Robert Canzano avoids strangers who knock on his front door.
"My first thought is, I should be careful," he said a week ago from inside his Tempe home.
The former electrical engineer has spent years living as a loner and an outlaw, rarely straying outside his house and always turning around his car when he sees a police officer. At the time, there were five outstanding warrants for his arrest.
His crimes? He owns two run-down homes that he refuses to clean up, one at 2417 S. Newberry Road and another on East Concorda Drive.
One sits abandoned and looks like a facade from "The Munsters" — dying trees, four aging cars in the driveway and a pool overrun with algae. The other, where the 44-year-old Canzano lives, has a pool so black he deposited fish to stave off mosquitoes.
When Canzano spoke to the Tribune last week, he said he realized it was a matter of time before he was arrested again simply because he lives differently than his neighbors do.
He was right.
On Thursday, Tempe police followed Canzano from his home to Gym Time, 1730 E. Elliot Road, where he teaches gymnastics classes. Officers waited outside while Canzano taught and arrested him without incident in the parking lot, Sgt. Dan Masters said.
Officers tacked on two misdemeanors to Canzano's growing rap sheet: Driving with a suspended license and a fictitious license plate.
He was released from Tempe Jail Friday on $3,350 bond.
It's the latest chapter in a neighborhood saga stretching more than 16 years.
In the mid 1980s, Canzano began buying "fixer-upper" homes in an established Tempe neighborhood. Since, residents have complained about everything from Canzano’s penchant for storing decrepit cars and appliances in his yard to his overgrown bushes, which are causing his neighbors’ block walls to lean precariously.
Canzano calls himself a victim of a neighborhood that turned against him and a City Hall that has joined in the fight. He tried for years to comply with complaints about his homes, he said, but the city piled on demand after demand, even fixing up one house. Finally, he gave up.
"I never got married and I don't have kids," he said. "And they think I'm some kind of monster who doesn't fit in or understand."
Neighbors say Canzano is driving down their property values and potentially endangering their safety. After more than 16 years of complaints, Tempe officials are consulting the city attorney to see if the City Council can put a lien on Canzano's home to complete the repairs.
Some neighbors are so frustrated they refuse to utter Canzano's name. Others have spent years reporting Canzano to code inspectors when they notice a new violation.
Robert Lofgren and his wife, Sue, live next door to one of Canzano's homes and across the street from another.
After years of wrangling with Canzano, the 40-year neighborhood resident said he feels "absolutely helpless." Like many older residents in the area, Lofgren said he’s losing money on his home value — his most important investment.
Now that Canzano has been arrested, neighbor Mike Townsend said he hopes the city will step in and finally fix up the homes.
The five misdemeanor warrants against Canzano were issued in May, when he failed to appear in court on criminal charges of code violations dating back to 1998.
Police tried for months to serve the warrants. Officers would park outside of his home or knock on his door if they had a spare moment. Neighbors would call police when they spied Canzano outside.
But the charges were misdemeanors, so if Canzano didn't answer, police couldn't break into his home to arrest him, Masters said.
"We cannot force entry into a business or residence for the sole fact of taking someone into custody who has a misdemeanor warrant," Masters said.
Indeed, Canzano bragged last week about his knowledge of the law and his ability to dodge it.
He seemed resigned to hiding out in his home, which is cluttered with newspapers, science magazines, framed prayers and Catholic relics. He would venture outside in the afternoons to teach gymnastics.
"The only peace that I have is I'm willing to live wanted," he said. "It means I have to look continually in my rear-view mirror."
Neighborhood code violations rarely turn so ugly, said Jan Koehn, Tempe's code compliance manager.
Tempe can criminally prosecute homeowners for flagrant code violations. Convictions can result in a $2,500 fine, up to three years in jail or six months probation.
Yet in rare cases, homeowners can make a career out of dodging the law, Koehn said.
"Sometimes we even have people jailed and the violations still aren't corrected," she said. "So the question is, what else can we do?"
Earlier this year, Tempe offered Canzano a $2,000 federal grant to repair his roof. In exchange, he had to clean up his pools, the abandoned vehicles in front of his home, and the appliances in his back yards. He refused.
He called an idea to sell one of his homes to pay for repairs to the others "an absurd solution."
"It's mine," he said.
City Councilman Dennis Cahill, who has worked with neighbors for years on the issue, said he understands their frustration and realizes that sometimes it takes an arrest to save a deteriorating neighborhood.
"Sometimes that's exactly what it takes," he said. "That's one way to make sure we can have property values protected."
Neighbors and city officials, Canzano said, "have no idea" what they've done to him — no idea what it's like to worry about going to jail or being hurt by police officers.
"They think that no matter what I do, if it's not the complete list of what they want, then I'm a criminal," he said. ". . . I have no respect for the law anymore. I used to."