Who torched the Hamilton home?

The couple who put their blood, sweat and tears into a home to care for older folks. The millionaires who made it clear they were not welcome. And the dream that mysteriously went up in smoke.
Keith Hamilton looks up into the wreckage on Locust Hill Lane.
Keith Hamilton looks up into the wreckage on Locust Hill Lane.Photo from Eye on Ohio

This article provided by Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism. Please join Eye on Ohio's free mailing list as this helps provide more public service reporting to the community.

When Scott and his wife Priscila Hamilton tried to start a family business, they looked far and wide for a property they could convert to an elderly care home.

Not only was the demand overwhelming in Ohio, which has often experienced severe shortages of medical care, but it was also going to be a labor of love: Scott’s elderly parents, aged 85 and 92, needed full time care now. Especially after his father Jim Hamilton, a World War II Navy veteran and retired OSU professor, recently suffered a heart attack.

“We could never imagine placing our own parents in big facilities that look and feel like institutions. We wanted them to be at home, feeling safe and enjoying our family environment as they aged and struggled with new realities,” Priscila Hamilton said. “That’s when we realized the importance of having family-style homes to care for elders who can’t fully take care of themselves, just like our parents can’t.”

So they bought a house and were almost done fixing it up to make it a small group home. But no senior ever moved into it.

Neighbors sued the Hamiltons to stop their building permit. Just as the suit was about to be lost, in the dead of the night on February 9, 2021, someone broke into the house and torched it. No one was hurt but it started a financial and emotional tailspin for the Hamiltons they never recovered from. And the suspect was never caught.

The following is based on police and private investigations, a review of 224 documents related to the case, doorbell cams, 911 calls, video from Dublin City Council and committee meetings, and interviews of family, friends and neighbors.

Becky Miller with a picture of her parents, Jim and Doris Hamilton.
Becky Miller with a picture of her parents, Jim and Doris Hamilton.Photo from Eye on Ohio

Not welcome

The Hamiltons set their eye on 5281 Locust Hill Lane, the first house on a beautiful cul-de-sac overlooking the river in the tony Columbus suburb of Dublin. At publication time, real estate website Zillow estimated the other 10 properties on the block were worth an average of $1.07 million. It even featured former Michigan football player Mike Boren, and his wife Hope, who raised several Ohio State players.

The house on Locust Hill Lane was an older home, in one of the few developments without a homeowner’s association. Before buying it, the Hamiltons checked with the city of Dublin to see if they would be able to get a permit, and after they got the green light, they bought it in July 2018.

After purchasing the property for $587,500, they got a construction loan in February 2020 and began pouring about a million dollars into renovations. The new facility wouldn’t have signs, but in brochures they named it the Lodge at Hayden Falls. They estimated new placements would pay about $5,500 to $7,000 a month based on market rates.

The 7,289 square foot house had a large sunroom for viewing the backyard, and even an indoor pool. The Hamiltons imagined residents using it for water therapy or sitting in the room overlooking the pool when grandchildren came to visit.

The Hamiltons had communicated extensively with the city about the renovations to make sure they were up to code, but had yet to meet the neighbors. Then in August 2020, Scott Hamilton got a voicemail from an attorney saying that the neighbors wanted to speak to them.

The Hamiltons became nervous. Why had all the neighbors hired Mike Close, a former mayor and judge in Dublin?

At the meeting, the Hamiltons tried to put their best foot forward. Dublin allowed 12 people in this type of facility, and they would house around 10. Residents would have at least two State Tested Nursing Assistants there during the day, and one awake at night. If residents could no longer take their medication on their own, they would have to move out to a nursing home.

Locust Hill Lane resident Marcia Olson said she had been living there for 52 years and that the new home would be “ignoring your neighbors’ needs and the integrity of the community.”

Next-door neighbor Jim Sanfillipo said the facility wouldn’t allow him to enjoy his backyard, where he had just spent a lot of money upgrading his deck.

“We’re going to have football games, we’re going to have parties over there. We have a big party every fall we call Fall Fest that we do over there. And there’s 100 people that come to our house. Old people that want to go to bed at 7:30, and we are going to get calls from the police telling us that we are too loud,” Sanfillipo said. “I just don’t want to put $125,000 in a new deck and have police come to me saying we’re too loud watching the football game at 10 o’clock at night.”

5281 Locust Hill Lane
5281 Locust Hill LanePhoto from Eye on Ohio

Doesn’t suit us

In October, the Hamiltons got their first surprise. They had to stop work on the house because all 17 of the neighbors on the street had sued them, including a temporary restraining order saying the case had to be heard without them present because they couldn’t be reached. Court records indicate the TRO hearing took place before they even received notice of the suit.

Attorney Mike Close said he didn’t tell the Hamiltons directly because he wasn’t sure if they were represented by an attorney yet. And the lawsuit was important to Locust Hill Lane residents.

“If they [the Hamiltons] would have just bought this house and moved in four or five people who needed assistance they would never have heard a word from the neighbors. But they put a huge addition to the Southern part of the house, and decided not to use the garage anymore,” Close said. “The neighbors didn’t think they ought to be able to do that because they have deed restrictions.”

In court, the neighbors argued that the 1956 deed restrictions clearly stated that the property could only be used for a single-family residence. And that the Hamiltons wanted to illegally operate a business in a residential neighborhood.

The Hamiltons argued that they had a permit, and that small residential care facilities were one of the businesses allowed under the Dublin building code for residential neighborhoods.

They said that laws enacted after 1956, such as the US Fair Housing Act and Ohio’s Fair Housing law, invalidated deed restrictions that discriminated against people with disabilities.

They cited several cases where courts noted that individuals didn’t have to be related for them to be considered “family,” such as City of Westerville vs. Kuehnert (1988) which allowed for-profit foster family homes in a residential neighborhood, Saunders vs. Clark County Zoning Dept. (1981) which allowed unrelated delinquent boys in a group home, and Bullitt vs. City of Cleveland (1986) which allowed seven mentally disabled adults to live together.

The main staircase at the Hamilton home
The main staircase at the Hamilton homePhoto from Eye on Ohio

Neighbors also lobbied the city of Dublin to cancel the building permit. Close twice texted Dublin City Manager Dana McDaniel about it, who referred him to their legal department.

At the December 7, 2020 city council meeting, Close and other neighbors complained to the city about the construction.

Resident David Tiefenthaler spoke for the group, saying the deed should restrict the property to a single family with a garage. He said the new home had converted the garage to a living space and wouldn’t be a single family residence.

“We feel victimized by this approach, which influences the city of Dublin. Your endorsement of this project is at the expense of the rest of the neighborhood. We anticipate damages to our neighborhood in many ways: increased traffic from staff, visitors, and deliveries around the clock. We fear for our safety. Also our concern: our fear for our property values and the ability to sell our properties in the future,” he said.

City Attorney Jennifer Readler explained that the city couldn’t do anything.

“As it has been referenced, these types of uses are categorized under our zoning code as a community residence, and we actually had these types of uses come up several years ago. And in 2014 we undertook a significant zoning code amendment to deal with just these types of uses. As Mr. Close alluded to, there are federal and state disability discrimination laws that come into play with these types of facilities. So, we thought prudent to secure an expert in this field of compliance, gaining compliance with FHA, ADA types of legislations, his name is Daniel Lauber and you can find on our website an extensive report that Mr. Lauber prepared for City of Dublin with recommendations on how to address these uses in our code. Under state law, we are to treat these types of facilities as we would single-family homes,” she said.

Close said the neighbors didn’t want to prevent people with disabilities from living in the neighborhood, they just wanted to prevent a business so large.

Councilmembers Jane Fox and Greg Peterson agreed that the renovations might make the property look like a nursing home.

“I did drive by and I am totally sympathetic to your comments this evening.“ Mayor Chris Amorose Groomes said. She directed staff to look into the garage conversion ordinance to make sure future neighborhoods wouldn’t be affected by something similar again.

Close asked Groomes to join the lawsuit. She said that was something she could only discuss in an executive session but that she would consider it.

Two days after the meeting, Tiefenthaler sent a note thanking the city for listening to them. He also sent a video of the property and complained that contractors were up working at 6 a.m. when they were supposed to start at 7 a.m. He said doing so turned on the exterior lights which were “VERY obnoxious.” He said it was the third complaint he had registered.

The mayor responded and thanked Tiefenthaler and forwarded the video onto police, asking how many complaints, particularly noise complaints they had received. The police responded that they had only had a record of one incident from the area and its surroundings, when tools were stolen from 5281 Locust Hill Lane on December 2 of that year.

Scene from the fire debris
Scene from the fire debrisPhoto from Eye on Ohio

“The entire top of the house is on fire”

February 9, 2021 was a bitterly cold day that left frost everywhere after the remains of an ice storm swept through the region. There was no precipitation though on this 16 degree night.

Shortly before midnight, calls started to flood into 911 as residents reported a raging inferno on Locust Hill Lane.

“The entire top of the house is on fire,” neighbor Dene Sanfillipo reported. “It’s about to collapse!”

Firefighters entering the burning building
Firefighters entering the burning buildingPhoto courtesy of Washington Township Fire Department

Firefighters arrived a little after midnight and flooded the basement with four feet of water just to staunch the flames. By the time they were done, the sunroom was a shadow of its former self, a good chunk of the second floor was missing, and the fire had opened an enormous hole into the basement.

The official fire investigation report rules out gas or electricity as a source of the fire. Investigators found a melted object “consistent with a small gas can” near the back windows. Underneath was clean broken glass.

Is this part of the remains of a gas can?
Is this part of the remains of a gas can? Photo courtesy of Washington Township Fire Department

“After washing down the entire main living area floor, irregular shaped burn patterns with varying degrees of intensity were located. These patterns are consistent with an ignitable liquid being poured in this location,” Fire Investigator Chad Hamilton wrote. (No relation to Scott and Priscila Hamilton.)

Priscila Hamilton inspects a lightbulb that melted in the heat.
Priscila Hamilton inspects a lightbulb that melted in the heat.Photo from Eye on Ohio

The Hamilton’s insurance company, Liberty Mutual, classified the fire as arson. The Washington Township Fire Department’s official classification, however, is “undetermined.”

“We can’t confirm it’s a gas can and we can’t confirm what kind of liquid was in the item itself,” Chad Hamilton said.

The remains of a red plastic can or object found in the great room on Locust Hill Lane.
The remains of a red plastic can or object found in the great room on Locust Hill Lane.Photo courtesy of Washington Township Fire Department

He noted that the melted mess could have been a toolbox or something. He said he was there when Liberty Mutual informed Scott Hamilton that they thought it was arson.

“Is this fire suspicious? Yeah this fire is very suspicious but I can’t sit in a courtroom and call it this way,” Chad Hamilton said.

Investigators measure the area around alleged accelerant remains.
Investigators measure the area around alleged accelerant remains.Photo courtesy of Washington Township Fire Department

Scott and Priscila Hamilton also hired a private fire investigator who decided in his report that the fire was probably arson for several reasons: video from cameras across the street showed the fire zooming across the house quickly, as if helped by an accelerant like gasoline. There appeared to be a car across the street at a neighbor’s house who stayed in Florida at the time. The car later disappeared before fire trucks arrived.

He was especially suspicious of clean broken glass found near the purported gas can and the area of heaviest fire damage. Had firefighters broken the glass when they tried to put out the fire, one side would have had soot on it, he reasoned, so it was here that the arsonist broke in to burn the place down.

‘A total loss’

The Hamiltons were devastated by the loss of the house, which they said affected their whole family. Five of their six children are now adults and had come back at various times to watch the house or help with renovations. Scott’s sister, Becky Miller, had been prepping finishing touches on the home. Their brother Keith Hamilton, a contractor, had stained most of the wood himself.

But they said no one took it harder than Jim and Doris Hamilton, who had been married for 67 years and spent the last 47 in Dublin. The family said the stress was too much for Jim, who died at age 93 on May 19, 2021. Doris died less than a month later on June 4.

But the Hamiltons held onto a glimmer of hope: in May 2021, the court had ruled on the case and had sided with them. The neighbors appealed to the Franklin County Court of Appeals.

he Hamiltons in what used to be the kitchen of the home.
he Hamiltons in what used to be the kitchen of the home.Photo from Eye on Ohio

‘Oh is this for snow?’

On the day of the fire, Dublin City Manager Dana McDaniel wrote in an email, ‘I heard when I came in that it was the house at 5281 Locus [sic] Hill Lane (the “lodge”). How this effects things, I will defer to legal. Just wanted to make you all aware.”

The city never joined the lawsuit. But they did follow through with addressing garage conversions.

At the next Dubin Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on February 18 of that year, Senior Planner Tammy Noble put forward a proposal, ‘at the direction of council’ to amend the zoning code to prevent garage conversions in residential neighborhoods, unless homeowners build another garage just as big. She said the request was “based on some public input we have gotten” that was “permitted by code but has some unintended consequences that council wanted us to address.” She never mentioned the Hamilton home or disability housing.

Commission members debated parking needs, cars on the street during snow plowing, and aesthetics. The group took up the conversation after debating the needs of specialty hospitals for an hour and a half. But the garage conversion discussion never mentioned the Hamiltons or any impact the measure might have on residential elder care. Those two issues were also absent during their subsequent meeting on March 18, 2021 when they discussed the ordinance again. The proposal passed unanimously and went to the city council.

On April 12, City Council heard the first reading of ordinance 16-21, which Noble said would address the loss of parking space if residents convert attached garages in residential neighborhoods. The measure sailed through its first and second readings. The Hamiltons didn’t object as they didn’t know that the measure had been proposed.

The Hamiltons finally settled with their insurance company in July, who paid them in three installments in September, October and November. They estimate the insurance money covered only part of their costs. But still, they were determined to rebuild.

In August, Scott Hamilton emailed Washington Township Fire Inspector Chad Hamilton: “As we are preparing to resume construction, we are in need of some conclusive reports before we demo the burned outstructure.”

Chad Hamilton responded, “The Washington Township Fire Department has completed the scene exam along with the insurance investigation.The fire department still has this investigation open and is conducting a completely separate investigation from the insurance company. We have released the incident report as required, however the fire investigation is still active and ongoing, due to the ongoing investigation we cannot release any additional information at this time.”

In September, the City of Dublin told the Hamiltons that they had to haul away debris on the property. They said neighbors had complained that the property had been vacant for so long. The Hamiltons asked how they could do that when the property was still under investigation. The Fire Department clarified that they had all the evidence they needed from the property in their possession.

Then came the biggest blow of all: the city informed the Hamiltons that their building permit had expired since they hadn’t worked on the property since February 9, 2021. And since they had a new ordinance preventing garage conversions for single family homes, they could no longer get a new building permit.

The Hamiltons asked why the fire didn’t pause the permit, and the city said if they wanted an extension, they should have applied for it 10 days before the expiration of their last permit.

The city actually didn’t need to torpedo the new construction: the insurance company, citing an arsonist on the loose and the current animosity in the neighborhood, refused to insure the residence in the future. In April 2022, the Hamiltons finally sold the property for $313,000. But as longtime Dublin residents, they still felt betrayed.

Keith Hamilton surveys the wreckage.
Keith Hamilton surveys the wreckage.Photo from Eye on Ohio

The end of the line

Authorities still don’t have a suspect and many questions have been left unanswered. Did the arsonist see the new $39,000 water sprinkler system, which workers had just installed but was not yet operational? The final inspection was supposed to take place that week. Did the perpetrator get a tip that the lawsuit would not go their way and decide to take matters into their own hands? Or was that too just a coincidence? What will happen to elderly residential care in Dublin?

After the Hamiltons decided to sell, the neighbors dropped their appeal. But in October 2021, the Hamiltons filed a formal complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission against the 17 of them, plus every member of the Dublin city council, alleging they had discriminated against individuals with disabilities.

The mayor, all members of city council, and all city employees declined to be interviewed for this article. They released sworn March 2022 affidavits though, saying the garage conversion ordinance did not target disabled people.

Mike Close said he is not involved in defending against the civil rights commission case but he didn’t think it would go anywhere.

“The allegations they have made are preposterous,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Ohio Civil Rights Commission said the investigation is ongoing and the commission has until October to issue its finding of probable cause or no probable cause for discrimination.

In an email to the Hamiltons, an investigator said she was planning to file a probable cause complaint against the City of Dublin only. If that happens, the next step in the process would be an attempt to settle, followed by referral to the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Section.

In the first part of fiscal year 2022, (the last half of 2021,) there were 678 allegations of disability discrimination filed with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, which is on track to be slightly higher than fiscal year 2021 (from July 2020 through June 2021) though data from January through June 2022 is not yet available.

The Hamiltons estimate that their financial losses total over $900,000, and with the lost business value factored in, about $1.7 million. But now they are not sure they want to operate an assisted living facility in Dublin.

According to the Ohio Department of Health, despite soaring demand, the number of beds available has plateaued in recent years. There are currently 798 assisted living and residential care facilities with a capacity of 67,932 beds. (ODH does not track the actual number of spots filled.)

“It was so promising! A place meant to bring much needed solutions for seniors in need of special loving care. A beautiful project born out of the needs we faced with our late parents. We were so excited and completely backed up by family, friends, peers… but then, just over a year ago, we faced the unpredictable… Arson,” Priscila Hamilton said. “God knows our hearts. While the story isn’t over yet; we are moving on, truly grateful for everyone’s prayers and unwavering support.”

This article provided by Eye on Ohio, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Ohio Center for Journalism. Please join Eye on Ohio's free mailing list as this helps provide more public service reporting to the community.

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