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4:52 on Christmas Morning

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After the store closed, the Johnsons drove up I-95 to Darien, where Lomer had secured one final private party, near their daughter’s house. He performed for an hour, then offered to stay longer. Outside, Pauline was making calls. She dialed their son, Wade, in Louisville. He’d just left Mass with his girlfriend and her mother, and the three of them were now at the cemetery, visiting the grave sites of his girlfriend’s brother, who’d died five years earlier, and her father, who’d died the year before. She and her mother were crying badly. He reached into his pocket to stop the vibrating without looking, and at that precise moment he thought: I’m so glad to have never had to experience this level of grief. I’m so lucky. Eight hundred miles northeast, his mother was saying this:

“Hi, Wade. It’s Mom. I’m sorry I missed your call earlier … I’m getting in on the 27th around 4 o’clock, and I have a car, so we’ll work out all the details. I’m sitting here outside a house in Darien, Connecticut, and Dad is Santa Claus inside. And he’s just sitting there and flashbulbs are going off everywhere, he’s getting his picture taken, this is his last gig. Give me a call. Talk to you later. Love you very much, and I’ll talk to you if not tonight, I’ll definitely talk to you tomorrow. Okay, love you, bye.”

A few hours later, the Johnsons, who were to celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary the following day, slept in one of the two guest bedrooms on the second floor of 2267 Shippan Avenue. In between them was their granddaughter Grace. Upstairs, in the twins’ turreted room, Sarah and Lily were asleep together. The house was dark and quiet.

As was the Johnsons’ own house, an hour north. Appliances were unplugged; Lomer’s wallet, too cumbersome for his Santa suit, was on top of the refrigerator. On the walls of their bedroom hung four pieces of framed artwork, one by each of their granddaughters. On his side of the bed was Lily’s, which was made back in preschool, when the teacher asked her to draw a message to a family member of her choosing. It was all big circles and stormy swoops of color. When the teacher asked her what message she wanted written on it, she said: “I love you Papa. Don’t leave me behind. See Nana and kiss her. Love, Lily.”

For the previous year, on Shippan Avenue, one decision had begot an outcome which begot another decision which begot another outcome, and so on. Some of the workers, looking back, claimed they could see the ending coming and had tried, in their own ways, to alter it.

Madonna Badger had met Michael Borcina, owner and founder of Tiberias Construction, years earlier, through Alcoholics Anonymous. Tall and broad, with a shaved head and strong facial features, he’d been a fine carpenter for many years, trained in the German style, whereby things like mantels and moldings were made from scratch. He now specialized in residential renovations. She brought him to the Victorian at 2267 Shippan Avenue to solicit his opinion before she bought it. He’d seen the same issues and the same potential—the layout needed to be opened up, the aluminum siding replaced, kitchen and bathrooms updated. She decided to hire him as general contractor. Borcina had allowed his Connecticut state contractor’s license to expire rather than pay the judgments against him, totaling $100,000, from multiple lawsuits alleging incomplete, inadequate, or unnecessary construction; he circumvented this by filing under the license of a friend.

Demolition began in early 2011. The work was expected to be done by summer. Initially, Madonna and the children lived in a rental property in Stamford. Borcina established an office at the property’s detached three-car garage, calling in workers he knew, advertising for others on Monster.com, conducting interviews on site. As a boss, he proved mercurial. The project itself quickly spiraled. Opened walls exposed new problems. A new electrical system would be required. Workers came and went, sometimes hired and fired in the same day.

The workers questioned Borcina’s fitness as a general contractor. Don Raskopf, who worked as the carpentry foreman from August to November, and Andrew Grunow, an experienced contractor who worked as a master carpenter during the same period, were discomfited by some of his decisions, including his plan to renovate the interior even while exterior work was incomplete. Scaffolding was erected, so as to remove the aluminum siding; the project remained largely unfinished. Insulation and drywall were damaged by rain. Active leaks formed in the dining room, living room, master bedroom, and mudroom.

Grunow, a former Sound Beach volunteer fireman, was particularly concerned about safety. He later claimed he took it upon himself to install fire extinguishers and battery-operated smoke and carbon-monoxide alarms throughout the house prior to an insurance-company inspection that he knew Borcina would fail. (He claimed, as well, that Borcina ordered them taken down because of false alarms once the sanding of the walls and painting began in earnest.) He said he repeatedly tried to warn Borcina that he was creating an excessive “fire fuel load,” citing the amount of wood being used—for columns, beams, cabinetry, moldings, oil-finished flooring, and paneling in the kitchen, mudroom, and up the butler’s staircase, which Grunow warned was already narrower than building codes allowed. Borcina made clear his uninterest in any criticism, once forcing Grunow to write a letter of apology, promising he would work according to Borcina’s precise specifications and not offer alternative opinions.


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