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THE STATE | COLUMN ONE

A Tenant Who Paid Tragically

Mary Jesus was a troubled and difficult renter. Faced with eviction after a long legal battle, she made a final, painful statement.

June 10, 2005|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — After scattering hundreds of copies of her suicide note from the seventh-floor ledge of a downtown building, Mary Jesus held her nose and raised an arm in the air.

Then, like a swimmer taking a plunge, she leapt to her death.

"Goodbye cruel world and all that," said the note, which blamed her suicide on an eviction she had battled fiercely -- and unsuccessfully. "Everyone will say what they always say when something totally preventable isn't prevented, 'Why didn't anybody do anything?' "

In the six months since her death at 33, Mary Jesus has become a symbol. Tenant leaders have highlighted her death as one of eviction's darkest consequences in an era of rising rents and an urgent shortage of affordable housing.

Landlords say they are not to blame and draw a different lesson. They point to failings in a mental health system that, they say, should have rescued Mary Jesus long before she stepped onto that balcony in the Oakland Tribune tower.

Many Oakland tenants have been swept out of their apartments by an overheated housing market. Most go quietly. Mary Jesus -- stubborn, articulate, unstable -- orchestrated a final act of defiance.

Diagnosed with depression and borderline personality disorder, she was stable as long as she had stable housing. But like others in similar situations, once her sanctuary was threatened, she lost her grip.

She was born Mary Jesus Brazil to Catholic, Portuguese immigrant parents in the Central Valley town of Turlock.

A photo from age 6 shows her smiling in her bedroom, a pet bird perched on her head. Months later, she was bouncing from domestic violence shelter to cheap motel with her mother and siblings.

At age 10, Mary's family said, she found her mother in the kitchen with a wound to her chest, her father hovering with a butcher knife. Her mother survived. Her father served prison time. They divorced.

Mary endured stints in foster homes, in juvenile hall and on the streets. With her 10-inch blue mohawk and counterculture views, "Mary just broke the mold in Turlock," said her oldest sister, Maria Kurtenbach, 45.

In the punk-rock underground, she found like-minded spirits, uncompromising in their rejection of what they considered a sexist, class-based society.

She found her sanctuary in Apartment #15 on the first floor of a 1913 building on Oakland's Alice Street, a neighborhood of stately but dilapidated buildings in the shadow of downtown. The rent, when she moved in 14 years ago, was $550 a month.

Mary refurbished the wood floors and hung black lace curtains. She painted the one-bedroom unit black and red in a Japanese motif and decorated with her own paintings -- dark explorations of death that challenged Christian symbolism.

"She really loved the place," said Emmely Dittmann, who with her husband, Hans, owned the 30-unit building known as the Dunsmuir Apartments for decades. Mary looked to the couple as surrogate parents. They hired her as manager.

She took to wearing all black. She learned to garden. She cut ties with her family, and to purge her father from her past, she ditched the name Brazil, becoming, simply, Mary Jesus.

In 1998, as the dot-com boom swept the Bay Area, the Dittmanns sold the building for $1.3 million to Mark Roemer and James L. Lewis, who were fast accruing Oakland properties.

As San Francisco refugees flooded Oakland, vacated units often rented at a 35% markup, said James Vann, of Oakland's Tenants Union.

Landlords are now bound by a 2002 law that requires "just cause" for eviction. But during the boom's early days, a 30-day notice sufficed, even if a tenant was current on rent. Anne Omura, director of Oakland's Eviction Defense Center, recalls "grabbing lawyers off the street" to help tenants fight evictions.

Roemer and Lewis could have served Mary Jesus with a 30-day notice. But there was an initial truce. After Mary posted memos around the building noting that the new owners were violating the law by not having an on-site manager, they hired her, waiving her rent as the Dittmanns had. She kept the building clean and welcomed newcomers.

She tacked notes of gratitude from tenants on her wall. "Thanks again for really pulling through for us," one couple wrote in May 1999. "It's a crazy war out there to get an apartment. Being young and black probably didn't help us any either."

"She was a really good manager," said tenant Geoffrey Andersen, 27. "If there was a plumbing problem, she'd get on the maintenance guy.... She took the whole building very seriously." But her demeanor intimidated some. In her black outfits, black lipstick and parasol, she often talked -- with a laugh and flourish -- about having been raped or about her occasional work in the sex industry, Andersen recalled.

"If you were friendly, her attention to you became oppressive," he said. "If you ignored her, she was hostile."

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