Five months after their house burned to the ground, Vonore couple Carol Ann and Laura Stutte and their adult daughter filed suit Feb. 2 against the woman they believe set the fire—their next-door neighbor. And while they've scrupulously avoided naming names since the Sept. 4 incident, the suit filed by Knoxville-based attorney Margaret Held clearly states her identity: Janice Millsaps.
The complainants say they wouldn't have taken this option if their insurance company, American National Property & Casualty Company, had. "We are having to sue because the insurance company won't," says Carol Ann.
"We needed to file before witnesses' memories clouded and evidence disappeared," says Held. So far, no arrests have been made in the case.
The word "Queers" was found spray painted on the couple's detached garage following the fire, and at five months and counting, it still falls to the FBI to determine whether the alleged arson could be categorized as a hate crime. (FBI spokesperson Stacie Bohanan officially would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation into the matter, as is agency policy.)
The Stuttes have been together 16 years, and while they're not legally married, they did celebrate a civil ceremony at the Unitarian Universalist church in Oklahoma City. The complaint does allege taunts made by Millsaps that specifically targeted the Stuttes' sexual orientation. For example, a month before the fire, on Aug. 4, they allege, Millsaps, whose double wide mobile home rests about 20 feet from the gate leading to the Stuttes' property, approached them as they stopped to close their front gate. She poked at the Stuttes, alleges the complaint, and asked them, "Do you know what is better than one dead queer? Two dead queers." The complaint notes that she then threatened to burn their house down, laughed, and returned to her house.
That and the other 24 general allegations in the complaint create a stark summation of three people being systematically bullied:
• "On several occasions, Ms. Millsaps threatened to poison the Stuttes' dogs.... and one of the Stuttes' dogs subsequently died, apparently from being poisoned."
• "Ms. Millsaps on several occasions came onto the Stuttes' property without permission, entering their home when they weren't home, and peering in their windows as the Stuttes watched TV at night."
• "Ms. Millsaps has repeatedly threatened the lives of the Stuttes, making statements such as, ‘there's bodies in these hills that no one will ever find,'... [and] if she killed the Stuttes, saying that the community ‘takes care of things the old-fashioned way, the Millsaps way.'"
For months following the fire, the Stuttes have publicly said they hoped only that the alleged arsonist would get some help. While Millsaps continued—and continues—to live in her house, they stayed in a series of safehouses and then moved to a rental home in an undisclosed location. "We still don't want Janice to be able to find us," says Carol Ann. "It's still nerve-wracking. We don't even feel free yet to say hi to our new neighbors."
Their change of heart about filing suit was a long time coming, says Held, and comes in equal parts from wanting to hold the perpetrator accountable, wanting her to get help, and financial need. The house and property were insured for $206,000, the contents $154,000, but the Stuttes say the insurance company has failed to reimburse them for their living expenses while the claim is pending. "It's about to break us," says Carol Ann. "Without the assistance we've received from the LGBT community, we would have gone under several months ago. There are simply things you need you don't think about: a vacuum, an ironing board, a Crock Pot."
The couple is paying both their Vonore house payment and $900/month rent plus other living expenses, out of pocket, though their policy clearly states "If a loss covered under this section makes the residence premises uninhabitable, we cover any necessary increase in living expenses incurred by you so that your household can maintain its normal standard of living for up to 24 months."
"ANPAC just won't cut the check," says Held, noting that ANPAC senior investigator Stacy Jennings, "just flat won't call me back." (Calls to Jennings had not been returned by press time.)
The women say they're floored by the insurance company's treatment, particularly since the first agent they dealt with quickly paid for a safehouse for them right after the fire. "We were so grateful," says Carol Ann. "Then he called and said we had one week to find somewhere else to live or start paying it ourselves—and that place cost like $2,400 a month. I asked where we were supposed to go, and he said, ‘You have a house, you have land, go back there.'
"I told him, ‘But the house is gone! And our neighbor is trying to kill us!' and he told us we'd have to figure it out. I could not stop crying."
At one point, if each didn't have the other to think about, the couple says they may have "folded," defaulted on their house payments, and possibly risked a denial of coverage from the slow-paying company. Why hasn't the insurance company anted up? "We don't know," says Held, who notes that's it's not unusual for an insurer to take a year or more to investigate an alleged crime, or to pay out reimbursements a little slowly. "Either one or the other—but never both," she says.
If the insurance company was trying to break them, says Carol Ann, they didn't count on what she calls "our hidden card, the support of the LGBT community."
Shortly before being bounced from their safe house, local LGBT activists told the Stuttes about a rental property and it all worked out. "The saving grace is we got in right away, the day before we would have become homeless," says Carol Ann.
Suing for Sunshine
The Stuttes have two descriptions for Held, whom they met through civil rights activist David Massey. To Carol Ann, she's a warrior. "Margaret's literally standing up for us, she is our shield."
To Laura, she's a guardian. "Looking after us, guiding us. And evidently she's been chomping at the bit to file this suit."
It didn't happen sooner, says Laura, because the couple places an emphasis on peace-keeping. "But I'm tired of feeling like a victim, being victimized. I'm like a kid dusting myself off and getting up."
For her part, Held is glad to have the case moving, happy at the prospect of deposing Millsaps. "What probably hurt the worst is that the Stuttes have lost some part of their identity. By painting ‘Queers' on the garage, this lady has attempted to assign their sexuality as the Alpha and Omega of their identity."
("She tried to tattoo us like Hitler did the youth," breaks in Carol Ann.)
Held's ready to fight so the Stuttes can get their identity back. "As the months went by, I've been watching these two fade, watching them get beat down by the system I work for," she says. "We want them to regain their ability to go out and spread sunshine."
Most immediately, the suit is requesting an injunction that keeps Millsaps away from the Stuttes and their property, and demands the return of a nearly $7,000 insulin pump the complaint alleges the Stuttes ordered and paid for and Millsaps intercepted from UPS and refuses to return.
The Stuttes are also seeking $292,688.82 for trespassing and depriving them of personal property, and a total of $880,000, which includes damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious harassment.
No matter what the legal system decides, the distress is evident. Carol Ann has started smoking again; the once constant wisecracker bursts into tears at the drop of a hat these days, though usually she waits until no one's around. Laura has driven by the burned estate a couple of times, but she still can't get out of the car. Both women have bouts of insomnia and nausea—and nightmares.
But no one's dwelling on this when Laura and Carol Ann and Held sit around a large dining room table in Held's conference room, recalling better days. They have an easy give and take, warm smiles, but they're tense. They never know when the emotions will overwhelm.
Laura can't look at the fat, square photo album Held brings out. It makes the reserved woman grimace, then cry silent tears behind her studious eyeglass frames. The album holds snapshots from the couple's many do-it-yourself projects, all at the Vonore place the Stuttes called The Promised Land without sarcasm. In five years, they landscaped every bit of it—dug out every boulder—themselves, and even built a dock. Carol Ann cultivated her own type of marigold; the screen she used to dry seeds still sits on some saw horses in the defaced garage—with flower heads still on it. She sawed off two dead cedars and turned them into Laura's Swing.
And the interior photographs—mantel, shower, living room couch—could be straight from the pages of any homemaking magazine, with their striking colors, plump pillows, tile backsplashes installed by Laura, warm paintings.
Carol Ann forced herself to duplicate the first set of photos from their do-it-yourself projects, only these photos are of the scorched debris that now rests where the warm, welcoming decor once was—Before and After.
"The first trauma was just dealing with your home being taken from you," says Laura.
She returned to working as a nurse a few weeks after the fire. "I was dealing with the unknown. I hadn't really come out but to two people at work, now it was all out there. But everyone was very concerned, loving, caring. I clocked in the first day, and one of the girls who didn't know before gave me a big hug, ‘Are you okay?' That sort of broke the ice."
Carol Ann assumed the duty, dictated by their insurance policy, of securing the property against additional damage—boarding up the garage, having the electric company come in and put overhead lights on poles for security. "The first time I went back, it was still on fire. I didn't want Laura or our daughter to see that."
Several weeks later, Carol Ann returned for more maintenance, and says she was accosted by Millsaps, who pointed at her and the burnt site and laughed. Carol Ann's encountered Millsaps a few times since, too, but now takes a friend when she's out there, for protection and to act as a witness.
She's spending a lot of time fixing up a little brick house in the area that she'd already gutted down to the wires in preparation of remodeling it for their daughter. But it's in Vonore, which makes her nervous. "Are we safe? Are we safe being back there? It's scary, taking my soul mate and my child back there, I'm always thinking, ‘Are we safe?'"
When the Stuttes had nothing, local LGBT organizations and their straight allies rallied around them. Led by Maryville civil rights activist Carla Lewis, Maryville PFLAG, the Knoxville Equality Project, and Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, among others, the well-wishers raised money, provided the essentials of everyday living, and lots of much-needed emotional support.
Says Laura simply: "If it wasn't for them, we might be homeless and bankrupt by now."
They and their daughter and their three mixed-breed dogs have subsisted on the largesse from the LGBT community, some of it local, some—thanks to a donation website set up by Knoxville Pridefest—from across the nation and even other countries. "Someone sent us a 50-pound bag of dog food from Washington state, literally sent it UPS," says Laura with admiration.
Adds Carol Ann: "They were so warm and loving, like a new family for us. They helped shelter and protect us."
Being on the receiving end is very odd, says Carol Ann. "We're used to being the ones saying, ‘How can we help?' It's hard and embarrassing, but it's kept us living."
Because of those groups, odds are good the Stuttes will stay in the area once the lawsuits pass, whatever the outcome, though they both shrug when asked. Says Carol Ann: "If everyone like us were to leave, who's going to stay here, who will keep the candle lit?"
Laura speaks, in measured words, her tears dry now. "We are working for the day each human being is seen just as a human being," she says. "We want the image to be not what we see with our eyes, or what sexual organs we have, but what we see with our hearts."
Carol Ann boils the message down even further. "Love," she says, "is stronger than hate."