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Disabled vets left homeless after arson at apartments in Mississippi

Calera Police Department, Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives identifying homemade explosives and bomb making materials. (Contributed/Carol Robinson/al.com/TNS)

John Russelman was getting ready for his early-morning shift at work when heard a noise in the backyard of his apartment complex.

He drew the curtains at 2 a.m. on Nov. 15, but didn’t see anything outside. Five minutes later, because the curtains were already drawn, he saw a bright light through the window and realized a fire was raging. It had already engulfed part of his building on Rodenberg Avenue in Biloxi.

“I could reach out and touch the flames when I walked out of the front door,” Russelman, who worked the morning shift on a cleaning crew at Keesler Air Force base, told the Sun Herald. He said the flames could have been 25 feet high and got into the branches of an old oak tree.

“It was a hell of a sight,” he said.

He didn’t know it then, but he was the victim of a deliberate arson attack. The fire would destroy the building and upend the lives of the three disabled veterans living at Rodenberg Apartments, who lost virtually all their worldly possessions. More than two months later, the three men still have no idea when they’ll have a place to call home again.

The night of the arson

When Russelman, 55, saw the flames coming toward his home, he put his shoes on and rushed out of his ground floor apartment — but then ran back in “three or four times” for important possessions, like his phone, and also to try and wake the building’s other residents before calling 911.

Meanwhile, in another of the building’s four apartment units, Mike King had not yet fallen asleep. King, too, saw the flames, smelled smoke, and ran outside with a few possessions.

King and Russelman tried to wake their 84-year-old neighbor in the apartment below King’s by pounding on his door, but to no avail. When firefighters arrived, King says, they had to break down his door to get him out of the building.

After the three occupants were safely evacuated, the fire was extinguished, with no injuries reported.

Biloxi police determined in their investigation that the fire had been started deliberately.

“After finding no natural ignition source, it was determined that the cause of fire was believed to be arson,” said Captain Milton Houseman. “It is now an open investigation with both the police department and the Biloxi Fire Department.”

The police have not named any suspects. A fire department report lists the cause of ignition as “intentional” and tallied the damages to the building and its contents to $400,000. Russelman estimates he lost between $2,500 and $5,000 worth of possessions, including two televisions.

“Everything was ruined,” Russelman said. He also lost his birth certificate but does have his social security card and state ID.

He believes he would have been dead within 10 minutes had he not been awake for work. A former officer in the Marines, Russelman said he now realizes “just how how stupid I was to be running back in and out of there” for his possessions.

Disabled veterans left homeless

Like Russelman, King ran back into his second floor unit during the raging fire for a few valuables left behind. The two men’s desperation to retrieve their possessions are partly explained by the circumstances of their residence at Rodenberg Apartments.

Both Russelman and King were homeless before they were placed at the apartment complex through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, which provides rental assistance to homeless veterans. The third Rodenberg Apartments resident was also a disabled veteran receiving support from HUD-VASH.

None of the residents had rental insurance, which meant they could not receive compensation for the damage from the fire.

At the time of the fire, Russelman was employed part-time through Goodwill’s “Goodworks” program, which contracts with Keesler AFB and other employers to give jobs to disadvantaged and disabled people.

Before the fire, Russelman’s hours on the cleaning crew had been cut by about half due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

King, who is 51, was living at Rodenberg Apartments with his 17-year-old daughter, a high school student in Biloxi. Her mother, King’s ex-wife, had recently moved back home to Illinois in order to care for her older daughter, who is autistic and would not have been able to finish high school in person had they stayed in Mississippi due to local COVID-19 policies.

“Not only did I lose all my stuff, but I lost all my daughter’s stuff,” King said.. His daughter was not in the apartment at the time, but her clothes, shoes, and school supplies were destroyed.

“She’s a budding artist, she likes to paint and all her paintings on the walls were all ruined,” King said. King’s stepson later set up a GoFundMe online fundraiser to help him recover financially. It raised $126.

Before the fire, HUD-VASH had been paying $500 of King’s $600 monthly rent.

King contacted a Biloxi attorney specializing in insurance claims, but was told he most likely had no legal grounds to claim liability.

The owner of the property, Gulfport resident Judy Carter, did not respond to requests for comment.

What’s next for Coast veterans

After the fire, the Red Cross gave the three displaced residents bank cards loaded with $500 each, and the VA temporarily housed them for less than a week in an extended-stay hotel in D’Iberville. After that, they were offered indefinite “bridge housing” at a Salvation Army shelter in downtown Mobile, where Russelman lives today. After staying there for a few days, King departed for the Midwest.

The third displaced veteran couldn’t stay at the Salvation Army due to its lack of wheelchair accessibility, so HUD-VASH moved him to another transitional housing facility, Eagle’s Landing in Mobile, where he stayed until he left voluntarily on Jan. 19, according to Vernon Stewart of the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System.

At the Salvation Army shelter, Russelman shares a room with three other former Marines. “I just love the neighborhood because of the old houses and stuff, walking around,” he said, adding that the food is good.

But the facility houses around 30 long-term residents and admits as many as an additional 30 for a one-night stay on a cold night.

“Everybody here got COVID, except for five of us. I’m one of five people that have yet to get COVID,” Russelman said.

King has moved back to Illinois and is staying with his ex-wife and their two daughters. He is now two hours’ driving distance from the nearest VA facility. At the Rodenberg Apartments, he was just a mile from the Biloxi VA and could catch an Uber or a ride with a friend when he needed medical assistance.

King is diabetic and has had 12 stents put into his heart, among other health issues. He does not own a car and has difficulty walking.

Russelman, whose legal travails the Sun Herald has previously covered, now gets by mainly on the $150 monthly disability checks he receives for the leg injury that led his 2013 honorable discharge from the Mississippi National Guard. He did a tour in Iraq.

For now, Russelman is waiting for news from the VA about a new apartment.

“And then I’ll be able to go out and get another job, maybe go back to Goodworks, and hopefully the pandemic will loosen up a little bit and everything will be a lot better for everyone,” he said.

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