Don’t Set Glass Houses On Fire: When Insurers Balk, Lesbian Arson Victims Sue

You may remember the incredibly tragic story of Carol Ann and Laura Stutte, whose house was burned to the ground with the word “QUEERS” spraypainted onto the side. At the time that story broke, we knew that they had been continually harassed by ‘a neighbor’ for months before the attack, but no more details about this neighbor (or maybe more accurately, suspect) were available at the time. The story developing now explainswhy: although the Stuttes believed they knew who had set their house on fire, they “scrupulously avoided naming names” and publicly stated several times that they hoped their arsonist would be able to someday get help. The couple haven’t been interested in conflict or punishing anyone; they only wanted to return to the peaceful life that should have been theirs all along. But now that their insurance company is refusing to pay them what they’re owed, support them at all while they are still completely debilitated by a fire that destroyed everything they owned, or pursue justice on their behalf, they are suing their neighbor, Janice Millsaps.

The trail of evidence to support their claims honestly couldn’t be stronger. The Stuttes reveal that Millsaps has, over the course of the time they lived at their former address:

+ threatened to poison their dogs a short time before one of their dogs died, apparently of poisoning

+ trespassed on their property, entered their home when they weren’t there, and watched them through their windows

+ repeatedly made directly threatening statements, including but not limited to “There’s bodies in these hills that no one will ever find,” and “Do you know what’s better than one dead queer? Two dead queers.”

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Even after all this – and even though Millsaps is still living in the same house in the same neighborhood while they’ve been moving through a series of safe houses and temporary homes for the past 5 months – they Stuttes weren’t going to sue. The only reason they did was that their insurance company won’t pay for their living expenses, and has stopped returning their calls. Although they were initially put up in a safe house paid for by the insurance agency, they were cut loose after one week and told they had to find someplace to live on their own.

“We were so grateful,” says Carol Ann. “Then he called and said we had one week to find somewhere else to live or start paying it ourselves—and that place cost like $2,400 a month. I asked where we were supposed to go, and he said, ‘You have a house, you have land, go back there.’ I told him, ‘But the house is gone! And our neighbor is trying to kill us!’ and he told us we’d have to figure it out. I could not stop crying.”

The Stutte’s insurance policy clearly stated that, “If a loss covered under this section makes the residence premises uninhabitable, we cover any necessary increase in living expenses incurred by you so that your household can maintain its normal standard of living for up to 24 months.”

Everyone, from every possible walk of life, experiences trauma. Losing a home could happen to anyone, and does happen to people of all kinds. But when you experience trauma as a member of a marginalized or socially undesirable group – like a sex worker raped by a client, or a veteran of an unpopular war – there’s a second trauma, the damage that’s done by watching everyone around you, people who by all moral and ethical standards should be helping you, side with your abuser. No one deserves to have everything taken from them like these women have; no one deserves to still be waking up with nightmares five months later and afraid to say hello to any of your new neighbors because who knows, maybe they’ll decide to burn your house down too. But when this level of inaction is taken, when every possible authority and potential source of relief turns their back on you, they’re telling you that you did deserve it, and maybe worse.

There are two stories here.

The first was five months ago, and it was about a deeply disturbed person whose hatred of gay people had ballooned to dangerous proportions.

This story we’re reading about now is more complicated, and even scarier: a system that is so indifferent to violence against people that are queer, people who are poor or of color or trans or female or mentally ill or physically disabled, that it’s basically perpetrating it.

The Stutte’s story has a heartwarming ending; a local LGBT organization helped them find a rental property on the very day they were kicked out of their safe house, and people all over the country have sent them money and supplies (including a 50-pound bag of dog food shipped by UPS), coordinated mostly through queer organizations. But none of the aid that has helped them survive this long came from any of the organizations that profess to exist in order to provide it. It came from individual people, who were probably also struggling to get by but couldn’t watch someone else in such pain without doing something about it. That is, in a word, totally unacceptable. The Stuttes must have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to their insurance company, which now will not return their calls.

The case against Ms. Millsaps is ambitious; they’re suing for $292,688.82 for trespassing and depriving them of personal property, and a total of $880,000, which includes damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious harassment. But it’s a lot more likely to turn out in their favor than trying to reform the system that’s willing to take everything away from them a second time. America’s not ready for that case yet; maybe the best we can hope for is that it will be while the Stuttes are still here to see it.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1130 articles for us.

23 Comments

  1. wtf has happened to our society?

    If I lived in the US, I’d write to American National Property and Casualty to advise that I’ll never do business with them due to their idea of customer service. I mean, denying a payout with proper justification is one thing – not returning the calls of people who’ve been victims of crime is another. I mean, this is or could be attempted murder, right?

  2. How? How can their insurance company do this? **rage**
    This is horrific… I hope their insurance company gives them what they are owed, and their neighbor gets thrown into jail for a long, long time so that that neighbor can never bother them again.

  3. These women live about 45 minutes away from me. When I first heard about this, I had mixed feelings of being scared, furious, and wanting to drive over and give them a hug and invite them over for football and gluten-free nachos.
    Seeing as I didn’t know their address, and it would probably freak them out, I just sent them mental positiveness.
    And boo insurance company, you whore.

  4. I read this on Queerty and that is how I wound up here.

    This is outrageous. Is the ACLU involved? Surely there is something to be done. Can’t take this lying down. Every time something like this happens, the pressure has to be put on to let everyone know that we aren’t taking it anymore.

  5. This is infuriating. What these poor women have been through is tragic and scary.

    Frankly, I’m not surprised their insurance company won’t pay. None of the insurance companies my family has ever dealt with have ever done what we paid them to. Worse than useless.

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  7. Insurance company payouts decrease shareholder profits so the corporate incentive is to deny, delay, and negotiate down. The companies actively make the people who have suffered a loss/shock as long as possible in the hope that they either give up altogether or settle for pennies on the dollar.

  8. Isn’t there some kind of authority the couple can make a formal complaint about the insurance company too? In Australia we have the Obudsman, and there is a different one for different issues e.g. a telecommunications obudsman for problems with your phone/internet. From what’s written here the insurance company are in breach of their own contract and are legally obligated to pay!!

    Other than that,

    “But when you experience trauma as a member of a marginalized or socially undesirable group – like a sex worker raped by a client, or a veteran of an unpopular war – there’s a second trauma, the damage that’s done by watching everyone around you, people who by all moral and ethical standards should be helping you, side with your abuser.”

    Thank you for this. It’s so true, not to mention eloquent yet simple.

  9. What happened to these ladies is appalling, but nowhere does it state on what grounds the insurance co. is denying their claim. Obviously they’re not saying “you’re gay so we won’t pay” so what reason do they give? I agree it will be a BS reason but I can’t help but ask. Also, did the ladies call the police to report the neighbor at any point, when the dog died? When the neighbor went into their house? That is breaking and entering, illegal? When the threats were made? Again, NOBODY should be treated like they have been treated, no argument at all, but there are some things that are missing to make this story complete.

    • Greg, assuming you’re not solely interested in the validity of the insurance claim, I’m bothered by my read of your comment: it seems to smack of blaming the victim. (“Of course we all agree no one should ever be raped but did the survivor REALLY do everything she could to make it as difficult as possible for the rapist to rape her?”)

      One of my favorite aphorisms is “your shit isn’t my problem”. Hate crimes persist because too many otherwise good people deny, minimize, and tolerate a hate-monger’s need to make their shit someone else’s problem.

      Just as with rape, the burden of responsibility for preventing hate crimes needs to be moved off the intended targets and back onto the (would-be) perpetrators.

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