Idaho woman returns from China to find home trashed

LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — When it comes to cases of adding insult to injury, the story of Helen Wong ranks among the worst.

“I came back from vacation and found my house in a mess,” Wong, 70, told The Lewiston Tribune Thursday while seated in the front room of the 15th Street Lewiston home where she has lived for 30 years. “I was so sad. I cannot do it (clean up by myself). I feel so helpless.”

But now Wong doesn’t have to do it by herself, thanks to the efforts of a kind-hearted deputy from the Nez Perce County Sheriff’s Office. Jesse Broyles happened upon Wong on Tuesday night outside the county jail as he was getting off work.

“She just got off the plane from China on June 4,” Broyles recalled. “The (baggage claim) tag is still on the little cart she pulls around.”

He said that even though Wong didn’t look well, he almost walked right past her, eager to get home after a long day. But the teachings of his faith tugged at his heart, so Broyles stopped to talk.

The story Wong told floored him. What started in late 2019 as a “vacation” to her Chinese homeland ended up as an unplanned year-and-a-half exile when the COVID-19 outbreak slammed the door on her return to Lewiston. China eventually eased its travel restrictions, but Wong just recently decided that her health would be safe in the tight confines of a jumbo jet. Late last week, she finally made it back to the United States.

But what awaited at her 15th Street home shocked Wong and left her despondent. She arrived to find it plundered, abused and partially dismantled by squatters, 18 of whom had to be rousted by the Lewiston Police Department. Almost all of her property had been stolen, including clothing, furnishings, fixtures and personal belongings.

Someone even went underneath the house and cut out all the copper water pipes to sell for scrap. The electrical junction box had been stripped, and the home’s power and water had been long discontinued. There was trash and drug paraphernalia heaped everywhere, and a putrid stench permeated the whole two-story residence.

To make matters worse, the day after she got back, her wallet went missing. A grocery store wouldn’t take a check in payment for food because she didn’t have identification. Desperate, she got a ride from a good Samaritan to the Nez Perce County Sheriff’s Office in North Lewiston to get a new ID. But she had no proof of residency and couldn’t get an ID. That’s where serendipity stepped in, serving up Broyles as a path to salvation.

“That’s what caused her to sit out on the bench in front of the jail at that exact moment when I got off work,” he said. “So the timing of all this was very miraculous. If she hadn’t had a problem getting her ID, she would have been in and out of there and I would have never seen her, and she would have gone back to a home that has no power, no water. The jungle, as I call it.”

He went with Wong to see the situation for himself, and what he saw spurred him into quick action. That night he posted a long message on Facebook, asking for help. The response in the first 48 hours was overwhelming, with a squad of helpers on hand by Wednesday to start making the house livable again.

On Thursday, an inspector signed off on the home’s electrical service so Avista can turn the power back on. Broyles wasn’t there because he was at work, but that day’s crew of volunteers buzzed around, methodically putting things back in order.

Deputy Ryan O’Toole had spent much of his Thursday morning cutting down massive piles of weeds and brush from the yard with Travis Candler, and piling trash to haul away later. He said the damage done by the squatters was appalling.

“When we came through, there was garbage all over the floor,” O’Toole said. “My wife and I took an entire pickup load of garbage to the dump.”

Candler’s fiancee, Amber Haning, was busy in Wong’s kitchen, down on her hands and knees using a metal scraper to remove layers of solidified dirt from the tile floor. She had a smile on her face despite the nasty work, because she has also seen tough times and was happy to lend a hand.

“I know what it’s like to need a place to sleep,” Haning said. “I just felt for her. I know how people can destroy things.”

Candler’s son, Logan Candler, has also been by the house to help with the cleanup effort, as have several other volunteers. One of the busiest has been Broyles’ sister, Jeriann Moffett, who is also giving Wong a place to live until the home is fit for occupation.

That kind of support has been building thanks to Broyles’ Facebook posts. Someone dropped off a bunch of furniture Thursday morning, and another brought several bags of food. Cleanup crew volunteer Jodi Brunelle, retired sheriff’s office jailer, also set up a GoFundMe account for Wong on Wednesday that had collected $300 of a $5,000 goal after the first 24 hours. Those who would like to contribute to the fund may visit gofund.me/df9e163b.

Other help is on the way. Moffett’s husband, Kevin Moffett, works at Miller Bros. Plumbing and Heating in Lewiston, and owner Paul Miller has offered to supply the piping necessary to restore water service. Carlton Construction has also offered assistance.

Broyles said he knows Wong is thankful for all the support the community has shown in such a short amount of time. But he directed his gratitude toward his new friend, who gave him the opportunity to undertake the simple but profound act of showing love for a fellow human in need.

“The lucky ones in this entire situation, it’s not Helen,” he said. “It’s actually the people around her who are coming here who have been blessed. They leave the house sweaty and tired and exhausted, but with a smile and almost a tear in their eye after meeting the coolest person in the entire world.”