Fallout from Courthouse Death: Ken Fink’s Last Will and Testament

Battle over Santa Barbara Resident’s Mesa Home Continues Months After Suicide

Fallout from
Courthouse Death:
Ken Fink’s Last
Will and Testament

Battle Over Santa Barbara Resident’s
Mesa Home Continues Months After Suicide

by Ryan P. Cruz and Jack Magargee | July 24, 2023

Fink (left) and longtime friend, Letitia Harper | Credit: Courtesy of the Harper family

When 84-year-old Santa Barbara resident Ken Fink jumped to his death from the downtown courthouse on Sunday, April 23, it revealed a 20-year battle over his Mesa home, in which he had lived since 1966, and which had fallen into an extreme state of disrepair, bringing the attention of city inspectors and the city attorney who filed a lawsuit that could have forced him to vacate the only home he’d known for 50 years.

But in the three months since his death, the battle over his home continued in the courts, following a petition by a longtime friend of Fink’s, Letitia Harper, who had found his last will and testament in the days following his suicide. The will, she said, stipulated that the house would be left to her son, Jeremy Harper, and that both would be appointed as co-executors of the will. On Thursday, Judge Colleen Sterne upheld the petition of the Harper family in court.

The ruling marks a new chapter, though Fink’s story sparked a flurry of questions on social media, with city residents, family members, and neighbors wondering whether there was enough done to help Fink before he decided to take his final desperate leap.

“Stop Picking at the Bones”

Just 24 hours before his death, on the afternoon of Saturday, April 22, Fink typed out one final email sent to several current and former City of Santa Barbara employees — including the city attorney’s office — which described what he called his “nightmare” battle with the city over his home.

In the email obtained by the Independent, Fink details a decades-long struggle with now-retired Senior Fire Investigator Gina Sunseri, who worked with him for several years to address his hoarding problems and to try to get his property back into compliance with the city’s health and fire codes. After years of neglect, vegetation blocked every side of the house and trash was piled everywhere on the property. 

Fink (left) with Letitia Harper’s husband, Tim. | Credit: Courtesy of the Harper family

In Fink’s own words, he had worked with Sunseri to tackle the long list of code violations. Starting in 2012, Fink said that she would come by his home once a month to check on the progress, but he never felt that he was making headway with the city’s long checklist.

“Gina never complimented me on the work done,” Fink wrote. “She hardly looked at what was done, but rather what to do next.“

In 2015, according to Fink’s final email, he found that he was still not making enough progress to have his case closed. He had agreed to perform the tasks he was able to, but the “big outrageous” tasks, like remodeling the front porch, replacing windows, and re-roofing the house and garage, he wrote, were major projects that were outside of his budget and abilities. “When she said to put in a new hard surface driveway, I said, ‘Over my dead body.’ I never heard of such a requirement.”

By 2018, Fink wrote, he had attempted to re-shingle a section of the roof and make some repairs, but the property was still found to have 72 code violations. At that point, Sunseri had retired from the city, but she was still working with Fink personally to help get his property in shape and to offer him mental health services.

In the email, Fink admits to having a problem with hoarding, but he said that the city’s final offer — 30 days to make all abatements — was just not feasible.

“So it is your purpose to steal my home — at age 84 make me homeless,” Fink wrote at the end of the email. “You say you are concerned about my health and safety. Nonsense! But you also say the same about my neighbors health and safety. I assure you that I am no threat to the health and safety of my neighbors (nor anybody). The anxiety, nightmares are too much. It has to stop — please stop picking at the bones.”

Sunseri — who in 2011 was a panelist at an informational event about hoarding called “Collecting, Cluttering & Hoarding: When is hoarding a lease, sanitary code, or fire violation?” — responded to criticism the city faced via a post on Nextdoor, where city residents speculated about the level of assistance given to Fink before the lawsuit was filed.

“This is an incredible thread of assumptions, judgment, and compassion,” Sunseri wrote in one comment. “However, in this case no blame is warranted and what is happening is not wrong. Sad yes, but not wrong.

“He was offered help by every city and county agency available, for nearly 20 years. He was treated with dignity and respect at every step of the way,” Sunseri wrote. “The hoarding disorder is debilitating all the way around. He refused help every time, even from friends and neighbors. Everyone wanted to help. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want it. Over the 20 years the city has probably spent more money on trying to help Ken than it is now trying to close the case.”

Several others close to the situation declined to speak on the record but said that the city did everything in its power to work the situation out in a peaceful manner and make mental health services available every step of the way, but that after two decades, the city attorney was forced to file the suit out of worry that Fink would be in danger should an emergency ever arise at the house. 

A New Life for Fink’s Home?

Fink and the Harper family had a decades-long friendship, dating back to Fink and Letitia Harper’s time working together at the Santa Barbara County Probation Department in the mid-1970s. Letitia’s son, local artist Jeremy Harper, described in an interview with the Independent that Letitia had developed a close friendship with Fink that extended to her family. “He came to most of our Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners over the last four decades,” Harper said. “We treated him like family and vice versa.” 

Fink was a member of the American Daffodil Society — even winning Best in Show at the 1988 Southern California Daffodil Society Show for his Novice Bloom, “Santa Barbara”  — and many of his propagations were named after the places he loved: “Goleta,” “Summerland,” and “Montecito” are registered flowers with the Royal Horticultural Society in the United Kingdom. Another he registered “Letitia Harper,” named after his close friend. 

Two days after his death, the Harpers learned that Fink had died via an article in the newspaper and were distraught over the passing of their friend. Letitia told her son she wanted to go to his home to give her love and say her final goodbyes, and upon arriving at his home, she found an envelope in a box left outside his padlocked gate that read “For Letitia.” Inside the envelope, she said, was a photocopy of his will and a letter with the combination to the gate instructing Letitia that the formal will and testament was inside the home. 

The handwritten will, a copy of which was also obtained by the Independent, describes in two short paragraphs that his home on Cooper Road was to be left to Jeremy, with Fink writing: “I am confident that he will use it as he sees fit, maintain it as required by law, and hopefully pass it to his only son.” The will is signed by two witnesses, who both signed on April 23, though Fink’s signature, curiously, is dated April 27 (four days after his death).

Jeremy Harper said that he and his mother were “surprised” that Fink had included them in his will, describing the home as “a gift from a man whom they never asked anything from.” Harper expressed that Fink’s house was like his child, saying that “It was like his baby that he watched grow … he wants it to be maintained.” 

The Harper family said that over the years they had attempted to help Fink clean up his mess, but he refused their efforts and grew frustrated with their persistence. When asked about Fink’s legal battles with the city, Harper said, “It’s all such a dramatic, tragic story. I mean, this guy was like the sweetest, kindest person, and for the city to sort of harass him to this point where he jumps, seems like the city should have reached out in some way and made a bigger effort to try to help them rather than scare them into lawsuits.”

Harper said he also understood the city’s perspective: “If it was a 20-year ordeal, I mean, can you imagine how impatient they were becoming near the end?” He continued, “But you know, I think Ken believed, like a lot of people in this country believe, that as an honest, good, caring, kind, taxpaying citizen, we should have the right to do what we want with our property.” 

Several neighbors and family members questioned how well the Harpers knew Fink, and his family back in Ohio hired a lawyer to represent them during several court dates, though no legal challenges have been raised regarding the Harpers’ petition.

Addressing the criticism about the property being left to the Harpers instead of to one of Fink’s 12 nieces and nephews across the country, Harper said, “I could understand how they could jump to conclusions and say, maybe these people are full-on shysters…. I sort of understand their side and their suspicion.”

The city’s lawsuit against the property was put on hold until the matters of Fink’s estate were settled in court. Following the approval at the probate hearing, the city will now work with the Harpers and their lawyer Dana Longo to abate the fire and safety measures of the property. Assistant City Prosecutor Denny Wei said that the city is looking forward to working with the Harpers and Longo, saying, “We will be fair and reasonable as the case progresses.”  

Harper plans on maintaining the property according to Fink’s wishes. However, he admitted that the prospect of “potentially tearing down the place to rebuild it” and paying up to $2,000 a month in property taxes is a “daunting experience.”

“But that’s my wish,” Harper said. “My goal is to honor Ken’s will.”

Neighbors and friends gather to celebrate the life of Ken Fink during a community memorial service | Credit: Courtesy of the Harper family


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