Caribou claims John Barretto has failed to address safety violations at his residential property at 15 Prospect St.
Caribou is taking the owner of 15 Prospect St. to court after he allegedly failed to address numerous code violations. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou is taking the owner of a condemned property to court after he allegedly failed to address safety violations.

On April 11, Caribou’s lawyer, Richard Solman, served homeowner John Barretto a summons asking him to present a plan, either in writing or in person, for repairing alleged safety violations at his 15 Prospect St. house. He has not responded, City Manager Penny Thompson said.

Barretto claimed in March that he takes in people with homelessness and substance use issues who have few affordable housing options in Aroostook County. A city inspection found the home lacked electricity and had numerous safety violations, which Barretto did not address. Now, a judge will decide if the home is dangerous enough to demolish and displace Barretto and several people living with him. 

Even Barretto’s best intentions aren’t enough for people dealing with severe addiction and trauma, said Jon Holabird, chair of Recovery Aroostook, a nonprofit that manages Aroostook’s only two recovery houses in Caribou.

“I love and support everyone in that house, and I’m praying that they find recovery,” Holabird said. “But you won’t find recovery there.”

Licensed recovery homes provide services that are difficult for average people like Barretto to maintain, Holabird said. Recovery house managers require residents to pay rent, obtain employment, attend support meetings and remain drug- and alcohol-free.

Holabird’s experiences have led him to believe 15 Prospect cannot provide adequate shelter or support for people in recovery.

As he struggled with addiction throughout his 20s, Holabird sometimes was homeless and stayed at 15 Prospect. He and others used drugs and Barretto knew about it, he said.

If the house is demolished, the city should try to help those displaced access recovery resources, Holabird said.

The city’s actions against Barretto come as municipal leaders are more determined to address blighted properties and related issues of substance use.

Last fall, city councilors heard about Hanah White, a 22-year-old Caribou resident who died of a drug overdose in a Sweden Street home. While sharing his daughter’s story, David White said Hanah had recently lived at 15 Prospect St., which had major safety issues and was a place where drug activity supposedly occurred.

Police investigations have not confirmed drug activity at the house, Caribou Police Chief Michael Gahagan said.

“We’ve had no drug charges or seizures come out of that property,” Gahagan said. “No one has died there [of a drug overdose].”

Neighbors shared numerous complaints during a public hearing in November, alleging some residents of 15 Prospect had ridden ATVs through yards, threatened business owners and left drug needles on the ground. Councilors asked code enforcement to inspect the property.

Code Enforcement Officer Ken Murchison and former Fire Chief Scott Susi inspected the home in December. It had no electricity and electrical wires hung from walls, some rooms had no windows for emergency exit and occupants used improperly installed wood stoves for cooking and heating, according to the inspection report.

The city condemned the property and gave Barretto 30 days to present a plan for fixing the violations. Barretto did not respond until February, after the 30-day period had passed, Murchison said.

City officials also had inspected the house in 2016 and discovered rotted floorboards, incomplete walls, water damage, inadequate smoke alarms, inadequate railings on basement stairs, broken windows and exposed electrical wires, according to that inspection report.

Barretto has lived at 15 Prospect for at least a decade, he said in March. He obtained legal custody of three of his children’s classmates, whose family had struggled with substance use, and over the years his house became known as a place where struggling people could go. No one living with him is allowed to use drugs and alcohol, he said.

“My home is safe. It’s better than them living under a tarp in a snowbank,” Barretto said.

Barretto estimated he has taken in hundreds of people and many have recovered because of the shelter, food and work that he and local churches have helped to provide.

He claimed then he had replaced doors, windows and hallway floorboards, installed new kitchen cabinets and added a handrail for the basement stairs. He said he planned to replace downstairs windows and a wooden support beam in the basement that was damaged by fire several decades ago.

Efforts to reach Barretto regarding his court summons have not been successful.

Murchison has not seen Barretto since February. Since Barretto has not responded to the latest summons, the city expects a court appearance to be scheduled later this year.

“This is the first such action I’ve seen [against a property owner],” said Murchison, who has been code enforcement officer since 2018. “The judge will tell us the best course of action.”