Until it was finally cleaned up and repaired last year, the McCormacks’ house at 106 Hemingway Court was a self-made dump so infested with rats, human feces and garbage that deputies making welfare calls sometimes wore gas masks.

Ralph and Marguerite McCormack don’t look like outlaws. Ralph, 75, uses a walker to move around. His wife, 71, is an insulin-dependent diabetic. Both suffer from dementia, according to family.

But they’re infamous in Royal Palm Beach for racking up nearly half a million dollars in fines from a record 29 code violations by creating a house of horrors that haunted their neighborhood for a decade.

Until it was finally cleaned up and repaired last year, the McCormacks’ house at 106 Hemingway Court was a self-made dump so infested with rats, human feces and garbage that deputies making welfare calls sometimes wore gas masks.

Some neighbors on the otherwise neatly kept cul-de-sac adopted cats just to prevent vermin from wandering off the McCormacks’ yard. Others complained to the state health department and village.

The McCormacks lived in those filthy conditions off and on from 2010 to 2017 because of their mental illnesses and Marguerite’s habit of hoarding neighborhood garbage, according to their relatives, caregivers, attorneys and police.

But they face an uncertain future because they owe the village $443,962 in outstanding fines from code violations at their house since 2010

The McCormacks want to sell their home, which has been empty and clean since May 2018, and use the proceeds to live their remaining years in an assisted living facility. But they can’t because of the liens on the property.

“We are here at your mercy,” said attorney Jason Evans. “What happens now in this moment will affect them for their remaining days.”

But Doug MacGibbon, the special magistrate, denied the request. He said the hefty fines “are all self-inflicted wounds” from violations “that could have been cleaned up by” the McCormacks.

The McCormacks filed an appeal Aug. 17 in Palm Beach County Circuit Court. Unless a judge overturns MacGibbon’s decision, the village can foreclose on the house.

“I can’t believe the village can be so vicious,” said Lisa Kline Goldstein, an attorney for the McCormacks, who specializes in elder law.

“We are not saying they were angels, but let’s look at it from a humane perspective. Clearly they have a mental illness and they are being punished for their peculiar behaviors.″

Ralph and Marguerite McCormack met on a blind date at Coney Island in the 1960s. They have been married 52 years. They never had kids.

After serving in the Air Force in the early 1960s, Ralph worked as an insurance salesman, always taking pride in his appearance and wearing a crisp suit. Marguerite was a designer who later worked at AT&T for nearly 40 years.

“He was my favorite uncle. Meticulous. Handsome. He could have been Elvis Presley at the time,” said his niece, Denise Asbury, 61, of Port St. Lucie.

Ralph and Marguerite lived on Staten Island until the early 1970s when they followed relatives who had moved to Florida.

Over the years, though, he grew apart from his small family, even neglecting to offer condolences to Asbury after her mother — Ralph’s sister — died in 2015. He has another sister in Fort Lauderdale who isn’t close with him. Marguerite had a mother and sister in West Palm Beach who have passed away.

“He is a very loving, giving man but he has become a little eccentric in the last 20 years. Very vocal about the government,” Asbury said. “My aunt and uncle have had some mental issues for a very long time.”

In 1991, the McCormacks paid $115,000 for the three-bedroom house at 106 Hemingway Court, a quiet cul-de-sac near Crestwood Boulevard south of Okeechobee Boulevard and west of State Road 7.

In what might be the earliest indication of problems, the village in 2010 cited the McCormacks for piling junk in their yard — the first of 29 code violations they would accumulate over the next eight years.

“I remember their first case. They had all kinds of stuff around their front yard,” said MacGibbon, a special magistrate for the village since 2009, who signed all 29 orders.

They also had a stuffed teddy bear on the roof.

“I told them to fix the miscellaneous items but I let them go with the bear because it was Christmas time and I just considered it a Christmas decoration,” he recalled at the July hearing.

“I kind of bent over backward for them on those occasions and tried to get them to deal with issues involving them and neighbors because this just spilled out. This was not just a ‘Oh, look the yard’s maintained but the interior of the house is a mess.’ It was everywhere.”

The McCormacks never properly cleaned it, and the violations started piling up.

 

‘They were hoarders’

By May 2013, the fine for repeat nuisance violations, originally $525 in March 2011, had jumped to $186,000. In all, the McCormack code violations would be heard at over 38 hearings from 2011 to 2018, with more than 50 notices issued.

“This is the case I have done most in the village. I don’t think any property has come close to this,” MacGibbon said. “It’s just the worst.”

The McCormacks attended the first four hearings in 2011 and 2012, but didn’t show up for the others.

“They never appeared before you during this time because they were never available in the area,” Evans, their attorney, told MacGibbon July 17. “They didn’t have the mental capacity or ability to address the code enforcement violations.”

He claimed the McCormacks “were hospitalized over 50 times” over the last decade, many times because of a traffic accident the couple claimed to have had when their van collided with a motorcycle in New York years ago.

“They went through separation not by choice but through hospitals,” Evans said. “They went through homelessness. They went through hell.”

Neighbors on Hemingway Court became increasingly alarmed by the couple’s bizarre behavior over the years.

“They were hoarders,” said Patrick Grossa, who lives across the street. “I’d throw stuff out in the garbage and they’d take it and throw it inside the house.”

Hoarding is categorized as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. It affects an estimated 2% to 6% of the U.S. population and in recent years has gained attention through the A&E reality show “Hoarders.”

The McCormacks seemed nice enough, said Delroy Spence, who lives two doors down. “But they couldn’t take care of themselves. They started collecting garbage and we realized something was not right,” he said.

By summer 2013, village code officers weren’t the only government officials visiting the house.

One July morning that year, investigators with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and Florida Department of Children and Families responded to a complaint of elderly neglect.

The McCormacks “rant and seem to be out of touch with reality during their conversations” and “there are concerns of hoarding in the home,” according to the complaint.

Ralph and Marguerite would not invite investigators inside. From the doorway, a deputy noted “a strong odor of garbage.” But he said the McCormacks were lucid, able to answer basic questions and declined offers of DCF services.

“This investigation revealed that this couple is hoarding items inside and outside of the home,” the PBSO report said. “They are not in need of medical assistance and can take care of themselves.”

 

Maggots in the fridge

Deputies returned to the house a year later after neighbors complained about foul odors and said they hadn’t seen the McCormacks in months.

The smell was so bad, deputies feared they might find a body. They did not, but they encountered rooms strewn with so much feces and garbage they struggled with their footing.

“The smell within was horrible, gagging odors,” deputy Patrick Ross wrote in his report on July 30, 2014. “I yelled out to Sgt. Fellows that we should possibly be wearing hazmat protective suits.”

They found three refrigerators packed with maggots and rotten food. Outside the house, they saw “two large rats feasting on the remains of another animal carcass” and a white van packed with trash and rotten food.

Ross called the health department.

“I advised that the home was an environmental hazard to those within the neighborhood,” he said in the report.

The village cleaned up the exterior. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“Essentially the village has been forced to act as a property manager for this property for almost a decade. That’s not the village’s responsibility,” Amity Barnard, a lawyer for the village, said at a hearing.

By August 2017, the McCormacks had returned to the area, according to PBSO reports. One described how the couple was kicked out of a bank for “yelling at employees and at each other.”

A day later, on Aug. 11, a deputy and a DCF investigator responding to a complaint of elder neglect met the McCormacks at the Royal Inn Hotel, where Ralph and Marguerite said they were staying while their home was being repaired.

DCF investigator Joy Burgess, summarizing the complaint, told the deputy that the McCormacks “have been bouncing around from place to place in their car. They have both been to various hospitals. They are unable to care for themselves.”

Earlier in the week, the report said, Ralph “was found driving erratically” and “looking for his wife,” who was in Raulerson Hospital in Okeechobee.

The McCormacks refused DCF services. “Neglect on adult was unfounded,” according to the PBSO report.

 

Bodies in driveway

On Aug. 23, 2017, a deputy met the McCormacks at a sheriff’s substation on Okeechobee Boulevard. The couple said they had been released from a hospital earlier that day and needed help.

They said that seven years ago, while they were in New York, their car had been towed “and all of their belongings taken from them.” The deputy helped the McCormacks retrieve their car from a nearby Department of Motor Vehicles lot and followed them to their house on Hemingway Court.

The house had no power or running water. The deputy helped them regain utility service and called the DCF hotline to report that the McCormacks needed help.

Early the next morning, a neighbor called PBSO after seeing what he thought were two bodies on the circular driveway of the house. A deputy found Ralph and Marguerite — “alert and conscious” — lying on the pavement.

“Ralph said his back hurt so he was laying on the concrete, which made it feel better,” the report said.

That month, the McCormacks’ house sustained a major water leak that prompted the couple to give money to various repairmen for repairs that were never made, according to a lawsuit the McCormacks filed in 2018 against a man named Edward Paige.

The McCormacks said they paid Paige $10,000 to move them from New York to Royal Palm Beach in August 2017. When they arrived in Florida, they discovered the water damage.

They also said Paige put their belongings into pod storage units and moved the pods, without their consent, to Tampa where the couple’s belongings disappeared, according to the suit.

“They regarded him as their savior as he helped them move down to Florida and continued to help them when they were facing turmoil in their home, yet he deprived them of all their possessions. He clearly exploited their vulnerability,” according to the suit filed by Kline Goldstein.

Paige was never found by process servers, so a judge dismissed the lawsuit in December.

Deputies returned to the house again on Nov. 8, 2017. They were met by two private health care workers who explained that they had found Marguerite an hour earlier in the restroom of a Denny’s restaurant covered in feces.

After cleaning Marguerite, the health care workers followed the McCormacks to their home. When deputy Dale Smith arrived, Ralph and Marguerite were sitting inside a car packed with clothes, trash and rotten food.

“Ralph said they had been living in car because he claimed squatters living in the house had destroyed the house,” the report said.

When Smith entered the house, conditions were so foul he had to wear a gas mask to avoid gagging.

“The house was covered in fecal matter throughout floors and partially on walls. The house had large amounts of water damage,” his report said. “There was a large amount of rotten food and piles of garbage on floors.”

The deputy and a sergeant called at least two different DCF investigators, including a director, requesting immediate help for the McCormacks. But DCF said it would be several days before it would send a unit.

A few hours later, the deputies found a place in Wellington for the McCormacks to stay, They bought dinner and hygiene products for the couple and laundered their soiled clothes.

 

Human feces in yard

A month later, DCF removed the couple from their home after neighbors complained that the McCormacks were living in their driveway.

As described in another graphic report, the responding deputy that day, Dec. 4, 2017, observed “what appeared to be human feces all over the front yard coupled with strong smell of urine. As I approached the front door the smell grew stronger.”

Neither Ralph nor Marguerite had clothes on when they made contact with the deputy inside the house, according to the report. Ralph was lying on the floor in his own feces.

“While on scene, Marguerite took her pants off and was observed peeing into a pan. While nude she appeared to have fecal matter down her legs as well,” the report said. Both McCormacks were “found to be suffering from self neglect.”

Marguerite was sent to a hospital in Port St. Lucie and Ralph was sent to the VA Medical Center in West Palm Beach.

By the end of December 2017, the VA transferred Ralph to Rustic Retreat Assisted Living Facility in Boynton Beach, where Marguerite joined him a month later.

Rustic Retreat Administrator Benoit Mailloux helped the McCormacks assess their limited finances, set up a trust and apply for Medicare.

Mailloux said he didn’t know the McCormacks owned a house until April 2018 when a delinquent tax bill for $19,400 was forwarded to him. He helped the McCormacks pay the bill.

In May 2018, after the couple appointed him their power of attorney, he started cleaning the interior of the house. “We needed six Dumpsters to remove all the debris,” he said.

He also saw notices of the repeated code violations. He helped the McCormacks hire attorneys to request a reduction in the fines.

The village issued another code violation that summer, for renovating the house without a permit.

In October 2018, the village reported Mailloux to PBSO on suspicion of exploiting the McCormacks. The McCormacks defended Mailloux, telling PBSO and DCF investigators they’d given him their consent and that he had refused their offers of compensation.

“Both Ralph and Marguerite expressed their gratitude for Benoit’s assistance,” the report said. In December, the village’s complaint was deemed unfounded.

 

Showdown over fines

After negotiating with the village earlier this year, Mailloux said the McCormacks were left with the impression they might get a break on their code fines if they brought the house up to code. The paid a contractor to make $15,000 in repairs in March.

On July 17, Ralph and Marguerite attended a hearing before the special magistrate, optimistic about getting a substantial reduction. With Marguerite at his side, Ralph leaned on his walker as Evans stood at the podium offering an apology for a code mess inadvertently created, he said, as a result of the couple’s disabilities.

“I don’t know how to make it fair in your eyes other than to say this is a moment that we can help people in the community who don’t have the same ability as everyone else,” Evans said, suggesting the McCormacks pay a $5,000 fine plus administrative costs.

“I would understand if this was a person who was defying the village outright,” he said. “These people were not that. They just need a little bit of help here.”

Village officials were not moved.

“I am very sympathetic, but there’s a huge gulf between $443,000 and five grand,” MacGibbon said near the end of the 35-minute hearing.

“This is not an issue with a thing. This is an issue with the property for a decade. There are people who had to live on that street dealing with this for a decade. And the village had to put out costs and had to maintain the property. Therefore my sympathy level is diminished over that decade.”

Evans continued defending the couple, but MacGibbon wouldn’t hear it.

“This is just a horrible situation and I am just stuck in the middle of it,” MacGibbon said. “But from where I am and what I can see, over a decade has gone by with problems and issues with this property that the village has had to remediate and I don’t find a compelling reason to reduce it, so I’m not going to.”

The McCormacks, Evans and Mailloux were visibly stunned.

“So, the fine, you are saying, is $443,000?” Evans asked.

MacGibbon replied, “Four-hundred forty-three thousand, nine-hundred sixty-two dollars and 16 cents.”

 

Village being vindictive?

In an interview this month, Mailloux said the McCormacks have a limited income. If they lose their appeal, they won’t be able to pay the fine, he said.

“Their house is their retirement money,” he said. “They worked all their lives for that. I did apply for Medicaid because their money will be gone soon if we cannot find the right help.”

The home has a market value of $336,700, the county property appraiser says.

Village Manager Ray Liggins defended MacGibbon’s ruling. He also disputed Evans’ contention that MacGibbon always reduces fines for other code violators. In 2018, he said, reductions were granted only about 62 percent of the time.

He said the village spent nearly $9,000 maintaining the McCormacks’ property and another $8,600 in administrative costs.

Those totals do “not reflect the actual cost ... to the community, including most significantly the neighboring property owners, forced to deal with persistent code violations and the overall condition of this property for nearly a decade,” Liggins said in an email.

The McCormacks’ violations $169,309 in fines just for high grass the village was forced to mow from 2014 until last September.

“It was an extraordinary effort by village staff to bring this property into compliance,” Liggins said.

Advocates for the McCormacks are livid.

Instead of showing compassion, they said, village officials are trying to get even with the McCormacks for the misery the couple wrought for nearly a decade.

“It’s like the village has taken the case personally, like they are getting back at the McCormacks for all the hard times the McCormacks caused them,″ said Kline Goldstein.

“We know they were difficult. We know the violations were enormous. But it’s totally egregious to take away their home.”