A 911 caller had reported that the man was wandering beside I-635. Petigna was trying to help James Washington (not his real name) find his home. Washington, who suffers from dementia, had already led the officer to a boarded-up church that still bore his name as pastor on the sign.
Now, with the help of a city police officer, Petigna had found a second crumbling sanctuary -- an adult foster-care home where Washington's daughter had placed him three days earlier after he'd slept overnight in a neighbor's front yard.
When the door opened, a middle-aged woman peered out, bundled up in a ski bib and wearing panty hose for a stocking cap. She was not the owner of the house, she told Petigna, but a resident. She was watching the other people in the house while Christine Allen, the owner, was at work. Petigna looked past the woman into the dim living room.
"Things began not to add up," Petigna says. He asked Janice (not her real name) if he could look at Washington's room. "Sure, come on in," Janice said and opened the door wider.
The stench of urine almost overwhelmed him. "It took everything I had not to throw up," Petigna says. The house was bitterly cold, and two other female residents -- also dressed in heavy clothes and stocking caps -- wandered about.
Dirt, cockroaches and dog food littered the kitchen floor. The ceiling above the oven was heavily stained with burned-on soot. The oven was cranked to 500 degrees, throwing some heat through its open door, while a tin filled with dog food, noodles and vegetables roasted on the upper rack.
"It had been cooking for several hours," says Petigna. Cabinets stood open; dirty dishes sat in piles in the sink and on the countertop. A chicken soaked in a pot of water on the stove. "The water had that day-or-two-old look, like greasy dishwater," says Petigna. He opened two mildewed refrigerators and a deep freeze and found them packed tight with rotten food.
When Petigna accidentally bumped the phone on the kitchen wall, knocking it loose, twenty or so cockroaches swarmed out and scurried in all directions. Petigna turned to the Kansas City, Kansas, officer and told him, "We're not leaving until SRS gets here."
Petigna wanted state social workers to come get the residents out of the squalid house immediately. In fact, Kansas social workers had been there many times before. From 1989 to 1998, Social Rehabilitation Services had inspected and licensed the home under the name Modern Concepts to care for mentally ill adults. However, for the past two years, Christine Allen had operated Modern Concepts with no state oversight.
When Petigna's Kansas Highway Patrol dispatcher phoned SRS that afternoon, the call ended abruptly: No one from the agency would come out, Petigna says. So the trooper dialed the number and demanded to speak to a supervisor. "I told them, 'I'm sitting on this house, and I'm not leaving until you send someone out here,'" Petigna says.
He glanced out the kitchen window. Three dogs attached to heavy chains shivered, with no water or food. "The dogs appeared sick with mange and malnutrition," Petigna wrote in his report. But a tour inside further confirmed that the dogs were not the only ones neglected.
Water-soaked carpet in Washington's bedroom in the basement squished beneath Petigna's boots. "Later, we found out we were walking on raw sewage from a broken sewer line," he says. Two other basement rooms were so cluttered that he couldn't step into them. "Once upstairs, I went directly to the bathroom," Petigna wrote in his report. "The odors were terrible. There I found a dirty, backed-up sink. The sink had urine on it. Opening the cabinet door you would see the drain wasn't connected. It drained onto pieces of crumpled-up newspaper. The floor was weak and worn. I worried about falling through."