Bruce Wardrop was still tending to his dead brother's affairs in Miramar, Fla., when he found out this month that his modest camper home in the parking lot of a shuttered DeForest truck stop had been towed away four months after he left it and junked a little more than a month after that.
Not a good start to the holiday season.
Wardrop, 59, said he had been living in the camper "on and off for 10 years" and that it contained just about all his earthly possessions, including his television, stereo, tools, photo albums and a Marine Corps dress sword given to him by his father.
Now, owing to some unconfirmed suspicions of criminal activity at the truck stop and an abrupt end to what Wardrop said was a verbal agreement with the property's owners, the disabled Vietnam veteran is homeless.
"I feel really betrayed," Wardrop said. "I helped these guys out and they screwed me."
Wardrop said he left Wisconsin on April 23 after his brother, Todd, died April 15. He's been staying at and trying to sell his brother's house since then. He said he would not be able to live there because he can't afford the taxes.
In August, he got a call from Dan Scoville, one of his friends who had been keeping an eye on the camper and the truck stop, a former Citgo station on Highway 51, south of DeForest in the Town of Burke.
Scoville said he had been doing some work on the camper Aug. 28, left the job for a couple hours and came back to find it was gone.
Prairie Land Towing had taken the 26-foot 1976 Dodge at the request of the Dane County Sheriff's Office, according to Todd Menzel, vice president of Wisconsin operations for the company.
Menzel said the company sent a certified letter to the address on Wardrop's driver's license - the truck stop - on Sept. 10 and that it came back as undeliverable two days later. The camper and all its contents were junked Oct. 1.
Menzel said his company followed state law in trying to find the camper's owner and later disposing of the vehicle.
Elise Schaffer, spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, said deputies had noticed people hanging out at the truck stop over the summer and that when asked why they were there, could provide only vague reasons. Many of the people had criminal records, she said.
"The concern was that it could develop into - if it hadn't already - some kind of criminal activity," she said.
The sheriff's office checked with the property's owner, Bulk Petroleum Corp., which said no one was authorized to be there and gave the OK to tow the camper and any other vehicles away, according to Schaffer.
A woman who answered the phone at Mequon-based Bulk Petroleum, which is in bankruptcy, said the company had no comment. Its parent company, Gurpal Wisconsin Stations, has not paid property taxes on the truck stop in more than a year and as of Nov. 20 was delinquent to the tune of $32,270.51.
Schaffer acknowledged that the sheriff's office was never able to confirm any criminal activity and Wardrop was adamant that nothing untoward was going on there.
Wardrop, who has no criminal record in Wisconsin, said he had a long-standing verbal deal with the Bulk Petroleum employees who oversaw the truck stop that allowed him to park in the lot free and to tap onto its electricity in return for mowing the lawn, making sure people didn't park there illegally, giving truckers jumps when their rigs died, and doing other odd jobs. One of those managers did not return a message left by the State Journal Nov. 20.
"When it closed (in 2007) I just kept doing the same thing I had been doing," he said.
He said he didn't think it was risky to be there, even with the station closed. "They (company officials) knew I was there."
Wardrop said he plans to hire a lawyer.
"I feel like I'm homeless because my RV's gone," he said. "I mean, that is my home."