Drug Dealers and Arson

Yesterday (April 4, 2003) an arsonist torched a basement unit in a nine-unit apartment building which I own in Minneapolis. The suspects are drug dealers who hang out near a larger apartment building across the street; they seem to have complete freedom to terrorize the neighborhood.

In February, I accepted a disabled Vietnam veteran named Randy to be a tenant in my building. I knew he had personal problems but not their extent. Randy admitted to being a former drug addict who had gone through treatment and been sober for several years. He had lived with his mother in a Minneapolis suburb until she died several months earlier. He could not afford the rent increase announced by his current landlord. His story seemed plausible to me. I did the usual checks and was convinced that this applicant was clean.

My illusions were punctured when Randy started to bring people from off the street into his apartment. He said that they were acquaintances "from church" - a Lutheran church just down the street. I raised several objections but legally could not deny him permission to have guests in his apartment. When these "guests" were reported to be roaming the hallways and steps of the apartment building in the early morning hours, I objected. Randy agreed not to have guests after 10 p.m.

Next, the caretaker reported that he had personally watched Randy leave the apartment building across the street (known to be a haven for drug dealers) and show a plastic bag with a white substance inside to a woman in a van parked outside my building. The caretaker, a former drug addict, recognized this as a drug deal.

Again, I confronted Randy. He first said that he had brought "infant formula" for a friend. Then he showed me a small plastic bag containing ear rings. This is what my caretaker had seen, he suggested. However, the caretaker was adamant that he had seen a white powder. When I reported this to Randy, he admitted that the substance was cocaine but said that my caretaker had observed him doing a "controlled buy" for the police.

I asked Randy for proof of his working for the police. I said I wanted a uniformed officer at the police precinct station to tell me this in person. He gave me the telephone number of officer "X" at the police station. By telephone, this officer confirmed that Randy had been a police informant several years earlier but said he had not done any work for the police lately.

With that information, I wrote a letter informing Randy that I would not be renewing his lease. (The leases have month-to-month terms.) He would have to be out of the apartment by April 1st. Randy said he was going into the hospital for major surgery on April 10th and would then be staying in transitional housing for several months after the operation. Would I extend the period of his tenancy until April 10th? I agreed. I thought I could wait out this troublesome tenant without further incident.

However, my caretaker reported that a window and screen to Randy's apartment unit were broken. At some expense, I had them repaired. The same thing happened again a week later. I instructed the caretaker not to repair the broken window until after Randy moved out.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of unfamiliar persons were entering the building. When I opened the door to show the apartment unit to a prospective tenant, a strange man was sleeping in Randy's bed. Randy himself telephoned me from the county jail to ask me to lock his apartment door and turn off the coffee pot. When I entered the unit, I found drug paraphrenalia in the living room.

Randy's possessions were piled up everywhere. Evidently his sister, CEO of a health services firm who told Randy never to contact her again, had dumped whatever remained of his belongings from his mother's house. Randy had no place else to store these except in his small apartment. It looked like a warehouse. During these weeks, Randy was beaten up several times. He was a frail-looking white man with a cane and a big mouth - quite a target for the thugs who hung out across the street.

On Thursday, April 3rd, Randy knocked on my door to say that he had had enough. He was bleeding from both ears having been severely beaten. A young drug dealer named Chris - a.k.a. "Slim" - was the assailant. Randy wrote out a paper giving me permission to dispose of his belongings after one month if he had not returned by then to retrieve them. He also wrote down the numbers of the units where he thought drug deals were being made in the apartment building across the street.

My former brother-in-law, who was a tenant in the apartment, accompanied me to the police precinct station. We wished to report the assault and request closer police surveillance of the neighborhood. The officer responded by suggesting that the precinct was severely understaffed. The cuts in state aids to the city of Minneapolis meant that dozens of additional officers would soon lose their jobs. The best thing we could do to fight crime in our neighborhood would be to call our City Council representatives and the Mayor to demand that the proposed budget cuts to police be restored.

I was initially put off by such talk which seemed to say that the police would not help us and someone else was to blame. Yet, this officer did promise to devote additional resources to my neighborhood. The officer went on to describe the frustrations which the police face in trying to combat drug and gang activity. The police do make arrests, but the criminals are soon back on the streets. The city attorney typically declines to prosecute most cases. A particular court official screens criminal cases seen by the county attorney, rejecting many more. The judges in Minnesota prefer to "divert" cases to parole officers to sentencing the criminals to prison knowing that prison space is inadequate.

On the following day, Friday evening, I learned that a fire had broken out in Randy's apartment. I had been planning to remove his belongings over the weekend and put them in my basement for awhile before tossing them into the trash. It was too late. We did change the lock to the apartment unit but had not boarded or repaired the broken window. Evidently, someone had climbed through this window and set fire to the mound of clothing piled next to Randy's bed. This was a combustible mix which could have destroyed the entire building and killed someone.

Fortunately, the caretaker and another resident smelled smoke in the building. They emptied the contents of two fire extinguishers on the blaze before summoning the city fire department. The smoke was unbearable but direct damage was confined to Randy's unit.

During the next several days, I divided my time between dealing with this horrible situation and watching CNN reports on the war in Iraq. On one hand, I felt pride that the U.S. and British troops seemed to be "winning" this war. On the other hand, scenes of death and destruction should please no one. I had seen enough billowing black smoke in my own building to take comfort in this kind of entertainment.

Randy was a wounded Vietnam veteran who acquired a drug habit while in the military. His veterans pension had been cut from $430 per month to $57 per month in the first month when he began renting from me. More recently, the Veterans department has cut the benefit to zero citing previous overpayments related to the deduction for child support. Randy relapsed into drug use. His former service to country offers scant excuse for what he has become lately.

Forget Saddam Hussein. Can we not find a way to defeat the thugs who have taken over our streets? 

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