total payoff amount on the condo, $337,250.40. (Wells Fargo refused to comment on specifics of the case.)
The huge sum was due the very next day, Trujillo says. Instead, he sued the bank on Jan. 26, claiming negligence and discrimination against a disabled person.
On May 13, 2011, shortly after another bad bout of illness, Delassus' condo was sold by the bank. In a videotaped court deposition later, Delassus breaks down crying. "I came back from the hospital, and that very day, they sold the son of a bitch," he says. "I'm homeless. I did not have a home. My condo — 16 years, gone. Gone."
At Carson Senior Assisted Living, to which Delassus moved, he became good friends with Popovich, who had lost her home as well. The duo planted flowers and trees in a small area behind the apartment, complete with a scarecrow and an ornamental owl, where they would talk late into the night.
"He really thought he was gonna get his place back," Popovich says. "He thought if he told the truth, they could do something for him." Instead Delassus grew sicker and moved to Tender Liv-in Care in Torrance, owned by Michelle Rogers.
Rogers was in court last December when Delassus, listening to Trujillo arguing his case, slumped over and later died. "It was the most shocking thing I've been through in a long time," she says.
The night before, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Laura Ellison had indicated that she intended to side with Wells Fargo in a summary judgment. Delassus had been very sick, and his speech was slurred — his illness, acting up. But he wanted his day in court, especially since the judge was considering a guardianship request. Instead, as his attorney spoke, somebody yelled, "Call 911!"
His friends and neighbors believe his war with Wells Fargo killed Larry Delassus. Says Trujillo, "The stress just completely messed him up. Once you get in that state, this world is tough on you."
In a statement to the Weekly, Wells Fargo spokeswoman Vickee J. Adams expressed sympathy over his death. However, she added that, in light of Judge Ellison's indication that she planned to rule for Wells Fargo, "Given that there was no testimony or evidence to be presented at the hearing, there was no reason for Mr. Delassus to attend, and it is truly unfortunate that he was brought there."