“I could have told you that this was going to happen. I couldn’t have told you the degree of destruction that could have happened, but I knew that something bad was going to happen,” said Crissa Doeppke, the homeowner next door at 7741 N. Knox Court. Her house suffered catastrophic damage.
The 49-year-old said she and other neighbors had complained to code enforcement for years about the hoarding activity that made the exploded home a neighborhood eyesore.
“This property and the people who live there have been a threat to my personal safety and to the security of my property for the entire time that I’ve lived here,” Doeppke said.
City records obtained by the Problem Solvers confirm the home had been cited at least 21 times for code violations since 2009, mostly because of piles of junk left outside the home.
“Any complaints that I’ve ever made were ignored, dismissed, minimized, explained away,” Doeppke complained.
She effectively lost her house in the blast because the explosion crushed the south side of her house, destroying her kitchen, blowing out her windows and damaging her gas line.
“I have been struggling to survive ever since,” said Doeppke, who spent two months living in a hotel before her insurance company finally helped find her a rental home nearby.
Home explosion spews asbestos
It would be easy for Doeppke to blame her neighbor Duane Doyle, who died in the blast. His memorial picture still hangs on the chain-link fence now surrounding the blast site next door.
When the 51-year-old blew himself up in a propane tank explosion, he didn’t just level the home he had lived in for years with his mother. He caused massive damage to the homes on each side of 7731 N. Knox Court.
It wasn’t just debris that flew everywhere, but cancer-causing asbestos from the home’s insulation.
“I’m looking at somewhere close to $50,000 out of pocket,” Doeppke said.
She told the Problem Solvers her insurance company won’t cover more than $10,000 for asbestos removal, even though her contractor says removing the asbestos and debris from her side of the house would cost $60,000 — and that’s before any restoration of her house could begin.
“I’m looking at being financially wiped out just to see how bad the damage is,” Doeppke said.
She and neighbors like Manny Garcia said the City of Westminster bears part of the blame.
“The house was condemned,” Garcia said. “There shouldn’t have been nobody in that house, no one coming near it.”
Garcia is referring to the fact that 10 months before the home exploded, it caught fire. After the house fire on April 8, 2021, the city plastered a sign on the house that read:
DANGER… THIS BUILDING HAS BEEN DEEMED UNINHABITABLE
IT IS UNLAWFUL FOR ANY PERSON TO OCCUPY OR RESIDE IN THIS BUILDING
First fire investigation goes unfinished
Firefighters never finished their investigation into the cause of the fire because the hoarding conditions inside made it too unsafe.
“Due to the unsafe conditions, extreme weight on the structure in the room of origin and concern of collapse, it was deemed to not proceed any further,” reads the investigative report into the cause of the fire, which was obtained by the Problem Solvers.
The report mentioned the home was “cluttered with material making moving difficult with a tremendous amount of trip hazards.”
Firefighters couldn’t even walk through the front door of the home because the report said the house was “chest high with tires, jackhammers, doors and miscellaneous clothing.”
But that didn’t stop Doyle, who continued to live in the home as a squatter after the April 2021 fire — even though Westminster disconnected the water and Xcel Energy had disconnected the gas and electricity.
Initially, Xcel told the Problem Solvers it disconnected service to the home after the April 8, 2021, fire. But Xcel has since confirmed that it actually disconnected service to the home back in 2018 and then removed the meters from the home after the April 2021 fire.
Neighbors are convinced city staff members knew Doyle continued to live in the home, because code enforcement did a two-day abatement on Aug. 2-3, 2021, to clean up all the new junk Doyle had accumulated four months after the fire.
It was the second time the city had done an abatement at 7731 N. Knox Court. In October of 2019, the city cleaned up the property but never billed the homeowner, Betty Doyle. As a result, it didn’t put a lien on the property for non-payment, which might have led to placing the home in foreclosure before it caught fire in April 2021 or exploded in February of 2022.
The results of inaction for Crissa Doeppke: “I don’t think I have a word for that. I’m devastated. I’ve been essentially frozen in time.”
Numerous complaints, but no enforcement
Doeppke would like to go back in time before the explosion, when she believes Westminster missed obvious opportunities to intervene.
City records show in June 2021, two months after the fire, a neighbor called 911 “because his neighbor keeps setting fires,” but the report doesn’t show if police made contact.
In August 2021, four months after the fire, the city conducted its second abatement as mentioned previously. The city sent a bill of more than $4,000 to Betty Doyle but said it didn’t bother to put a lien on her house for non-payment because it discovered the home was already in foreclosure at that point.
In October 2021, a different neighbor reported “a fire in the living room, even though there is no fireplace.” Police notes about Duane Doyle simply say “having him move on,” but the same call notes also mention a “propane torch.”
Then on February 15, 2022, one week before the explosion, another neighbor called 911 to say Duane Doyle had “been slowly moving in junk for the last three months.”
An officer showed up, but that neighbor told the Problem Solvers the officer made no effort to enter the condemned house to confront Duane Doyle. Call notes state, “no contact at residence.”
“Arrest him for trespassing. Maybe if he was in jail he wouldn’t be dead,” said Manny Garcia, who was one of 10 neighbors whose home suffered damage in the blast, in addition to the two homes on each side of 7731 N. Knox Court that can no longer be occupied.
Garcia said neighbors tried warning city leaders that Doyle was still living there: “They knew. They knew. Police came by, code enforcement would come by.”
Doyle was never arrested for trespassing, even though police reports confirm neighbors reported after the explosion they had seen him “bring multiple propane tanks of varying sizes” into the home.
Doyle’s mother, Betty Doyle, told the Problem Solvers in a phone call she had purchased the propane tanks for her son so he could heat the kitchen stove after the utilities had been cut off to the house.
Doyle’s home had gone into foreclosure in 2017, 2019 and 2021, but each time the filing was withdrawn. Betty Doyle told FOX31 it was because she would catch up on her back taxes and insurance.
The most recent foreclosure was filed on October 12, 2021, by Ken McFarland Properties but was withdrawn just 10 days later. That may be because, according to an attorney for the company, Ken McFarland Properties won a lawsuit that allowed it to auction off the property at the Adams County courthouse.
Neighbors stuck with huge bills, major destruction
Three weeks after the home explosion, neighbor Kerri Jaramillo went to a March 14 city council meeting and asked her elected leaders the obvious question: “I just want to know when this is going to be taken care of.”
Jaramillo lives across the street from the explosion, which damaged her windows and left nails sticking out of her drywall.
“We have contacted the City of Westminster over as many years as I’ve been here to do something about these homeowners. I’m actually the one that saved their house from burning last year,” Jaramillo told council members.
Two weeks later, at another council meeting, Brenda Garcia told city leaders, “It’s been years that we’ve been trying desperately asking for the city’s help.”
Garcia’s parents live at 7721 N. Knox Court and have been displaced from their home while it undergoes a massive asbestos clean-up.
“I’m sitting on a $97,000 bill just for the outside asbestos without knowing the structural damage of our home,” Garcia told city council members.
In response, Mayor Nancy McNally told her, “City staff has been in touch with the owner and I don’t know all of the details,” before offering to have a city employee call Garcia later.
But Garcia and other neighbors told FOX31 it has been a slow process to get clear answers on who’s going to clean up 7731 N. Knox Court.
Neither the mayor nor the city manager would agree to an interview with the Problem Solvers. Only Councilman Bruce Baker has been willing to share his thoughts with FOX31.
“There is a tug of war between city code and city enforcement and individual property rights,” Baker said.
But after more than 13 years of code enforcement violations the Doyles mostly ignored, Baker said he’s asked city staff to investigate if it could have done anything differently.
“You bet I’d like to know because we want to run a better city, and letting something like this go on and on and on is not running a better city,” Baker said.
Property rights or neighborhood safety?
In a statement to the Problem Solvers, a spokesperson for the City of Westminster said, “The City is limited in its ability to tell a homeowner how they should manage their private property, including issuing a trespass notice without the homeowner’s consent.”
Essentially, the city claims its criminal trespass code didn’t apply to Duane Doyle, despite its notice that it was “unlawful for any person to occupy or reside” in the home. In an email, the city spokesperson told the Problem Solvers the sign does not revoke the permission Duane’s mother gave him to be in the residence because they legally occupied the house prior to the sign being posted on the house.
That logic seemed curious to FOX31 legal analyst George Braucher.
“It seems incomprehensible to me that the government that declared the home uninhabitable and put up a nice little sign that uses the word ‘unlawful’ wouldn’t back up that word with some sort of action,” Brauchler said.
Despite all the visits city code workers and police officers made to the home between the date of the fire on April 8, 2021, and the date of the explosion on Feb. 22, 2022, a city spokesman told the Problem Solvers: “The city did not have sufficient information or evidence to pursue charges for ‘Failure to Comply with an Order of the Building Official’ under W.M.C. 11-9-2(E)(5).”
That might seem curious given an email that Brenda Garcia, whose parents were displaced by the Feb. 22 explosion, sent to multiple city workers and a code enforcement official on May 27, 2021 — seven weeks after the fire in April 2021.
The email reads in part:
“I urge the City of Westminster to please continue to help force a solution, as we can all agree that even with all the years of involvement the City has had with 7731 Knox Ct and the homeowner, a voluntary solution should no longer be an option. I believe this is the time to initiate additional, escalated enforcement and legal actions, as you mentioned the City was prepared for. The homeowner’s mental state needs to be evaluated and she needs professional help. I am genuinely concerned for her and her son Duane’s mental health, but this should also not be an excuse of why other’s safety should be jeopardized. I am unaware of the true cause of the fire but from what I have been told by the homeowner, this fire was an electrical accident. The City has been aware for the length of time the home has been without electricity and has called that ‘inhabitable’, yet also knowing the home has always been occupied. If the City has been on top of these issues and taken some kind of action, could this have prevented the fire?”
The house explosion would follow nine months after this email.
Home’s responsibility changes hands
Neighbor Crissa Doeppke isn’t buying the city’s excuses.
“There have been so many opportunities for them to intervene and so many pleas for help, and they were all ignored,” Doeppke said.
Doepkke said given the battle with her insurance company, she’ll be lucky to move back into her home in 2023 — if ever.
“In the end, someone lost their life, people lost their home, and the path of the destruction in the neighborhood is unfathomable,” she said.
Neighbors have created a GoFundMe for Doepkke to help fund the house repairs her insurance company is declining to cover.
In the meantime, the blast site remains an eyesore with a tall chain-link fence surrounding the property but no other obvious attempt to clean up the pile of debris left from the explosion.
A spokesman for the city of Westminster told the Problem Solvers the property is now owned by a reverse mortgage company called Five Brothers Property Management. That company is in charge of coordinating the clean-up process, which has been complicated by the presence of asbestos.
The city spokesman said the property owner has recently secured Smith Engineering, a state-licensed general asbestos contractor, and that firm is in the process of submitting an application for remediation.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said it’s prepared to review the bid as soon as it’s submitted.