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By Mitch Owens, Investigative Journalist

Miami                         November 16, 2017

       In an unbelievable act, contrary to all reason and against all principals, a Southwest Florida city condemned a “House of Worship” and prohibited a religious community from their religious practices. Cape Coral Florida, a city known as the waterway capitol of the world, and the winter home of tens of thousands of “snowbirds,” closed down the Chapel of Divine Love causing the Religious Community, known as The Nelsen Residence Inc., the inability to conduct their religious practice and perform their religious programs. Not since the dark ages, or in a country with communism, fascisms, or socialist governments has anything like this every happened. Yet, in the United States of America, a country with sound constitutional protections of religion, Cape Coral Florida did it. And, the amazing thing is, up until now, nobody said, or did anything to protest or object. 

       The City Mayor, Council, Manager, Attorney, and scores of supervisors and employees all kept silent, or in some cases actually participated or condoned the illicit acts. Neighborhood Churches and the citizens of the Cape all looked the other way like the Priests and Levites of the Good Samaritan Fable. Even the local media was silent, or if they did any coverage, it was predominately false or misleading and biased towards the city in a way that they corroborated the city’s right to do so. Whether it was from fear of retaliation, or the protection of the $4.5 billion dollar a year tourist trade that supported the city, is still unclear. Either way, it was the best-kept secret in town.

       The Nelsen Residence Inc., operating a facility known as The Haven of Divine Love, along with an educational scholarship fund, is a not for profit 501 (C)(3) Florida Corporation. Although the Chapel is a private Chapel in a private residence, the IRS classifies Nelsen as a Church. The Haven of Divine Love Senior and Disability Center is a refuge for low-income senior citizens and persons with limited disabilities who are provided subsidized low-cost housing in a city that is known for discriminating against its poor and disadvantaged residents. It is the only facility within the city limit boundaries of a city that adamantly refuses to provide or operate any homeless shelters, missions, substance abuse treatment facilities, or HUD housing. “If we have homeless shelters, than homeless people will be attracted to come here,” said ex-council member Lenny Nesta. Apparently Mr. Nesta failed to recognize at the time of his statement, according to many locals, there were already over 400 homeless people living in the woods and hide-a-way places within the city. In addition to the Haven, The Eleanor M. Nelsen Scholarship Fund grants scholarships to low-income students entering their first year of extended education. Both have suffered radically from the actions of the city.

       Originally a convent for nuns, The Nelsen Residence is now a community of both male and female members. As a prior Carmelite Nun, the founder, Eleanor Nelsen, lived the life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, using all of her life’s income and savings to build the Haven and fund the scholarship program. “She lived like a pauper, and died as a pauper,” said Jerome Valenta, Eleanor’s youngest brother and current President of The Nelsen Residence Inc. “I saw her wear the same dresses for 15 years that she either got as a hand-me-down or purchased for 25 cents at a thrift store.”

       From the stories on their web page, and information from a soon to be published book, by H. Cantrell, it is well documented as to what and why their Chapel was closed down and their religious practices were interfered with by personnel of the City of Cape Coral Florida.

       When the Haven project was first applied for and constructed in 1999, the city council and management openly welcomed it. Apparently it was thought that the facility was for housing of the elite and rich of the community. However, after it was known that it in fact was for the low income and disadvantaged, the city took a different view. According to the records, discriminatory practices started to be initiated around the latter part of 2003 and early part of 2004. “I can’t count on all my fingers and toes how many times my sister, out of sheer frustration to the city’s unchristian behavior, open the doors of her house, took off her shoes, and pounded the dust off of them in correlation to Jesus’ teachings, and later St. Paul when he did so when a city did not accept Christ’s teachings,” said Valenta. (Matthew 10:14; Luke 9:5). In Mark 6:11 (Jesus says, “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”)




       According to the documents on file, in May 2014, a disgruntled resident by the name of Michael Anagnos, started a series of events that led to the Unconstitutional condemnation of “God’s House” and the prevention and disruption of the Religious Community’s religious practices. “Eleanor had always told me that the properties were “God’s Properties” and can never be used for personal gain.” Said Valenta.

       Anagnos, who had previously been released from a Washington State Prison from a violent felony arrest with the use of a firearm, applied for residency at the Haven, claiming a disability. (There is some question as to his original claim of disability, as it was later learned that several months before his application, he had filed a lawsuit against his 86-year-old father claiming the 130-140 lb father beat him up. Anagnos weighed approximately 265 lbs. Previously, after his arrest and the discharge from his Homeland Security job, Anagnos filed claims of being injured seeking disability benefits. The lower Court found that to be false, and Washington’s High Court affirmed the false claim). 

      Even after learning of his prior history of incarceration and previous attempts to extort, blackmail, and defraud, the Nelsen accommodated him, and soon after Anagnos began to help around the Center and volunteered his services on an ongoing basis. Nelsen, reciprocated, and forgave his monthly rent and gave him $300-400 a month stipend for his food and necessities in appreciation. However, according to the record, Anagnos slowly attempted to infiltrate the Community, asserting that he was a valuable contributor. In February 2014, after the death of the Nelsen’s Vice President and Director, Gladys Monji, he demanded that the Nelsen appoint him as a Director, which was flatly denied. (According to the Board of Director’s notes, Anagnos was an Atheist who hated God, Jesus Christ, and all religion in its entirety, and would be unacceptable as a Director of a Christian Organization) 

       On April 1, 2014, the Board of Directors nominated and elected Wilfred A. Rodriquez and Sarah A. Rodriquez as Deacon and Deaconess "Spiritual Directors" to replace Monji, which according to other residents of the Haven “infuriated Anagnos.” 

       In March 2014, after Nelsen purchased a new vehicle, Anagnos demanded that Nelsen buy him a new vehicle as well, claiming that “he has to drive his old truck, and that he should be given a new car because he is working so hard for ‘this stupid place.’" The Board rejected his demand. 

       On April 26, 2014, Anagnos demanded that Nelsen pay him $25,000.00, and if it were not paid, he would cause a lot of trouble for Nelsen. The Board rejected his extortion and blackmail attempts. In Affidavits and Declarations of numerous parties, Anagnos went on a “war path,” claiming that he was “going to destroy him (meaning Valenta) and the Residents of the Divine Love, no matter what it takes. I am going to take him down by all means possible." And claiming "I'm going to fall down the stairs and sue this place for everything they got." 

       On May 14, 2014, Anagnos filed a complaint with Cape Coral ’s Code Enforcement Department claiming that the stairway leading up to the second story balcony was defective and unsafe. During the months of May through July 2014, Anagnos filed 7 other complaints with the various Local, State and Federal Agencies, alleging improper activities of Nelsen. (All 7 were eventually found to be false, and each of the Agencies dismissed the complaints in their entirety) 

       Also, during the month of May 2014, Anagnos contact numerous parties making rash and unfounded accusations against the Nelsen and Valenta in an attempt to discredit the Religious Community and cause disruption. The Nelsen filed numerous criminal complaints, 26 in total, and directed them to the Chief of Police, Bart Connelly. Every one was ignored, and no protection against the unlawful conduct of Anagnos was given. On June 14, 2014, Anagnos, in collusion with attorney, Benjamin Yormak, filed suit in the U.S. District Court alleging that he was an employee and due $37,000.00 in wages, plus damages and attorney fees for his volunteer work. (On September 14, 2016, after a 5-day jury trial, the Jury found in favor of Nelsen that Anagnos was not an employee and not due any wages, damages, or attorney fees) 

       On May 14, 2014, after being called by Anagnos, Code Officer Marilyn Buck, met with Anagnos and wrote up a citation, claiming that the stairway in question was unsafe and structurally unsound. Buck never served or contacted any Officer or Director of Nelsen and proceeded to process the alleged violations based on only the statements of Anagnos.(On Buck’s sworn testimony at her deposition taken on April 20, 2016, Buck testified that she was called out on a complaint by Michael Anagnos who claimed to be the “caretaker”; that Anagnos was disgruntled, had a falling out with the owner, and was bitter and angry because he wasn’t getting paid; that the property was owned by the Nelsen Residence Inc., but she never met or spoke with Mr. Valenta or any Officer of Nelsen; that she sent out a Certified letter of her citation, but never received a signed receipt back; that she was not certain of the difference between residential and commercial codes or violations; that she had no knowledge of construction, electrical or plumbing; that she has a Thyroid condition that affects her memory, has a memory deficiency and has difficulty in remembering things; she stated 38 times on her deposition that she can’t recall or remember; that she had been disciplined numerous times for giving wrong information to citizens; that she was disciplined for writing up false or unfounded violations; that she would, on her own, go out at 2AM in morning looking for violations and was the Code Enforcement’s “busiest officer handling a high number of cases each year”; that the Code Magistrate would find 98% of cases he presides over guilty; that on the substantial amount of her cases heard by Magistrate Eskin, she only lost one case, that of a noise ordinance citation she gave claiming that birds were squawking.)

       Nelsen objected bitterly, filing dozens of protests, complaints, and appeals, sending copies to the City Council, Attorney, and Manager. None were ever answered or addressed. It would appear that the action of Anagnos was exactly the excuse the city needed to get rid of the Haven and their unwelcome residents. In several of the letters, Valenta conceded that the stairs looked terrible, needed painting and few trim boards replaced, but, claiming his 38 years as a contractor, and the certification of 2 other locally licensed contractors, “the stairs were structurally sound.” Valenta also argued that the building was always a residential building, no engineering was required, and according to the Universal Code, no building permit was required. According to the plans of the building, it had 2 separate staircases, one in the interior connecting the first and second floors of the 2 story residence, and a second exterior one leading up to the outside balcony. The Nelsen’s contention, that a normal 2 story residence is only required to have one stairway, and the outside stairs, the one in dispute, was not instrumental to traverse from the first to the second floor, was refuted by the City. Regardless, Valenta subsequently instructed another volunteer, who was knowledgeable in construction and stairs, to perform the necessary repairs needed. 

       On June 30, 2014, while repairing the stairs, Anagnos again called the City’s Building Department and spoke with Inspector Kent Eric Liebegott, claiming that the Nelsen was “constructing a stairway without a permit.” Upon arriving at the residence, Liebegott told the volunteer that “the residence was a commercial property; that a building engineer had to draw up plans; and that a building permit was required.” Liebegott then instructed the volunteer to “stop work immediately” and posted a “Stop Work Order” red tag on the building window. (Sworn testimony at his deposition taken on January 25, 2017, Liebegott, (although attempted to skirt the questions numerous times,) finally testified that the residence in question was in fact a residence, not a commercial building; that sanding down, painting, or replacing the threads of a stairway did not require a permit)

       For over 4 months, Nelsen was thrown into chaos. Anagnos was running amuck, causing as much trouble as he could. When Nelsen served him with a 30-day notice to vacate, Anagnos, in total defiance, refused to vacate. Formal eviction process was initiated, and on August 15, 2014, Judge H. Andrew Swett’s issuance of a “Writ of Possession Order” finally evicted Anagnos from the premises. But the damages and problems only started.

       On October 16, 2014, Code Magistrate, Harold S. Eskin, held a hearing on the Code citation issued by Buck, absent any Officer or Director, and solely on the testimony of Buck and Anagnos, found the Nelsen guilty. (Officers of Nelsen informed Magistrate Eskin that they had a conflicting court appearance in Tampa the same day and hour, and requested a reschedule. Eskin denied the request, held the hearing without Nelsen, and denied Nelsen Due Process of law) 

       On December 12, 2014, Acting Fire Chief, John Maher, along with 4 other City officials, came onto the property and illegally entered the residence, again claiming it was a commercial building giving them the right to do so, and wrote up a citation for alleged Commercial Fire Code violations. According to the record, Maher was instructed to do so by Liebegott’s supervisors, John McConnell, Paul Dickson, and Vince Cautero. Previously on August 17, 2012, 2 years prior, Maher, who was a Fire Inspector at the time, had visited the residence, and under the pretense that the building was a commercial building, wrote up a citation for Commercial Code Violations. When Nelsen objected and filed a formal complaint against Maher, the then Fire Chief Bill Van Helden corrected the error; certifying the building was a residence and not a commercial building; dismissed the citation; reprimanded Maher for his actions; and forbid Maher from any further contact with Nelsen or ever entering the property. However, when Maher became the Acting Fire Chief, it appears that he felt that reprimand was no longer in effect, and did so. (The citation issued by Maher on December 12, 2014 was never processed, served or acted upon after it was again determined not to be a commercial property)

       On January 27, 2015, Dickson ordered the electricity company servicing the residence to shut off the power in a consorted effort to force Nelsen into compliance with claimed code violations. Nelsen objected, sending out countless additional letters of protest, objections, and complaints, and posted a large banner on their building stating HECK NO! WE WON’T GO! 

       When Nelsen continue to dwell in the residence using flashlights and candles, it infuriating the City that much more, and on April 17, 2015, William Boyd, Cape Coral’s Water Department head, disconnected the water causing the residence to be inhabitable.

       The disputed stairway, which has no connection to the first floor bedroom, garage, and Chapel, was equally condemned causing the inability to meditate, pray, or worship. In total despair, the Nelsen’s Deacon and Deaconess, Chaplain and Minister Anthony and Sara Rodriquez, were displaced and forced to dwell in one of the Haven’s units, effectively thwarting their ability to continue their spiritual guidance.

       Nelsen kicked and screamed, sending a slew of additional letters of protest and objections and demanding documentation that gave the City authorization to commit the acts they did. The City had none, and by now they realized that the property was a residential dwelling, subject only to residential codes and requirements. The stairs were not structurally unsound or unsafe as claimed, and no building permit was required as alleged.

       Everybody knows that the First Amendment of the Constitution protects the Freedom of Religion. Many likewise know that the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act prohibits the state governments from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability. What most people don’t know is that Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) brought by a government in response to the exercise of “the right to petition for redress of grievances before the various government entities of Florida” is illegal. “What the government of the City of Cape Coral doesn’t understand is that they are not above the law, and their actions should be overwhelmingly condemned,” say Valenta, “by every citizen of Florida, especially the churches, media, and most importantly, the courts.”

       On June 17, 2015, according to the files, apparently, after realizing that their procedural acts were in error, improper, unauthorized, and Unconstitutional, and in a deliberate act to force Nelsen into compliance with their demands and punish them for their claimed disobedience, (Nelsen was well known to be a nuisance) The City of Cape Coral filed a SLAPP litigation against Nelsen in hopes to cause a drastic financial burden that they would finally give up on their continuous protests and objections. On July 16, 2015, Nelsen filed a counter suit for the violations of their civil and religious rights. The facts, documentation and deposition testimony of various employees of Cape Coral made it clear that the City, acted in error, acted improperly, and abused their power of authority. The clear violations of the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act and the illegal filing of a SLAPP litigation should have made it a foregone conclusion that justice would prevail. But it didn’t and opened a whole new bucket of worms, disclosing gross judicial misconduct and corruption within the local 20th Circuit Court.



       The aftermath was disastrous, and the financial costs to defend themselves against the false allegations were substantial. According to the Nelsen’s most recent summary, the domino and ripple effects of the City of Cape Coral's capricious actions were unforgivable even from a Christian standpoint. The condemnation of the Nelsen’s private Chapel, and the denial of their providing the necessary religious and humanitarian counseling that gave hope to those in need were extensive. 14 attempts of suicide have been made, including one person who died; 7 parties succumbed to depressed excessive drinking; 8 persons experienced psychological and emotional distressful situations; 1 party reverted to physical violence; 5 persons including 2 members of the clergy lost their homes; 32 low income senior and disabled persons lost some or all of their subsidized housing allowances; 112 low income students lost their respective scholarship grants; countless others suffered physical, emotional, mental and financial harm; and the Nelsen’s President, Jerome Valenta, suffered 3 strokes as a direct result. “It would have been cheaper to pay the extortion and blackmail of Michael Anagnos and bow to the abuse of authority of Marilyn Buck and Keith Eric Liebegott, then to fight the injustices inflicted.” Said Chaplain Rodriquez. “The fact that the Priests and Levites of the Good Samaritan Fable live in our community, and the saying that the only thing necessary for triumph of evil to exist is for good men to do nothing, is so discouraging, disappointing, disheartening and sorrowful.”

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       The saga of the Religious Community, The Nelsen Residence Inc., is a true story of a religious entity in Cape Coral Florida, who, rather then be subjected to extortion, blackmail, and attempts to defraud, and suffer the ruthless abuse of government powers, decided to draw a line in the sand, stand up, and fight against the injustices inflicted against them. They paid the eternal price, but claim that they would do it all over again if the same circumstances exit. Although this story is far from finished, I think that Sister Eleanor Nelsen is smiling in heaven and proud of her successors who fought for her legacy and who took on the City of Cape Coral Florida, a city she despised for their wrongful treatment of the less fortunate and disadvantage of their community.

        This author commends their integrity, perseverance, and dedication in doing what they felt was righteous and honorable, and wishes them success in their future endeavors. Let this story be an inspiration to all those unjustly violated by abuse of authority, and stand out as an example of what we should do as Christians when Christianity is under attack.


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