A tumble into an Ashland septic tank exacerbates a dispute between a tenant and her landlord, who has had a series of issues with city and county officials

When she tumbled several feet into a septic tank behind the Ashland house she rented last February, Rachelle Davis found herself hip-deep in sewage.

"I was covered in feces from head to toe," said the 28-year-old mother of four who has since moved to Medford.

Davis had stepped on what she thought was solid ground, but it was actually a piece of rotten wood covered over by a layer of dirt that concealed an approximately 2-by-3-feet opening to what was supposed to be an abandoned septic tank.

Jackson County had cited Bernard Zieminski, owner of the house at 615 Washington St., for having a failed septic tank 16 years earlier and required him to hook it to the Ashland sewer system. Since the situation hasn't been corrected, the county fined Zieminski $10,000 this month for the continued violation, a fine Zieminski has said he will appeal.

Zieminski, who owns about 65 properties in Jackson County and has run afoul of county regulations in other matters, has proposed building a destination resort on land he owns north of Central Point. He has also proposed building an affordable housing project to the east of Medford. Zieminski owns five properties on Washington Street.

According to an affidavit filed by Tod Miller, county code enforcement officer, the pumping out of the septic tank "indicates Mr. Zieminski had knowledge the failed septic system continued to be in use and the dwelling was not connected to the city sewer. On Feb. 28, 2007, the tenant, Rachel (sic) Davis, phoned me and advised she had fallen through the lid of the septic tank and injured herself."

In another situation, the county fined Zieminski $600 on Aug. 21 for each of six orchards he owns for failing to take care of pest infestations. Zieminski said he did apply insecticide to the trees.

Davis and Zieminski appear to be headed for a court fight over the incident. Davis is being represented by Dwyer Williams Potter, Attorneys, LLP, in Bend, and Zieminski is represented by Eugene Anderson of Medford.

Davis said she still suffers back and hip pain from her fall into the septic tank when a piece of rebar jabbed into the side of her leg. Her stepmother, Dottie Davis, said she helped pull Rachelle out and then rushed her to the hospital.

"It was extremely embarrassing," Rachelle Davis remembered. "I had crap all over my face. When I get into the emergency room, I smelled like a sewer."

Her stepmother, who also got wastewater on her during the ordeal, said, "It was not only humiliating, she has been in pain ever since."

Fearing infection, the hospital staff gave her tetanus, antibiotics and other shots, Rachelle Davis said.

"The fecal matter got into my bloodstream," she said. Her knee was swollen and her hips have separated, forcing her to take medications and preventing her from working because she can't stand or sit for extended periods.

"I can't be on pain pills forever," she said.

Walking with a noticeable limp, Davis is going through treatment for nerve damage in her back that she says was caused by the fall.

When asked for her medical records, Davis referred the Mail Tribune to her lawyer, who did not return a phone call late last week.

Zieminski, the 69-year-old Talent resident who owns Onlineauction.com, a competitor to eBay, said he was initially surprised to hear there were problems on the Washington Street property when the county notified him in March.

"We were hooked into the sewer, so we can't possibly have a bad septic," he said he thought at the time.

But Zieminski acknowledged the septic tank was pumped in 2006 after receiving a complaint from the tenant.

"I did that just as a cover thing," he said. "I didn't want it to look like I was the guy who didn't fix anything."

Zieminski said he had no idea why the septic tank filled up, but he did blame the tenant for sewage in the yard.

"We're thinking that they (the tenants) were dumping sewage out in the yard from the fifth-wheel (trailer)," he said.

He said after Davis fell into the septic tank, he had the sewer line dug up to find out if there was a problem. But because of complications with the county and city, he has decided not to pursue the sewer situation because he said he will be selling the five-acre property in October.

Zieminski said he blames both Jackson County and the city of Ashland for failing to follow through and make sure the property was actually hooked up to the sewer. He said he personally saw the connection being made back in 1992.

However, Ashland Public Works records indicate Zieminski never had all the appropriate permits, nor did he have the sewer line inspected, and he has run the line across a neighboring property without the appropriate easement. Zieminski said he does have the easement.

No stranger to battling the county, Zieminski said he predicts he will eventually prevail in this case.

For instance, Zieminski's property near the airport on Table Rock Road has had run-ins with two government entities who claim it violated codes.

The county tried to force Zieminski to clear junk cars off the property some years ago. But Zieminski fought back, ultimately convincing the courts that this "junk" was really his treasure. The city of Medford, which annexed the property two years ago, has also tried to get him to clear up the property.

Referring to the cases he has won, Zieminski said, "I was correct on all of them — they've all gone my way."

He claimed the county code enforcement officer has had a vendetta against him for about two decades.

Sharon Roach, Zieminski's property manager, said she thought the code enforcement officer "has a grudge against Bernie." She added, "I think he spends time going around looking to see what he can cite him on."

Miller, the code enforcement officer, said he didn't want to be interviewed, preferring to rely on county records.

Roach said that when she had the septic tank pumped in 2006, she was mystified why there was sewage in it. She said, "I thought, how could there be a problem there?"

Zieminski said that he's always diligent about clearing up any problems with his rentals. "If there's anything wrong, we fix it," he said.

Zieminski said he finds it coincidental that Davis said she fell into the septic tank at the same time he was trying to evict her from the property. He said she should have been familiar with the location of the septic after it was pumped out. "She knew exactly where it was," he said.

After failing to pay $150 of the $750 rent in December 2006, Davis was evicted in March. According to Jackson County court records, Davis has been evicted from other locations and has also failed to pay outstanding debts over the past 10 years, but she doesn't appear to have any criminal record.

Davis said she has struggled to pay her bills because she has at times been a single mother trying to raise the children on her own. She said she didn't pay the $150 because "I couldn't get him (Zieminski) to come out and fix anything."

Both Davis and her stepmother blame Zieminski for the problems at the property.

The stepmother said, "It's sad and disgusting that people can get away with this."

Davis said she started renting the house in April 2006, but began having problems with the sewage smells almost immediately.

While workers attempted to clean out the septic tank at one point, she remembers the sewage backed up into the house, coming out the toilet.

"It shot clean up and hit the ceiling," she said.

Both Davis and her stepmother, in a visit back to the property Thursday, pointed to areas where toilet paper still sits after the septic overflowed.

Davis' four children, ranging in age from 3 to 7, suffered from diarrhea and other ailments while living at the house, which she now attributes to the sewage problems.

Around the area where Davis fell in, she put up yellow caution tape to alert others about the dangers.

Davis, who has contacted an attorney, said when she told Zieminski about her accident, "He told me I should move the f—- out."

Zieminski didn't dispute Davis' statement. He said the eviction was in the works. "She was already going to be removed from the property," he said.

The memories of her ordeal and the reaction from Zieminski still haunt Davis.

"He's not a nice guy," she said. "He should never have rented that property."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.