By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Add foreclosure to the anguish Tom Sapienza and his dying wife are facing.
Besides Heather’s terminal cancer and the pink slip Sapienza got from the city last month because he refused to return to his $18-an-hour job and leave his wife with visiting nurses, the Sapienzas must now catch up on the mortgage payments they stopped making when Tom Sapienza took an unpaid leave in August after his wife was told her cancer couldn’t be cured.
However, there is some holiday cheer.
Former city Planning Director Mike Sweeney — who, like Tom, was once fired by Lantigua — has established a fund for the Sapienzas and is organizing a benefit to help the couple keep their house and get through Sapienza’s unemployment and his wife’s terminal illness. The event is scheduled for the Relief’s In, a Market Street social club run by firefighters, on Jan. 12.
That comes on top of an outpouring from what Tom Sapienza calls the couple’s “Christmas Elves” — in reality, the dozens of readers who responded to a recent Eagle-Tribune story about Lantigua’s decision to fire Sapienza Nov. 26 rather than extend his leave again.
A Christmas tree they couldn’t otherwise afford went up in their small living room. A small pile of gifts went under it — dropped off by friends and strangers — including a cashmere blanket that his 40-year-old wife shares with her three cats on the couch, which on most days is as far out of bed as she can get. Someone dropped off a vacuum cleaner. Two hospice nurses offered to volunteer time. Fresh baked cookies are on the kitchen counter.
“It’s a little, chubby guy,” Tom Sapienza, 41, said about the 4-foot spruce that twinkles with yellow, red, green and blue lights, which also were donated. “Tilts to one side. But it’s perfect.”
“The best part of this story is that an entire community that’s been fractured so many times is coming together,” he added. “To see so many people make so much noise, to come together to help people out — thank you is the proper thing to say. It’s what I was brought up to say. But inside, it doesn’t seem enough.”
The termination letter from Lantigua that Tom Sapienza received last month ended his eight-year career driving plows and maintaining Veterans Memorial Stadium for the Lawrence Department of Public Works. He was laid off by former Mayor Michael Sullivan in 2008, recalled six months later and laid off again by Lantigua in July 2010.
Sapienza was recalled again in May 2012, but his return lasted only a few days as his wife’s cancer spread from her lungs to her brain and became untreatable. In August, after Sapienza ran through his vacation and sick time, acting Public Works Commissioner John Isensee granted him a string of unpaid leaves.
Isensee declined to give Sapienza another leave when the last one ran out. He said he feared there would be “no end in sight” to the leaves and said he could not continue filling the job with temporary replacements. A letter of termination signed by Mayor Lantigua arrived at Sapienza’s small white row house on Young Avenue on Nov. 26.
Also on Nov. 26, the DPW hired another temporary laborer. The job went to former state Rep. Jose Santiago, an on-again, off-again political ally of Mayor Lantigua’s. Santiago had been unemployed and tried to regain his statehouse seat in November, but won just 15 percent of the vote against incumbent Marcos Devers.
Other Lantigua favorites have remained on the payroll, even after their criminal indictments, including Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla. Bonilla — who managed Lantigua’s 2009 mayoral campaign and whom Lantigua promoted from sergeant to deputy chief after taking office — has been on a paid leave since he was indicted on fraud and other charges earlier this year.
Since August, the Sapienzas have been living on Heather’s Social Security disability checks, which began arriving after her private disability insurance, provided by the Needham pharmaceutical company where she worked for 18 years, ran out.
The checks have not allowed the couple to keep up with their monthly mortgage payments of about $1,000. Sapienza said the bank, which he would not name, has been understanding, but has told him that his wife, who holds the mortgage, needs to catch up by April.
“I think it’s outrageous, given the circumstances he’s been put in, to add insult on top of injury,” said Sweeney, the former planning director organizing next month’s benefit, about the decision to fire Sapienza and hire a man who has political connections to the mayor. “This was an injustice that the community cannot let stand without responding. This is not the type of people we are.”
Sweeney was one of the first to get terminated by Lantigua. The mayor fired him on Jan. 22, 2010, a few weeks after he took office. Sweeney now works as deputy general counsel to state Treasurer Steven Grossman.
Tom Sapienza said he and Heather will attend the benefit Sweeney is organizing if she has the energy.
“She may do several wig changes, you never know,” he said, referring to the pink and blue wigs Heather favored even before she lost her hair to chemotherapy. “She wants people to see the spirit that she had before she was diagnosed. It’s still in there. It’s just has a harder time coming out now.”
Lantigua did not respond to a request for comment made through Chief of Staff Ron Bell.
Sapienza family benefit IF YOU GO: The benefit for the Sapienza family will be held at the Relief's In, 1 Market St., Lawrence, on Jan. 12 from 4 to 8 p.m. TO CONTRIBUTE: The Sapienza Family Fund, NESC Federal Credit Union, 244 Pleasant St., Methuen, Ma. 01844. The fund is approved by the family. FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call Mike Sweeney at 978-397-3512