March 30, 2010
Chatsworth family torn apart by the deaths of two children now struggles to keep their house
Avinoam Hen stood in his dark living room, looking through a sliding glass door.
“This whole backyard was once filled with young people, jumping off the roof into the pool, barbecuing steaks every weekend. I used to build a huge sukkah every year and invite half the neighborhood over for the holiday. We had everything we could want.”
His broad shoulders slumped. “Now, it’s all gone.”
Avinoam, 56, and his wife, Rachel, 62, came to the United States from Israel 20 years ago with three young children and the typical immigrant dream of a financially comfortable, sunny life in Southern California.
Avinoam ran a successful automotive parts business, the family bought a four-bedroom house with a pool in Chatsworth, and the children thrived in their new surroundings after getting through the initial struggle of adjusting to life in America. When the Northridge earthquake hit in 1994, the family considered moving back to Israel, but the children were adamant about staying in California. “We were that happy here,” Avinoam said.
Then, on July 4, 2002, the Hens’ world came crashing down. Their 25-year-old daughter, Victoria, was shot and killed in a terrorist attack while on duty as an El Al ticket agent at Los Angeles International Airport. Four months later, tragedy hit again when their 18-year-old son, Nimrod, died of complications resulting from a car accident a mile from their home. Less than a year after that, Avinoam was brutally attacked by a dog, broke both his hands and had to be on disability for nearly a year.
Avinoam’s business declined and they refinanced their home several times to stay afloat, with the result that the Hens soon found themselves faced with an adjustable- rate mortgage that raised their payments by more than 50 percent. Hoping that new housing legislation passed by the Obama administration would bail them out, they stopped making mortgage payments in October 2008 to qualify for a loan-modification program. Their application was denied, and they are now fighting to save their Chatsworth home from foreclosure.
In February, the couple received a temporary reprieve from Wells Fargo, which is acting as the servicing agent for an undisclosed private lender — who has so far denied the Hens’ application for a loan modification.
The reprieve was arranged by Raffi Tal of i Short Sale Inc., who along with Eli Tene, CEO of i Short Sale, has continued to work on the Hens’ behalf to try to get their loan modification approved so the family will have some time to stabilize their finances. Tene also contacted Congressman Howard Berman to solicit his help, and Berman, according to Tal, both wrote a letter and called the CEO of Wells Fargo Bank on the Hens’ behalf.
Berman also contacted a director in the U.S. Treasury Department for assistance, Tal said. And less than two hours after Berman contacted Wells Fargo, Tal received a phone call from the bank’s executive office saying that they were working on finding a solution. No final agreement has been reached yet, but the bank has expressed a commitment to working out a feasible arrangement for the Hens, according to Tal.
To visit the Hens’ home is to see a shrine to their lost life — which makes it unimaginable that they should have to leave.
“I can’t imagine losing this house,” Rachel Hen said, running her fingers over photographs of her deceased children, which hang in her dining room. “It’s all I have left of them.”
Every corner of the Hens’ modest four-bedroom house is a memorial to Victoria and Nimrod: The walls are covered with their photographs, shelves are cluttered with mementos, their rooms remain exactly as they were the day each died.
“This is the bathing suit she wore on Wednesday, right before she went to work,” Rachel said, picking up a blue-and-white striped bikini, now yellowed, on Victoria’s dresser. A 3-foot-long El Al model airplane, signed by Victoria’s co-workers, dominates the small bedroom.
The sheets on Nimrod’s bed are the same sheets he slept on the day before his car accident; parts of the model cars he loved to assemble are scattered on his desk. Two hookah pipes sit on a coffee table in his bedroom, where he liked to entertain friends. A high-school graduation photo shows Nimrod in his cap and gown, arm around Victoria, his beautiful, dark-haired sister. Five months after the photograph was taken, the siblings were together again, buried next to one another at Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills.
The Hens’ one remaining child is Udi, the middle child. Now 31, he moved out of the house a year and a half ago. His father said Udi was no longer able to bear the grief permeating the house and the burden of consoling a perpetually tearful mother and a bitter, angry father.
For the past eight years, the Hens have not only dealt with sorrow and loss, they have also struggled with feelings of resentment, abandonment and injustice. For many years they pursued lawsuits related to their children’s deaths: They charged that the lack of security at LAX on the day of the attack was negligent and criminal — it was the first Fourth of July after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and security should have been heightened.
Their lawyer at the time cited “unsafe and dangerous” security conditions at the airport and inadequate medical care in the wrongful death of Victoria, according to a January 2003 Jewish Journal article.
A federal judge dismissed multiple lawsuits for a total of $87.5 million filed against the city of Los Angeles by the Hens and the family members of the other victims — 46-year-old Yaakov Aminov also died that day at the hands of Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, a 41-year-old Egyptian national. Several others were injured. The judge ruled that the families were not due any compensation because California law grants immunity to public agencies for failure to provide adequate police protection.
“The case was run like the Mafia,” Avinoam said, his voice rising with still-hot anger. “I wasn’t given the chance to speak; information was swept under the rug; my lawyer was mysteriously disbarred and disappeared. This was not justice.”
Avinoam spent years and $400,000 pursuing the lawsuit, investigating every detail of the attack and its aftermath, going so far as tracking down Hadayet’s wife in Egypt to ascertain the motives behind the terrorist’s brutal attack.
In Nimrod’s case, they believe his death was caused by poor care at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Woodland Hills, and they also charged the hospital with negligence. The day of their son’s accident, they said, doctors assured them that his surgery would be routine and that he would be fine. “They told us that within six months he’ll be playing soccer again,” Rachel said, tearing up. “The next day he was dead.”
A spokeswoman from the hospital said Nimrod was declared brain dead, according to a November 2002 Los Angeles Times story. His death may have been caused by a fat embolism, a condition similar to a blood clot that sometimes occurs with serious injuries, officials said at the time. When the Hens sued Kaiser, they also lost.
For years, politicians — both local and Israeli — including L.A. mayors, congressmen and consuls general have promised the Hens legal and financial assistance that has not materialized into anything substantial.
“We’ve met every Israeli consul that has come through Los Angeles,” Avinoam said. “They all sit and listen politely, but the moment we walk out their door, they forget about us.”
The Hens say they feel abandoned and forgotten by the Jewish community, as well. Initially there was a flood of support and condolences, but that ended, and the family was left to deal with their sorrow and mounting financial distress on their own. In addition to their mortgage woes, Avinoam’s online auto parts business is struggling, Rachel has not been able to hold a job for years, and the couple can’t afford health care.
They speak very highly of The Jewish Federation and the financial, psychological and social aid it provided in the past, but even that resource has dried up in recent years. Friends have slowly disappeared, uncomfortable with the somber atmosphere of the house, the Hens said. Visitors are infrequent, and interactions with the outside world are minimal. Rachel said she rarely leaves the house these days.
“We want people to realize the injustices that we have suffered,” Avinoam said. He is insistent on getting their story out and is considering writing a book about their ordeal.
“I promised my daughter the day she died that I would seek justice for her, and I will. The battle we are fighting today is about the house, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on the war for justice.”
Rachel said she often turns to God for solace. “I ask God, ‘Haven’t we suffered enough?’ ” she said. “The only things we have left to hope for are to save this house and to see Udi happy. I pray every day for my one remaining child to be safe and happy.”