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'7 years of emotional hell' for La. couple -- over $1.63 tax bill

Red tape, Katrina, courts take toll

SLIDELL, La. -- A missing property tax bill for $1.63 has given Kermit and Dolores Atwood "seven years of emotional hell" in a fight to keep their home.

The bill was sent to a defunct address in 1996 and returned undelivered to the St. Tammany Parish sheriff's office. The Atwoods weren't looking for it since they had owned the four-bedroom house mortgage-free since 1968 and had been exempt from the state tax.

"The sheriff's office could have easily found us," Dolores Atwood said. "We're in the phone book."

Instead, the Atwoods' home was sold at a sheriff's auction in 1997 to American Land Investments because of the delinquent bill. The couple have won several court challenges since then and hope to withstand one more appeal over the property.

The State Tax Commission eventually nullified the 1997 sale, but when the Atwoods tried to sell the house in 2002, they discovered that American Land Investments had sold the property rights to Jamie Land Co., which then sued the Atwoods.

James A. Lindsay II, the company's president, said his rights were violated when the tax commission didn't inform him of its decision.

Without a clear title, the couple couldn't sell the house. Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck. Dolores Atwood said they didn't have insurance, and because of the title problem, they didn't qualify for federal rebuilding help.

"I don't know how much more I can endure," said Atwood, 69, who lives in a FEMA trailer in front of the still-damaged home north of Slidell. Her husband, 71 and on a respirator, lives with relatives. She said the couple had been through "seven years of emotional hell."

In May 2006, a judge ruled that the property title belongs to the Atwoods. Last month, a state appeals court panel upheld the decision. Jamie Land asked the court to rehear the case, but that request was denied last week.

Now, the company plans to ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to take up the case. Lindsay said he doesn't want the Atwoods to suffer, but said "I have rights too," adding that the commission gave him no notice when it annulled the tax sale.

"I don't owe him 50 cents," Delores Atwood said, "not with what he's put me through."

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