Folks on Humphrey Hill Drive were still waking up on the icy Saturday morning the shark hunters came to town.
They rounded the suburban traffic circle in two school buses, rumbling to a stop at the Garmone family's driveway. Forty-two caffeinated Clevelanders piled out, their leaders carrying bullhorns.
Their quarry, Mike Garmone - a regional vice president at Countrywide Financial Corp., the nation's largest mortgage lender - didn't answer his door. So they deployed, ringing bells at the big homes with three-car garages, lambasting Garmone and his company's loans. Before departing, they left their calling card - thousands of 2 1/2-inch plastic sharks - flung across Garmone's frozen flower beds, up into the gutters, littering the doorstep.
The commotion was the work of an in-your-face activist group called the East Side Organizing Project mobilized to battle Cleveland's mortgage "loan sharks." Years before the rest of the country was rocked by the fallout from aggressive lending, their neighborhoods were already home to the nation's highest concentration of foreclosures - and they were fed up.
ESOP's people are proudly loud and abrasive, and they've long reveled in needling people with pull. But could they get a distant behemoth like Countrywide to the table?
That morning in February 2006, ESOP executive director Mark Seifert wasn't sure he even had Garmone's correct address.
Until two evenings later, when Seifert got an e-mail from a top public relations executive at Countrywide's California headquarters.
We need to talk, it said.
Seifert broke into a wide grin.
Now that David had Goliath's ear, he wasn't about to let go.
The foreclosure epidemic infecting Cleveland has been even more punishing than the crisis much of the rest of the country is enduring. It's a symptom of the lax lending that became widely common, without the run-up in home prices that long camouflaged it.
Cleveland and the surrounding county saw more than 15,000 foreclosures last year. To grasp the impact, walk with Nita Gardner down East 113th Street, where she raised two boys.
When Gardner, a retired machinist, bought the gray wood-frame house 33 years ago, this neighborhood was filled with families. Their homes were modest, but maintained with pride.
Have a look at what's left.
The white house on the opposite corner - its front porch ripped away by scavengers - fell to foreclosure last year. The home behind it - blue with plank-covered windows - went soon after.
A few doors down from Gardner, three homes in a row are abandoned. It's not like some manicured suburban neighborhood, where it's a guess if a house is empty. Here, shredded curtains flap from holes where windows used to be. The silver fringes of insulation hang from walls where aluminum siding has been stripped for resale.
In early 2006, Gardner's adult sons - who had bought the house from her - fell behind on their mortgage and the lender, Countrywide, began foreclosure.
Gardner stepped in, although looking at the neighborhood, it's not immediately clear why.
Until, that is, Gardner opens the front door and light spills over the floor to a mural of an Egyptian pharaoh she painted in gold and azure across the living room wall. Upstairs, a closet door still bears the markings in pen where her sons charted their heights, year after year.
"I just feel like I'm a whole person with this house," says Gardner, explaining her battle to save it. "Because this is not just a house. It's me."
When ESOP held its annual meeting in 1999, organizers were surprised to see empty chairs. They called the missing and found many phones had been disconnected.
It was the first sign that people in some of Cleveland's poorest neighborhoods were losing their homes to foreclosure.
ESOP's organizers, who worked with parents on school safety, knew nothing about mortgage lending. But they did know how to raise hell.
That was clear in the mid-1990s, when ESOP demanded that Cleveland officials give money seized in drug busts to struggling city schools.
When Mayor Michael White put them off, ESOP picketed White's church and asked the pastor to excommunicate him. They figured out the married mayor had a girlfriend and went to her door with a letter demanding the cash.
The tactics came back to bite them.
"We lost about 90 percent of our funding overnight," Seifert recalls.
The nonprofit staggered. If it was going to be confrontational, it needed to keep the foundations that fed its budget in the loop.
Fighting foreclosures became their new cause. But they brought along old tactics.
Clevelanders were losing their homes, organizers concluded, because aggressive lenders had put people in mortgages they couldn't possibly afford.
At one protest outside a bank, a police officer confronted an ESOP volunteer in a shark suit.
"Are those your sharks?" the officer demanded, scooping plastic predators from the ground.
"No," protester Christine Regula replied. "I had my tubes tied."
They also pressed officials to stall foreclosures proceedings. Steven Bucha, chief magistrate in charge of foreclosures in Cleveland's courts, was invited to an ESOP forum where more than 200 people packed a church basement.
"A woman gave a fiery speech about how the system had done her wrong, how the system was in collusion with the court - and here's the guy responsible! And she pointed at me. I really couldn't get a word out," Bucha says. "It was like nothing else I've ever experienced in my life."
Bucha and others say the "guerrilla warfare" approach was counterproductive.
"Nobody likes our tactics, which is precisely why we use them," Seifert says.
The group squeezed and cajoled eight companies into signing pacts giving it direct access to a single executive with the authority to restructure problem loans. Last year, ESOP - one of four groups counseling homeowners for Cuyahoga County's foreclosure rescue program - says it got mortgages reworked for about 1,500 homeowners.
"You know, there's a fine line," says Rocky Ortiz, the local director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which provides part of ESOP's funding. "Mark and his people have learned to walk it."
Maybe, but in early going, some of ESOP's targets were local or relatively small. Even some of the biggest were vulnerable, or at least open to discussion.
Could ESOP take on the biggest lender in the country? It was time to find out.
Taking a bite out of Countrywide
Weeks after declaring Countrywide their villain of choice, ESOP "hit" Garmone's house in suburban Painesville.
"Please call Mike at home ... and tell him to do the right thing: produce his boss to a meeting with ESOP!" the group urged its followers.
ESOP didn't want just any boss. They demanded Angelo Mozilo, Countrywide's chairman and CEO.
They got a meeting with a pair of executives, but walked out when they would not sign a pledge to negotiate.
Countrywide will not answer questions about its dealings with ESOP.
"We want that relationship (with ESOP) to continue to improve so together we can help more borrowers," Rick Simon, a company spokesman, said. "Going back to the past doesn't help those borrowers."
But letters Countrywide sent ESOP make clear the company's sharp disagreement with the activists' criticism and tactics.
ESOP organizers and Countrywide executives met again in the fall of 2006. But the group was having trouble convincing local officials that Countrywide was the villain they said it was, Seifert says.
The campaign stood down, but it was temporary.
ESOP organizers got Mozilo's phone number and instructed homeowners to call in the middle of the night. They flooded faxes at Countrywide offices with forms detailing problem loans.
In April 2007, two dozen ESOP volunteers walked into a Countrywide office in suburban Woodmere, throwing plastic sharks and handing out mock foreclosure notices.
"We strongly believe that confrontational tactics and deliberate misinformation are not the way to build productive relationships that help Cleveland's homeowners," a Countrywide executive wrote afterward.
In June, a pair of Countrywide executives came to ESOP's offices, promising to work with individual borrowers but refusing to sign the memorandum.
Nine days later, ESOP showed up at a Countrywide office in the University Circle neighborhood, sharks in hand.
In July, an ESOP regiment tried to shove their way into the office of the lawyer representing Countrywide in its Cleveland foreclosures.
Countrywide was not happy.
"During efforts to physically force your way into the office, one of the firm employees was actually bitten by an ESOP member," Countrywide's chief counsel, Sandor Samuels, wrote afterward.
Countrywide insisted it was cooperating, saying it had restructured dozens of loans. The activists said that was not nearly enough.
Then, in October, a letter on gold-embossed stationery arrived.
"I am hopeful, for the sake of these families, that ESOP and Countrywide will move forward and work together in a constructive manner to find workable solutions to our customers' issues," it said.
It was signed: "Sincerely, Angelo R. Mozilo."
In December, Samuels led a Countrywide delegation to Cleveland. ESOP rented a trolley, seated the executives in the front row and filled the rest with homeowners.
Nita Gardner was there and she laid out the paper trail she'd assembled chronicling her efforts to buy back her house from Countrywide.
Afterward, one of the executives asked her how far she was willing to go to keep it.
"Well I'm the medical standard of obese," Gardner says she answered, "and I'm willing to walk the double yellow line of the Shoreway buck naked to get that house back."
When the tour ended, ESOP President Inez Killingsworth turned to Countrywide's Samuels. Would he sign a promise to negotiate? It was the same memorandum the lender had rejected for nearly two years.
Samuels paused. Then he reached for a pen.
Rising from their seats, ESOP's army cheered.
'You can't go back on this'
A few days after New Year's, Nita Gardner's phone rang. Countrywide was prepared to sell her her house back.
Gardner was skeptical, but handed a check to the real estate agent.
"I signed the paper and I cried," she says. "I told him, you can't go back on this."
Countrywide's decision is one of 50 to 60 loan workouts it has agreed to with homeowners represented by ESOP since December, Seifert says.
In December, the activists expected to reach a comprehensive agreement with Countrywide within four months. A few weeks later, Countrywide agreed to a $4 billion acquisition by Bank of America Corp. But it has continued to negotiate.
That has the activists looking ahead. They're changing their name to Empowering & Strengthening Ohio's People, to reach beyond the Cleveland area. And they're talking about the next lender they want to go after.
They've even got the home phone number for a certain CEO.
Now, Seifert says, all they need is a new supply of plastic sharks.