The city of Austin, Texas, was looking for an excuse to steal Joe Del Rio’s modest home. It found one – it insisted he had a “bunker” beneath the house.
Actually, it was a fallout shelter built during the Cold War, something millions of Americans were encouraged to build by the federal government, beginning in 1961 under the Community Fallout Shelter Program.
The city began its theft by sending the code enforcement team to Mr. Del Rio’s home early one Saturday morning in May of 2010. After the retired Air Force reservist, Vietnam veteran, and former state employee put on some clothes and opened the door, he was rushed by an Austin Police SWAT team. He was detained and interrogated over a period of ten hours.
Neighbors were told to evacuate and the home was searched for more than four hours as emergency personnel staged units nearby. Cops found several weapons and 55-gallon drums they considered suspicious. There was nothing sinister about the drums and the legal weapons were returned to Del Rio after the cops examined them.
Authorities accused Del Rio of having a bunker beneath his house. “The code officers went out to investigate it and the individual was fairly cooperative and showed them what he had been working on, which turned out to be a multi-level underground structure,” Doug Matthews, director of communications for the City of Austin, told the Statesman.
Matthews said the city “had some concerns about the structural integrity of the building and the contents of what was down there,” but this turned out to be a pretext for what would come – not only the wholesale theft of the house, but also socking Del Rio with a bill for $90,000 after the city sued him and then poured 264 tons of concrete into the “bunker” and put up a fence around the perimeter. It yanked the meter off the house, making it uninhabitable.
But this was not the end of Mr. Del Rio’s nightmarish ordeal. The city then condemned the house and took possession of it without paying a single cent in compensation. The elderly Vietnam War veteran was handed over to Adult Protective Services since he is a senior citizen and made homeless, thanks to the government of Austin.
“In my opinion, they wanted my property to start with, and this was a way to take my property away from me,” Del Rio said this week. “The ordeal they put me through was unnecessary. I’ve gotten the runaround. I think they want the property. Condemning it is a cheap way to get it.”