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The Nation

And then the roof caved in

'Extreme Makeover' redid a home to make room for five orphans. Then they moved out and sued. Coming up: a courtroom drama?

May 13, 2007|Kim Christensen and Meg James | Times Staff Writers

The children were living in a rented apartment in Downey when the Leomitis, who had three teenagers of their own, took them in. News reports sparked an outpouring of support, including thousands of dollars in donations collected by the Norwalk Assembly of God, the families' church.

Herndon received a flood of calls, including some from "Extreme Makeover" producers, whom he put in touch with the families.

Exactly who promised what remains in dispute, but both families lobbied for the makeover.

"These kids had nowhere to go and we knew as a family we couldn't let the streets swallow them up," the Leomitis said in their handwritten application to the producers. "They had nothing, no money to bury their parents, no money to live. To make a long story short, our goal as a family is to give these kids a chance in life."

In a transcript of a taping for the show, Charles Higgins calls the Leomitis his second parents.

"I've had to step up and be a man about everything and take care of the kids, but what's really helped me a lot is the Leomitis took my family in, so it takes a load off me," he said.

During the same taping, Loki Leomiti said her children had grown up with the Higginses in Downey, and they remained friends even after the Leomitis moved to Santa Fe Springs.

"We love the kids dearly," said her husband, Phil, a construction plumber. "They're like our babies."

"Extreme Makeover" producers signed the couple and the orphans to agreements securing the rights to their stories. They also contracted with the Leomitis to rebuild their home.

The project kicked off in early 2005, when crews showed up to film a "door knock" sequence, notifying the families of their makeover.

The moment appears unrehearsed on TV but was captured at least seven times, according to the orphans' lawyer, Mesisca. He said the multiple takes demonstrated manipulation more than surprise.

"If you're passing a program along as a reality program and representing it to be real, live emotions that are being displayed at any particular time, but you have to keep reshooting it, there's something very not real about it," he said.

Whether there were multiple takes is beside the point, said Patricia L. Glaser, one of the show's attorneys.

"The reality is that people who do need help are getting help," she said, noting that "one of the reasons the show is successful is that the American people like to see people get help."

ABC declined to comment on the lawsuit but said it stood behind the show.

"We're extremely proud of 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' and the positive impact the show has on people's lives," the network said in a prepared statement.

When construction began on the Leomitis' home, the families were sent to the Bahamas on a Disney cruise. While they were gone, hundreds of people worked nonstop on their house for five days.

Bobby Flores, who lives across the street, remembers it as an exciting but chaotic time for the residents of Shade Lane.

"All day and all night, people were standing in my frontyard and there were even some people trying to stand on my roof to get a look," he said. "People were so anxious to see what was going on."

When it was finished, the Leomitis' three-bedroom, two-bath house had more than tripled in size, to nine bedrooms and six baths in 4,267 square feet. Kids who had slept on the floor or in the garage now had their own rooms. The energy-efficient house also had a new Polynesian-themed backyard to celebrate the Leomitis' Samoan heritage.

The house, its mortgage paid by the builder that did the makeover, was presented at the "reveal" in February 2005. Videotape rolled as the families pulled up in a white limo, greeted by throngs of neighbors and well-wishers, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

With the new digs came a slew of other goodies, including two years' worth of groceries, audio and video equipment, laptop computers and six Ford compact cars -- three for each family.

But that day's feeling of Kumbaya was short-lived. Within weeks, the two eldest siblings, Charles and Michael, then 21 and 19, had moved out of the house, and they were followed in short order by the others.

By August, the orphans had hired a lawyer and sued the Leomitis, ABC and other defendants. The lawsuit sought unspecified damages on allegations that included fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of contract, although that last count has since been dismissed.

The lawsuit charged that the Leomitis' generosity soon gave way to greed and deception as part of an "orchestrated campaign to degrade and insult" the siblings. The Higginses, who are black, accused the Leomitis of calling them "lazy" and "stupid" and making "raced-based remarks" about their hair, clothing and hygiene.

"Defendants Leomitis made these remarks to insult and offend plaintiffs and convey the message that African Americans are dirty and smelly," the lawsuit alleges.

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