When Janice Ruhter and Jerry Rice bought their house in San Diego’s Carmel Valley neighborhood, they thought they were moving into their dream home, but now the married couple is living there in fear.
They installed spikes on their fence, took self-defense classes and installed a security system, but still, they spend every day worrying about who will show up at their door.
It’s all because Ruhter and Rice endured a year of harassment from a stranger who was upset she had lost the house, and decided to seek revenge.
Ruhter, a microbiologist at a children’s hospital, and Rice, a former competitive swimmer who teaches special education classes for kids with autism, bought the home in fall 2011. At the time they had one child and a new baby on the way.
Priced at $779,000, the house scraped the top of the couple’s budget, but they and seven other families submitted offers. Ruhter and Rice’s bid was accepted and they got the house.
“It was amazing,” Rice said. “It was like, ‘What? This is ours? … We were going to raise our family in the house?’”
But within the first month after moving in, a note arrived saying someone was willing to offer to buy the house from them for up to $100,000 above what Ruhter and Rice had paid for it.
They ignored it, but then a stream of interested buyers began flocking to their home. Rice later discovered the house had been re-listed on the real estate website, Zillow.com, under a fake agent’s name.
“I couldn't understand who would take a home that we purchased and put it online,” Rice said.
Other odd things started happening. They received $1,000 worth of bills for adult diapers and magazines subscriptions they never ordered, and there was an online ad for a New Year’s Eve party at their house they never planned.
“I was starting to get suspicious,” Rice said. “I knew that someone was messing with us.”
Then things got worse. One Valentine’s Day, Rice said all of his neighbors’ wives received Valentine’s Day cards with his initials signed to them.
“I said to everyone, ‘I'm really sorry… We're getting harassed by someone… someone obviously hates us,’” Rice said. “Whoever was doing it was probably pretty sick… They were probably watching, and that sent chills down my back.”
Rice and Ruhter called the police when these incidents happened. Rice also locked their mailbox and set up a surveillance system, but strange things kept happening and it was starting have a serious impact.
“He became very distant, and really focused on trying to protect our family,” Ruhter said of her husband. “He would be up a lot during the night.”
Rice wracked his brain to try to figure out who would be behind this, and then remembered the note that was first dropped off at their house months earlier from someone offering them $100,000 above asking price. The name on the note was Kathy Rowe.
Rowe was among the seven other people who had put a bid on the house. She had a job with the county. Her husband was very ill and she had won a “Mother of the Year” award for being the sole caregiver for their severely disabled daughter, Rachel.
When she saw the house in the cul-de-sac, Rowe said, “It was like our new lease on life.”
“When I lost it… I cried and cried,” she added.
So when Ruhter and Rice failed to respond to her note offering them $100,000 above asking, Rowe launched a harassment campaign against them: Stopping their mail, relisting the house, and sending phony Valentines.
“I was jealous… I was destroyed and devastated with pain and depression,” Rowe said.
When Ruhter searched Rowe’s name on Facebook, she immediately recognized Rowe, and realized she had been at the front door with her daughter on Halloween. They turned to the police again, but the next attack was something they weren’t prepared for.
Rice discovered online posts advertising sex with his wife, telling strangers to just show up at the house during the day. Ruhter’s picture was posted with the words “Carmel Valley Freak Show… come see me during the day while my husband is at work” underneath it.
“My stomach dropped,” Ruhter said. “I was like, ‘Oh, OK, now my photo is on there. That's very personal."
Rowe told “20/20” at the time, she thought the harassment was “funny.” She and her psychologist Sage Breslin largely attribute her actions and state of mind to sleep deprivation brought on in part by her round-the-clock care for her daughter.
“I think people have resiliency by their support network, by their family, by their friends… I didn't have those,” Rowe said.
But Ruhter and Rice did not find the harassment funny. In fact, after Rowe posted that X-rated ad online, a man did show up at the house, and Rice confronted him. Ruhter thought Rowe was trying to have her raped, but Rowe claimed that her thinking was just “impaired.”
It was San Diego’s “CATCH” force, the high-tech law enforcement task force, that connected the dots between the X-rated online solicitations and Rowe’s computer.
“We identified Miss Rowe through search warrants to Yahoo,” said CATCH director Brendan McHugh. “We obtained the IP address for her computer that she was using. And then that led to the identification of the residence.”
After Rowe was arrested, she pleaded guilty to stalking in November and was sentenced in January to a year of home electronic surveillance, five years of probation, and ordered to stay away from the couple for 10 years.
“All the things that I’ve put them through, the stress, the lack of privacy, just, I’m very just very sorry,” Rowe said. “I did not intend to harm them… I guess I keep hoping to magically somehow make amends or make it better. And I just haven't found the way to do that yet.”
But apologies aside, Rice and Ruhter said they still live in fear.
“I believe that Ms. Rowe continues to be a dangerous person because of her skills as a manipulative person and her ability to lie,” Rice said. “I kind of think she has more of a reason now to attack us. So obviously, we're concerned for the family.”
Rowe has since bought a new home for her family, located just one mile away from the couple. She said she understands that they are afraid of her.
“I wish there was something that I could do to take away their fear now,” she said.