Moving to Jacksonville was about survival for Marti Williams. She couldn’t afford to keep the Boynton Beach home she’d bought for retirement, so the 72-year-old woman moved into a cheaper place in an Arlington neighborhood, expecting peace.
She said her Jacksonville life was uprooted this spring when a man broke into her home and beat her. Someone later set her house on fire. She’s been hospitalized twice, once from the beating, once from smoke. Her house is unlivable from the fire and smoke damage. The only companion she had, her cat, died in the fire.
With no family to help and few remaining possessions, the Justice Coalition, a victim advocate organization, wants Jacksonville residents to volunteer and donate items to restore Williams’ home.
“I have no place to go. I’m homeless, completely,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m going to feel safe anywhere anymore.”
Williams said her modest 1,500-square-foot Jacksonville home was never part of her long-term plan. She’d spent most of her life as a military wife, working some jobs and moving when her husband’s orders said go.
The couple moved from California to Boynton Beach to settle down around other retirees, but then her husband filed for divorce in 2001. She didn’t have siblings or children to move in with, so Williams moved to Arlington in Jacksonville. Simply put, she didn’t have much money, and the area was cheap.
Williams bought a house with a little plot of land. She lived a quiet, private life with her cat, Spooky, and watched as more and more seniors moved from Arlington. They were unhappy with the crime in the area. She was, too, and she would have moved if she could.
“I don’t go out at night,” she said. “I don’t go out by myself.”
With nowhere else to go, she stayed.
The trouble started in April.
Williams woke up one morning and found the glass doors on her entertainment center open. She realized her TV, computer and other devices were gone. She called police.
A few days later, a man broke into Williams’ home while she slept, went into her bedroom and forced her to the floor. He choked her, threatened to kill her and demanded money. She grabbed her purse and gave him some money. The man left.
Williams went to a hospital to get treated for her bruises and came home feeling uneasy.
Soon after, someone set a fire in her garage. The smoke swept through the small house. Williams couldn’t breathe, and she fled.
She ended up back in a hospital bed, this one at Memorial Hospital Jacksonville, for double pneumonia. While in the hospital, Williams found out her credit cards had been stolen, and someone bought about $1,500 worth of appliances in her name.
Williams now lives in Consulate Health Care of Orange Park at little to no cost, said Larry Ward, a board member of the Justice Coalition. She said she is thankful for a room and warm meals, but she’s worried.
Eventually, she’ll have to leave, but she can’t go home to her charred and smoke-fouled house.
“Even in this facility, I wake up at night and I say, ‘I’m homeless,’” Williams said.
After the fire, Williams called organizations seeking help until she came across the Justice Coalition. Members of the organization took on her case, assigned her a victim advocate and organized non-profit organizations to help gut her home and rebuild.
Ann Dugger of the Justice Coalition said the organization needs volunteers help clean up Williams’ property.
The organization has had about 30 residents come forward with donations of furniture and building supplies, but they’re still looking for a single-car garage door and opener, Ward said.
Williams remembers the man’s face when he’d choked her on her bedroom floor. She’d seen him before, she told police. He’d mowed her lawn for pocket money.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office arrested Mitchel Rivera, 40, in April in relation to the home robbery and credit card theft. He is being held at Duval County Jail awaiting trial. Williams isn’t sure if the fire and first burglary were related to the other two incidences.
At Williams’ house, the charred, collapsed remains of her carport are only the beginning of the damage.
Earlier this week, Arlington resident Charles Peterson, a retired Navy serviceman, dragged away debris from the home. He’d heard about Williams’ situation and was compelled to lend a hand.
“I just felt she needed the help. She can’t do it herself,” he said. “I just can’t believe someone would do someone like that to an elderly lady.”
Meredith Rutland: (904) 359-4161
The Justice Coalition is coordinating volunteers and donations to help Williams rebuild her home.
To donate time or items, call Larry Ward of the Justice Coalition at 904-703-3688.