TALBOTT - A Hamblen County couple has filed a $10 million lawsuit against several East Tennessee families accusing their children of breaking into a mansion, trashing it during a wild party, and stealing a number of items.
Those belongings includes cash, a Rolex watch, Cuban cigars, rare baseball cards, alcohol and numerous assault rifles, according to the complaint filed against the parents, the children and the estate’s insurance company.
The couple, Henry and Magi Van Buren, told WBIR 10News the lawsuit comes more than three years after a number of teenagers allegedly vandalized their $850,000 estate in Talbott known as “Belcaro.”
The lawsuit says the couple suffered at least $10 million in damages, which they will prove at trial.
Henry Van Buren said he felt compelled to file the lawsuit because the parents refused to meet with him and the Hamblen County Sheriff’s Office – despite receiving what he says is video evidence of the actions by the teenagers – has declined to charge anyone.
“They just – they wanted to do this,” Henry Van Buren said. “You know, it’s the big house on the block and they just wanted to come in . . . and they knew that there weren’t going to be any consequences, because there hasn’t been.”
He added: “What their fun days were, they have no idea what they destroyed. They destroyed my family.”
The Van Burens reached out to WBIR as part of its 10Listens program.
The family then allowed WBIR reporters to review the videos noted in the lawsuit. The recordings often show what appears to be a number of teenagers in front of the Van Buren mansion, walking up to the door and hanging out. The videos do not show the children actually vandalizing the house or breaking into it.
Henry Van Buren also recently gave WBIR reporters a tour of his house. He said much of the damage was never cleaned nor fixed.
Reporters witnessed cracked pipes, wires poking through walls, broken glass cabinets, chipped furniture, a damaged skylight and walls and flooring now stripped from what Henry Van Buren said is a direct result of the water damage caused by a break-in.
The Van Burens name a husband, wife and their son and daughter, and another husband, wife and their son as defendants. They also list Erie Insurance Company as a defendant in the case, claiming the Pennsylvania-based company failed to cover at least $500,000 in damages the couple blames on the children.
WBIR 10News is not naming the defendants since they have not been charged, although local law enforcement has met with the children.
At the time of the alleged break-ins, the children were minors, according to the lawsuit. One male is now around 19 and the sister and brother duo are in their early 20s.
The parents of the brother and sister did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
Their attorney, Scott Reams, declined to comment, saying his office has only “recently been involved in it and still investigating it.”
The other parents also did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
Their attorney, Dwaine Evans, told WBIR: “We deny most of the allegations in the lawsuit and look forward to being able to question the Van Burens under oath.”
In court statements filed in late September, Evans said the son, who was around 16 at the time, went to the Van Burens’ home “on one occasion only, at which time he neither stole nor damaged any property.”
An attorney for Erie Insurance Company questioned the company’s role as a defendant and said the Van Burens failed to properly submit proof of loss, a proper inventory and requested documentation, according to court records.
An investigator with the Hamblen County Sheriff’s Office told WBIR that authorities also are looking into the matter, but “it’s harder to work with some of the suspects.”
"The video footage shows them in the front of the house,” said Sgt. Eddie Ingram. “That doesn't say that they broke in and stole or – we can't prove what they did. We can only see that video footage, and . . . it's a fine line between what I can actually prove in court versus what you see on the video footage."
MONTHS OF DAMAGE
The Van Burens in early August 2013 temporarily moved into another home they own in Miami for the winter. They didn’t return to East Tennessee until the following April.
On Aug. 5, the sister and brother named in the lawsuit, and several friends went to the home to “case” it, the lawsuit states. Video surveillance captures some of them looking “repeatedly under flower pots and other ornamental items, most likely searching for a spare key.”
The following day, according to court records, the brother “is believed” to have broken into the home through a rear door or window and then let the others in through the front door.
Camera footage during the following months captures a number of “accomplices” going in and out of the home “but always with the (sister and brother) in the lead,” the lawsuit states.
On Sept. 1, 2013, the other male named in the lawsuit went to the house and stole “valuable items” including a black MP3 player, the complaint says. At that point, the teenagers disabled the surveillance cameras by hitting them with a Japanese sword taken from the home.
In addition, the then-teenagers are accused of pouring antifreeze into the crankshaft of the Van Burens’ $80,000 Hummer, destroying the SUV’s engine.
One of the families lives in West Lake Estates, the same neighborhood as the Van Burens. The other family lives in Candler, N.C., but owns a vacation home in West Lake Estates.
The Van Burens also accuse the teenagers – based on a “huge spike in their utility bill” – of throwing a New Year’s Eve party at the house, according to the complaint.
At some point, court records show, the teenagers left the house’s skylights, doors and windows open.
“When substantial winter weather hit the area, Belcaro’s pipes froze and burst and the interior walls and floors were irreparably damaged by water from both inside and out,” the lawsuit states. “Most of the (Van Burens’) personal property inside the house was irreparably damaged or outright destroyed.”
When the Van Burens returned to their East Tennessee home in April 2014, they discovered that a handgun, three assault rifles, $5,600 in cash, thousands of dollars’ worth of champagne and liquor, a $6,000 Rolex watch, “numerous rare baseball cards, and clothing and expensive suits were missing, according to the lawsuit.”
“You know, you work very hard to get all the things that you have in life, and – we did – and for someone just to come in here and say, ‘I’m coming’ and basically kicking down the door and coming in and taking what they did – it was a terrible, terrible experience for us,” Henry Van Buren said.
The Van Burens said the parents were “negligent in the supervision of their children,” according to the lawsuit.
“Due to the sheer scope of their children’s criminal endeavor, it is impossible that the parents could not have known about it if they were faithfully discharging their obligations of parental supervision,” the lawsuit, filed July 25 in Circuit Court in Morristown, states.
HAMBLEN COUNTY INVESTIGATION
In the months and years that followed the alleged break-ins, the Van Burens sought help from the Hamblen County Sheriff’s Office, providing investigators with copies of some of the surveillance video.
The couple’s contact was Sgt. Eddie Ingram.
In recorded phone conversations between Ingram and the Van Burens, the detective tells the couple that the teenagers can be charged with burglary.
He said that he talked with the brother and sister and the sister “straight forward admitted to everything.”
But, Ingram also told the Van Burens, according to the recorded conversations provided to WBIR 10News, that the brother and sister live in North Carolina and that he cannot force them to come back to Tennessee.
The Van Burens, who recorded the conversations, told 10News that Ingram “is doing nothing but stonewalling” them.
Ingram, however, said that’s not true.
He called the case “pretty vast” and said there are still “unknown suspects” from North Carolina involved but he’s having a tough time interviewing them.
Further, he said the Van Burens refused to turn over their DVR, providing only some video samples of the alleged intruders on their property.
“(The video) puts them there but does it put them beyond a reasonable doubt that they did something? No,” Ingram told 10News. “They have nothing inside. They have no one walking out with a TV or anything like that . . . . What you think happened, as opposed to what you can really prove, is the problem in this case."
Ingram added: “Somebody riding in front of the house don't condemn them to – they broke in, they did this . . . but we are working closely with the DA's office to try to charge all the individuals we can in this case."
Ingram said he expects to turn over what evidence he does have to prosecutors in the coming weeks.
At that point, the information will be brought to a grand jury for further consideration.
(© 2016 WBIR)