Woman, 87, forced to sell family home
By MIKE SAEWITZ
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- Irene Ishmel's home, hand-built by her husband in the 1950s, once made her feel strong and free. That comforting fact held true and fast, year after year, decade after decade.
Then Mrs. Ishmel, who is now 87, was mugged for $50 in her living room. For her own safety, she left her home to move in with a daughter.
Early this month, vandals set the empty house on fire. "She used to have her independence," said Irene Huell, a granddaughter. "Now she needs people to do things for her, which is normal for someone of her age. She doesn't like that too much. What can you do? What can you say?"
In 1956, Otis Ishmel built a red brick and white stucco house on Prescott Street, a place that he and his wife could enjoy. It was tucked away near two churches and a school.
For Irene Ishmel, whose two children were raised in rentals and apartments, the house was a home, the first place she and Otis owned. Their first garage. Their first washing machine.
Otis died seven years later, and Irene lived alone in the house for more than 30 years. She managed the couple's restaurant until the late 1970s and relished a quiet retirement even as Interstate 275, then Tropicana Field and finally a rebuilt and larger school -- John Hopkins Middle School -- surrounded her, all less than a block away.
But things were all right until one night less than three years ago, when she heard a noise in her living room and saw a man in the shadows. He grabbed her. She gave him $50 in cash and begged him not to kill her. He knocked her down and disappeared through the bathroom window.
At her family's urging, Mrs. Ishmel, who suffers from arthritis and diabetes, left her home and moved in with her daughter.
Two months ago, Mrs. Ishmel put the house up for sale. Only days after an investor offered to buy the house, Mrs. Ishmel's home was invaded again, this time by vandals. Two fires were set: one in her bedroom, one in her living room. Bricks were thrown through the front windows. Police have arrested a 12-year-old and charged him with felony arson. It's not clear why the fires were set.
Mrs. Ishmel's once pink living room and mint green kitchen walls are now black.
More than a week after the fires, a smell of smoke overwhelms an already short-winded Mrs. Ishmel, who leaves her walker at the door to navigate through the house.
"They took everything I had in here," she said. "All of my blankets, all of my dishes. They took everything. I didn't do nothing to nobody but work to try to make a living for myself."
A brick lies under a pile of glass in the living room. Packed boxes of her possessions form a pile of mash and rubble. Large wooden boards conceal more broken glass and scrawled graffiti on window panes. The garage, forcefully unhinged from its weakened wooden frame, looks ready to fall off.
The house only slightly resembles what it looked like in 1956. And Mrs. Ishmel, a woman who worked to keep her independence and ownership, now shares a five-bedroom house with her 68-year-old daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter and great-grandson.
Mrs. Ishmel repeatedly refused to buy insurance, said daughter Cornelia Rollins. She was very hesitant to put the house up for sale.
Although her granddaughter, Linda Currie, 41, put bars on windows after the attack, Mrs. Ishmel said she moved out because she was afraid. For more than a year, she allowed her grandson, but no other relatives, to live in the house.
The house had been unoccupied for at least the last year, according to family members. Two months ago, Mrs. Ishmel finally decided to sell, and granddaughters Huell and Currie, two of nine grandchildren, began to visit the house routinely, cleaning it, fixing plumbing, and packing her possessions. Two weeks before the fires, they noticed graffiti on the outside. They also discovered that someone had thrown a brick through a window. Then came the fires.
Before the vandalism and the fires, the house was in "very good condition," according to real estate agent Betty Dyles. It needed a paint job and some work to repair cracked tiles and kitchen knobs. Three people were interested in purchasing the house.
"It had no major problems," Dyles said.
An invester made a $28,000 offer for the house. Though she said it was "not the most desirable place," the house was secluded, it was near the stadium, it had a lot of room for expansion, and its only neighbors were the Unity Temple of Truth Church, across the street, and the New Covenant Church next door. Mrs. Ishmel didn't worry about one neighbor: John Hopkins Middle School.
Two 12-year-old students skipped school at John Hopkins and lit two fires in the house at about 11:30 a.m. on April 2, said George Kajtsa of the St. Petersburg Police Department. The student who was arrested told police he lit a match in the bedroom but not in the living room, Kajtsa said. Police are still investigating.
"They saw it was easy to break in," Currie said. "And they kept coming back.
"They were determined to tear that house up. They were having fun destroying my grandmother's house."
The investor has not seen the house, but he is still interested in buying it, Dyles said. The fire didn't burn through the floors, and smoke damage can be cleaned up, she said. The investor will probably fix, resell or rent the house.
"I don't want nobody to see the house like this," said Mrs. Ishmel, who has not talked to the real estate agent since the fire.
"I had hoped I would soon be able to go back. I didn't get to go back."
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