City says home uninhabitable without working utilities, but the only people who can turn the water back on are Stephen Bahls parents — and they are dead

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Frieda and James Bahl's house is at the center of a dispute between their son Stephen Bahl and Columbia City. A Columbia City man believes the city is discriminating against him, forcing him from his home. City administrators say they are only following the law. Mayor Cheryl Young says, “It’s complicated.”

Stephen Bahl was arrested last summer on charges related to his father’s death in 2009 and his mother’s disappearance in 2012. Bahl, 59, later pleaded guilty to abuse of a corpse, admitting that he had not reported his mother’s death and had instead buried her in a shallow grave on a logging road near Columbia City. He also pleaded no contest to a charge of criminal mistreatment regarding the care he gave his father prior to the elderly man’s death, and guilty to stealing his mother’s Social Security checks.

On Dec. 19, following a plea deal negotiated by his attorney and Columbia County District Attorney Steve Atchison, Bahl was released, with a prison sentence hanging over his head if he violated the terms of his probation. He planned to move to Washington, knowing he had worn out his welcome in Columbia City. First, he would return to his parent’s house to collect his things.

But, come February, he was still there.

Following the rules

Through the summer and the fall, while Bahl was sitting in the Columbia County Jail, waiting for his case to wind through the court system, utility bills piled up at the house on James Street.

By the time he was released, the water had been shut off and the house was, according to the city code which requires running water to residences, uninhabitable and unsanitary.

The only people who could ask the city to turn the water back on were the property owners — James and Frieda Bahl — and they were both dead. Stephen Bahl says his parents left the house to him in their will, but the will has not gone through probate, the process of dispensing an estate through the legal system.

The will, as it currently stands, only represents the wishes of the people who wrote it, said Columbia City Administrator Leahnette Rivers. It does not legally give Bahl ownership of the property. Without the probate in place, the city has no choice but to move ahead, following the rules, she said.

“This doesn’t have anything to do at all with who’s involved,” Rivers said. The city holds many such hearings and passes many similar resolutions, she said.

The city has recorded approximately a dozen such abatement resolutions from 2005 to 2012. Some of these liens were lifted when property owners complied; others were not.

When the city realized Bahl was still living at the house, they sent out an abatement notice and put a lien against the house. The lien equals the amount of money owed in unpaid utility bills, a total of $273.48. Bahl protested, requesting a public hearing.

At a Feb. 7 council meeting, the council held the hearing and, in a resolution, declared a nuisance at the property.

Bahl was given 10 days to leave.

The ‘real reason’

“We’re not discriminating,” said Mayor Young, who also runs the St. Helens Senior Center. “Our hands are tied. We have to follow through with the ordinance... The ownership of the property is totally unclear.”

But Bahl still claims discrimination.

“It is becoming clear to me that this entire issue is not about the water,” he wrote in a letter protesting the abatement and demanding a public hearing. “And it doesn’t matter what I say or do, you are determined by one means or another to expel me from my property.”

He said lawyers he talked to urged him to sue the city, but that’s not what he wants to do.

“Perhaps if I speak of the real reason involved here that might help,” he wrote.

The real reason, he said, is his mother’s death.

He said his mother was terrified of two things: suffering from dementia as she aged and undergoing an autopsy. Both of those fears became realities.

According to police, 92-year-old Frieda Bahl had extreme dementia at the time of her disappearance, was bed-ridden and — because of the unusual circumstances surrounding her death and burial — underwent a detailed autopsy, with samples sent all across the state to be processed for evidence after her son led investigators to her body. The Oregon Medical Examiner’s office later concluded that she had likely died of natural causes.

At his sentencing in December, Stephen Bahl gave no explanation for why he did not report his mother’s death. In his letter to the city, Bahl said his mother would have preferred a “bullet in her head” to losing her mind to dementia, the way her own father had decades before.

“Because I loved my mother and believe in family, I was willing to raise the level of my own criminality to a certain point,” he wrote. He had let her suffer from dementia, he said, but he would not let her undergo an autopsy.

“I would do it all again for in my heart I feel the same blood coursing,” he continued, adding, “And I couldn’t very well ask that her Social Security checks be stopped now could I?”

‘Up in the air’

“We’re not discriminating,” Mayor Young repeated. “Yes, we’d rather not have him in the city. He was told we’d rather not have him there.”

However, if Bahl is successful in taking his parents’ will through the probate process, he may end up being the legal owner of the house, Rivers said.

Bahl, who opened his front door only a crack in response to a knock, said he doesn’t know what will happen next. The only job the 59-year-old man has ever held was working as his parents’ caretaker.

“I’m going to just sell the house and move somewhere,” he said. “It’s all — well, everything’s up in the air.”

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