By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Outside, a police officer repeated pleas that echoed throughout the apartment complex from a tinny bullhorn.
"You don't want to do this," he urged the man, holed up in his unit with his baby and a gun. "Come out. You haven't gone too far yet."
Malana West heard the efforts to calm the invisible gunman, then peered nervously through her blinds toward the siege unfolding across the parking lot.
A month pregnant and with four young children, but too curious to stay away from her window, West was still watching when she suddenly witnessed this scene 20 minutes later: The blinds parted in the man's apartment, revealing 33-year-old Timothy Adams Sr. cradling a pistol in one hand and his 21-year-old month son in the other.
West's portion of the complex was already teeming with cops. Two SWAT vans rolled into an alley beside Adams's four-unit building. She saw an officer wrap yellow caution tape around the main entrance, and heard another one knock on her door. He told her to take her children, who ranged in age from six months to five years old, to her next-door neighbor's, out of the line of potential fire.
They moved to the neighbor's hallway floor and turned the bedroom television in their direction. News crews on the Fondren esplanade were already broadcasting the turmoil. Residents of the complex were used to seeing police around -- West had come home from work at a credit investigation office and initially figured it was just another couple fighting. Adams had chased his wife from their unit with the gun. West knew it was worse when another tenant advised her, "He's got his baby hostage."
Darkness had arrived by 6:30 p.m., but police trained spotlights on Adams's window.
Dozens of SWAT officers broke through nearby wooden patio fences while others climbed a ladder to gather in apartments adjacent to the gunman.
Inside her neighbor's apartment, West never heard Adams fire his gun. Moments later, his hands in the air, Adams emerged in a white T-shirt soaked with his baby's blood. Half the officers fell on him, half rushed inside. West stepped outside just in time to hear an officer scream, "Make a hole!"
The officers on the stairs parted, and an officer holding the limp infant raced down and into the back of an ambulance that sped away. The child died from two shots to the chest. West saw the pensive look on the father's face as police dragged him to the parking lot.
"Maybe he was thinking about what he had done," West says. "Maybe he knew his life was over."
That was her second thought. Her first was that she had to move.
"If I was waiting on a sign," she told herself, "there it is."
Five days later, West would think the same thing after another murder at the complex. Her urge grew stronger when two more people were killed there in the following five months.
The curse of Fondren Southwest seemed to be descending again. Houston's forsaken southwest corner -- an area squeezed by aging apartment units and regular explosions of anger -- had been trying for years to make a comeback, fueled by federal grants and gritty grassroots activism, and dislodge the gangs and legacy of lethal violence.
West's own apartment house, Pointe Royale, had been considered by police to be one of the safer ones crammed into the maze of the nearly 100 complexes of Fondren Southwest. Then came the four homicides within six months, beginning with the Adams murder on February 20, just as new owners were instituting more security upgrades.
Tired of trying to raise her kids in what is perceived to be a perpetual crime scene, West was one of many tenants determined to break through financial limitations and escape to a new future. Demetria Kimble, a resident for nine years, scoffed at assurances that three of the killings were "domestic" -- involving families or friends, not strangers.
"The bullet don't have no names," she says. "It doesn't have any direction."
About 25 years ago, developers determined a bold new direction for Houston -- virgin land in Fondren Southwest would be transformed into a haven for young, white professionals wanting to flee then-decaying areas like Stella Link.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, huge apartment complexes sprang up beside expensive homes in pristine subdivisions. Businesses also saw profits in the fresh population influx, and fine restaurants and strip malls further transformed the landscape. The economic outlook seemed good for the mostly white, predominantly Jewish area -- a roughly eight square-mile tract bounded by Braeswood on the north, South Main on the south, Hillcroft on the east and the Southwest Freeway on the west.
But the real estate market bottomed out in the area's oil bust of the mid-1980s. Property values plummeted and many of the complexes deteriorated. The prized upscale residents fled, followed by the better restaurants. Strip malls sat half-empty. In a rush to maintain apartment occupancy, owners lowered rent and offered free move-in specials, attracting many low-income black and Hispanic families to smaller units originally designed for singles or couples. Still, many complexes failed. And many of the foreclosure actions were by savings and loan companies that soon faced their own insolvency.
Apartment complexes began changing ownership about once every two years, often going to out-of-state owners less interested in the property's condition than the amount of their investment returns.
Many managers lowered leasing standards, looking the other way at tenants who were gang members, drug dealers and other undesirables. The prevailing theory: "Trash pays cash."
During the 1980s, the local white population dropped from 74 to 41 percent. Drawn to the area's 20,000 low-rent apartment units, the black population exploded from 14 to 41 percent, and the Hispanic population jumped from 8 percent to 12 percent.
Some of the complexes became known as hotspots for drugs and prostitution. Gangs like the Southwest Cholos, the Latinos and the 8900 Gang marked their turf outside the apartments. Gunplay marked boundary disputes; innocents died by stray bullets or in sport shootings.
By the early 1990s, apartment owners and other residents began a counter-offensive of their own. In several high-profile cases, homeowners in the Southmeadow subdivision sued the owners of the West Fondren and Village of the Green apartments for negligence contributing to constant criminal activity. The subdivision residents said the owners didn't hire security guards, screen tenants or provide lighting. The homeowners collected a multi-million dollar settlement and used it to buy and raze both properties.
Apartment managers began tightening tenant screening and adding new security measures along with off-duty police patrols. Managers, officers and residential groups started sharing information and taking coordinated steps to solve problems.
By the mid-1990s, property values were rebounding and more middle-class minorities moved in. In 1998, the area had its own police division and advocates who pressed City Hall for more assistance in their efforts.
Leaders sensed that they might be on the way to winning the war over Fondren Southwest. The strides were apparent when West and her husband, a mechanic, began considering a move four years ago. With one small child and another on the way, the family needed more space than their Bellfort Southwest apartment could offer.
For their price range, Pointe Royale was the most appealing (this year, rent for the two-bedroom unit is $520). The sprawling, 516-unit complex was clean, spacious and seemed to be safer than other complexes they saw.
In fact, their new home had been the notorious Tiffany Place of the 1980s, a complex that cops and hustlers knew simply as "TP" -- a prime place to score drugs.
In 1996, the Kansas City-based Cres company bought the complex and did more than just change the name to Pointe Royale. A spokeswoman says it poured $2 million into the 19-year-old complex, hired off-duty police for security and gave them an apartment to use as an on-site substation. Managers implemented a curfew for juveniles to cut down on loitering and used an application processing firm to weed out prospective tenants with criminal records.
West's family still held the dream of owning a home -- they'd enrolled in a housing grant workshop at the Houston Area Urban League. But they were happy with the complex, at least for the first two years.
The type of tenants started to change, she recalls. Turnover increased. More residents had problems making rent, and the management reacted with evictions and by nailing boards over doors and windows of those units. West says she felt like she was living in a slum.
Longtime residents got the uncomfortable sensation that the complex was slipping back into the earlier, desperate days of life at "TP" once again.
"The last thing we need in the Fondren Southwest area is another apartment complex," Ruth Hurst tells the Citizens Advisory Committee at the September meeting in the Fondren police station. Hurst is the committee president and the most vocal watchdog in the area.
A tall woman with a broad face and authoritative voice, she is an imposing figure. She knows all the cops, apartment owners and managers and has a photographic memory of every nook and cranny in Fondren Southwest. Her constant contact with managers tells her whether dealers are still working near the Shop 'N Carry on Dumfries and Sandpiper, or if they've moved to another corner.
Looming over a podium, Hurst grows upset as she tells the 11 homeowners and a few cops in attendance about an apartment complex under construction on Gessner. Soon, Hurst will have to add these apartments to her master list of 97 multi-family dwellings in Fondren Southwest, a spreadsheet she says people would kill for. She's got the names and numbers of owners and managers and won't share them with anyone. Let others do their own fieldwork is her philosophy.
The advisory committee is only the first meeting of the night led by Hurst. After an hour of planning Fondren station fund-raisers and "Fun Day in the Park" family activities, she'll convene the Crime Awareness Committee meeting, where the audience relays sightings of drug pushers and prostitutes.
With a black Magic Marker in hand, Officer D.J. Hardy stands by an easel-mounted pad of paper and records the complaints. He flips the sheet from last month's meeting (notes on trash, speeding and the Gessner-Creekbend intersection dubbed "Prostitution Lane") and listens to a fresh round of reports.
Hurst says she's going to let Hardy run the meeting, but, as usual, she's got a lot to say. There are 18-wheelers illegally parked on Dumfries where dealers hide their stash. She complains about a complex owner who won't agree to have the trucks towed.
Glendale Park Apartments manager Gloria Oliver chimes in about Bloods -- a young black gang sporting red shirts and shoes -- who have recently moved into the area. She tells of dealers congregating from 11 at night until kids catch their school buses in the morning.
Sergeant Jack Oliver starts assigning the complaints to different officers. They prioritize the list, with everyone agreeing the Bloods are number one.
Hurst's life has been like this for ten years, an endless series of meetings with disgruntled homeowners, apartment managers, police and other local groups. She's the president of Braeburn Valley Homeowners Association as well as New Braeswood Revitalization Association. She orchestrates apartment managers' meetings and Positive Interaction Programs with residents and police. In Fondren Southwest, there's very little she doesn't have her hands in.
Hurst has no problem talking about crack dealers, hookers and shootings. But asking how old she is makes her most uncomfortable. "Anyone who would tell their age would tell everything," she replies.
But she does seem to tell everything, from Fondren Southwest's progress to how much further it has to go.
In 1973 Hurst moved with her husband and five children from New Orleans to the quiet, well-kept subdivision of Braeburn Valley. As the regional manager for a cosmetics firm, she traveled two or three weeks each month, never realizing that the nearby sprawl of apartments were falling into urban decay.
"I sat here on a little island. I didn't know what was going on," she says.
It's easy to understand. Braeburn Valley, like other subdivisions in the area, remain oases in Fondren Southwest, immune in large part to the crime concentrated in the complexes.
Around the time she retired in 1992, a street in her subdivision was opened to allow access for a Pepto-Bismol-colored clump of squalid apartments she says is owned by a New Jersey rabbi. She went to homeowners' meetings to protest (the street stayed open), and her local activism evolved from there. She started to see first-hand the crime at these complexes and the owners' neglect. Her kids told her to move.
"Where are you going to go to run away from this?" she says. "You can't run."
No one seemed to be doing anything about the decline, she says. At that time, the Fondren Police Station was just a storefront office, a satellite of the Beechnut Station, with only a handful of officers. But Hurst found an ally in then-captain C.A. Bullock, who retired earlier this year. They organized the first meetings of property managers to share ideas on combating onsite crime. They exchanged names of evicted tenants. Before, it was too easy for a drug-dealing renter to get booted out of one complex and set up shop in an adjacent one the next day.
Hurst says she's not anti-apartment, she's just got a real problem with owners and managers more interested in the bottom line than in their tenants.
"Just because you're poor doesn't mean you have to live in a complex, like this one behind me, where you have raw sewage running into your pantry," she says. "These owners know what they're doing you think they care about the community? No. It's one self-serving individual that's greedy and hungry, and we all pay the price for that."
One problem is that managers don't want to lower occupancy at any cost.
"When a slumlord hires a [manager], he says, 'This is what I expect you to bring in every month. And if you don't bring this in every month, you don't have a job,' " she says.
Police and neighborhood groups have made progress in the last five years, Hurst says. Besides the continued meetings with officers, groups have organized family "Fun Day in the Park" programs and have raised money to buy streetlights and plant flowers in esplanades. Hurst is especially proud of that, saying, "Beautification is a part of crime prevention, and that's a fact."
But there's also frustration in her voice.
She says the city's population count for the area is low, which affects Fondren police staffing and funding for revitalization projects. There are still managers who don't do anything about the dealers on their properties. She misses the better restaurants and shops that abandoned the area in the 1980s.
Hurst won't be happy until the drugs are gone, because that brings everything else. But with the Bloods moving in, it will take more than streetlights and flowers to eradicate pervasive dealing.
"All I want to do is move the drug dealers," she says. "I don't care where [they] go. Just get them out of here."
Another local group, Southwest Houston 2000, isn't as open about the crime plaguing the area. The organization formed in 1991 as what president James Myers calls a coalition of homeowners associations, business owners, churches, synagogues, libraries and others. Their advisory group includes City Councilman Mark Goldberg, At-Large Councilman Gordon Quan and HISD Board President Laurie Bricker.
But it's hard to get a handle on what Southwest Houston 2000 actually does. Perry Radoff, an attorney who heads the coalition's crime and safety committee, insisted that the only way to do a story about crime in Fondren Southwest was to do a story about crime in the entire city. He referred comments about crime to Myers, president of a public relations and advertising firm.
Myers says that, unlike Hurst's groups, Southwest Houston 2000 takes a more "inclusive" effort toward neighborhood improvement. He says the group gives a voice to everyone in Fondren Southwest. Myers wouldn't comment about crime in apartment complexes. What he would say is, "Are things better? Yes. Can things get better? Yes. Are we all trying to make things better? Yes."
According to Myers's second-year "Message From the President," the coalition accomplished many great things. The organization donated two large potted ficus trees to Jenard Gross Elementary School, sponsored the "second annual Realtors' luncheon for 100 area Realtors," sent a letter asking the Houston Symphony to perform at a park, drove an HISD car in a parade -- and issued 22 press releases detailing these accomplishments. More recently, members held their first volunteer awards banquet. As Myers proudly declared in his message, Southwest Houston 2000 was the onlyarea organization to be honored at the banquet.
The organization also has more serious endeavors such as holding Fun Day in the Park and trying to expand the HPD's Blue Star program to train managers how to reduce crime.
Although Southwest Houston 2000 and Hurst's groups are working toward the same goal, they don't work together.
"Everything we do, they're against," she says. "Those people don't have a clue to what's going on."
Police serve as the link between Hurst's groups, Southwest Houston 2000 and the property managers. Over the summer, Lieutenant Greg Fremin, the acting supervisor of the Fondren station, met with more community leaders in his office than he had in 19 years on the force. He credits that involvement for turning the small storefront into a full-fledged patrol subdivision in 1998.
He's grateful for the input, but he's also frank about the department's limitations.
"They start looking to us to help stop the problem, but there's only so much we can do," he says. Attracting responsible owners and managers to the area would do so much more.
He remembers how bad the apartment-saturated Greenspoint area was when he worked that beat in the early '80s. He says he recently drove through his old patrol and barely recognized the place -- new apartment owners sunk millions into cleaning the blighted area and hiring reputable managers. Greenspoint had pulled a 180.
Fondren Southwest hasn't caught up, and he pins a lot of that on economics. Apartments continued $99 move-in specials and rush to rent to virtually anyone means the police will always be busy.
Crime statistics for Fondren Southwest show an overall reduction from ten years ago. However, sexual assault, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary and auto theft all increased from 2000 to 2001. Sex offenses have never dropped below the 82 arrests of 1991. Last year, the 120 reported sexual offenses were the second-highest recorded in that category in ten years.
Fremin says the recent increases in crime may reflect more residents' post-9/11 willingness to report crime rather than a true hike. Yet, like every other substation in the city, the 150-officer Fondren outpost is understaffed, Fremin says. But the upgrade from storefront status at least means having a gang unit of its own.
The sergeant and seven officers of the Fondren gang unit often have to try to crack down on apartment gangs without help from managers. Fremin says that is sometimes because managers have been threatened.
Adrian Garcia, the mayor's anti-gang office director, credits successes to federally funded programs targeting the Fondren Southwest section loosely known as the Gulfton Ghetto. He concedes the area still has a gang presence.
"I would like to think that gangs could be eradicated, but I would be lying," he says.
His office looked at gang hotspots throughout the city and targeted the Gulfton area, a roughly three-square mile tract packed with 70,000 people, many of them recently arrived immigrants from all over the world. Garcia calls it "somewhat of an Ellis Island."
Officials implemented the Weed and Seed project. Like the name suggests, it tries to replace criminal activity with positive, community-oriented programs. These include a program called United Minds, a leadership program for teens, which Garcia says builds self-respect. One of their field trips was a trip to the city morgue, where at-risk youth got a close-up view of the effects of gang violence.
The office also targeted the gang-infested Los Americas apartment complex, using Weed and Seed money to build an elementary school on the property. Garcia says Los Americas is now a model complex. Program funds also helped build the Gulfton Community Learning Center, which offers free computer training. There's a computer lab at a local park, an English as a Second Language workshop and a domestic violence outreach unit. In five years, the seed program pumped $800,000 into the former Gulfton Ghetto.
He says these advances, accomplished without "heavy-handed police tactics," restored a sense of safety and community to an area that "was never engineered for family life."
Now, he says, "You'll see life going on."
Penciled on a wall is the stark message: "Demons get out of this and these apt. All of them in the blood of Jesus." The warning waits just outside an abandoned apartment in the condemned Southwest Gardens complex. It's not clear if the demons ever left the West Airport Road complex, but the tenants did. The city forced them out in August, two months after a fire gutted nine units and years after owners failed to clean up dangerous conditions.
Southwest Gardens is a ghost town of some 90 units that exist as a reminder of how bad things can get in Fondren Southwest. Located about 100 yards from a church playground, the complex was a Galleria of drugs and prostitution, according to city officials and local residents.
A mountain of debris from the fire rises out of the parking lot and is visible from West Airport Road. Dumpsters overflow onto the cracked, pitted driveway. Gaping holes pockmark the buildings.
Many units are empty and boarded up, but some contain possessions left behind in haste or out of neglect. Rain-soaked hymnals are neatly stacked on a staircase outside one unit. A scooter and a baby carriage lay on their sides beside abandoned microwaves and washing machines. A few cars are left in the parking lots, windows smashed and tires flattened. Stray cats weave in and out of the rubble, but they're not the only signs of life.
Trespassers gain easy access through broken windows and unlocked doors. In one second-floor unit, a bag of Ramen noodles, clothes stuffed into a tied-up bedsheet and pillows on a stained mattress are signs of a squatter. A bullet rests on the living room counter.
Southwest Gardens is what the city's Forfeiture Abatement Support Team calls a "nuisance property."
Operating out of the HPD's narcotics division, FAST uses the state's civil practice and remedies code to scare neglectful owners into compliance. Representatives of the city's narcotics squad, neighborhood protection division, fire marshal's office and city attorney's office target properties with habitual problems -- drugs, gangs, gambling, prostitution and firearm violations.
FAST member and Assistant City Attorney Savita Rai says the team has closed 26 complexes citywide and is targeting eight in Fondren Southwest. FAST has 1,000 investigations continuing citywide.
The law gives FAST the muscle to close noncomplying properties for a year and to make an owner pay associated legal costs. Owners may also post a bond to guarantee they'll prohibit onsite crime for that year, or risk jail time and a fine if they don't. Rai says that owners voluntarily comply 80 percent of the time.
But these investigations move slowly. When FAST first looked at Southwest Gardens around two years ago, the property was already notorious for drugs. "It was basically a narcotics Stop 'N Go," Rai says.
Assessing fault for the problems can be difficult, due in part to the complicated ownership arrangements. Southwest Gardens' condos had many buyers, often lured in by the potential for profits from units priced between $5,000 and $11,000. The complex was overseen by an owners' council that contracted with a management company to run the complex. Or at least that's how it was supposed to be.
In 1998, ex-Houston cop Wanda Seals became council vice president and the council contracted with Juande Iyamu to manage the property. Iyamu also sat on the board of directors. Seals owned about 30 units and Iyamu, a former council president, was the first lienholder on many others. Charles Daughtry, an attorney for later council members, says Iyamu was Seals's boyfriend.
Rai says FAST focused on Southwest Gardens two years later, when Seals became council president. She tells of contacting Seals to suggest ways to combat the drug infestation, but Seals never took action and the problems worsened. She says she couldn't locate Seals for another meeting, and Iyamu was "always coincidentally out of the country."
Around January of 2001, then-Houston parole officer Cecil Osakwe became the council president and hired Austin Property Management. Rai says she had no success with the new council either.
Then came the June 2002 fire. By the end of July, the fire marshal declared the complex a fire hazard and ordered the problems fixed by August 8. Tenants had been living without water service for two or three months and had jumped electricity from adjacent properties to their units, creating a jungle of live, exposed wires, Rai says.
The August deadline passed and the city kicked out the tenants, with the city and charities helping to locate temporary shelter for them.
Meanwhile, Seals and Iyamu sued Osakwe and the council for "making them slum landlords," according to their attorney, Helen Mayfield. That suit alleges breach of contract, negligence and deceptive trade practices.
Mayfield says the city harassed Seals without reason and that Seals spent $51,000 in her and her kids' savings on maintenance fees that the council misappropriated.
As Mayfield puts it, "The place went to shitsville" under the new council. She also says the city harassed Seals because she's black, but she has no explanation for why she says the city never harassed Osakwe, who's also black.
Seals says she did everything in her power to comply with the city. She says her onsite manager was vigilant, but neither she nor Mayfield mentioned in interviews that the manager was Iyamu.
The new council's attorney, Daughtry, says Iyamu left Osakwe and his manager no money to clean up the decrepit property. The council's insurance company paid it $220,000 for damages from a 2000 fire, but funds were diverted from repair budgets, Daughtry says.
A trial is set for December to sort out the allegations. But it is obvious that mismanagement on someone's part created a haven for criminals, forced about 100 people out of their homes and left Fondren Southwest with a rotting clump of buildings.
FAST can close a nuisance property, but it can't erase the problem. Hurst likens the effort to a Band-Aid approach, saying, "We're fighting the battles one on one, but the war is still here."
"We do realize the limits," Rai says. "We're displacing the activity to somewhere else."
Dreams of Fondren Southwest tenants have also been displaced, despite all the efforts under way to improve the area.
The recent killings at Pointe Royale and other complexes perpetuate an image not only for those outside the area, but to the renters themselves. Because things have been so bad in the past, some tenants accept rumor as fact, weaving gruesome tales into local lore.
A 15-year-old Pointe Royale tenant spoke casually about residents discovering a policeman's body in a Dumpster years ago. Pointing to the supposed Dumpster, only a few dozen yards from her apartment, she said the officer's throat had been slit.
Another apartment resident flatly stated that police shot two teenage burglars, one fatally, in Glendale Park in August. This never happened, but it was just as easy for him to believe that it did. It seems people who live in Fondren Southwest's apartments long enough don't consider those stories out of the ordinary.
Activist Hurst can weed fiction from fact, although she admits Fondren Southwest has a long way to go before those myths subside. Although Mayor Lee Brown named the area as one of 88 "Super Neighborhoods," Hurst says she has yet to see progress from that designation. The program was designed to give residents a voice in prioritizing funding and projects for their community. Groups are supposed to draft a master plan for the area, but the splits may snarl the effort.
"Egos have to be thrown out the window," she says of the council created by the Super Neighborhood label. That council is represented by both Southwest Houston 2000 and Hurst's groups, creating an atmosphere of acrimony rather than a unified front.
Apartments are showing some progress. Following Pointe Royale's recent murders, the Cres ownership raised the monthly off-duty HPD patrol budget from $6,500 to $9,000.
Officers say that, even with police logging 1,000 calls to the complex over the past year, Pointe Royale doesn't register as one of the more violent complexes of Fondren Southwest.
Teresa Lippert of Cres says the former manager had to leave because "dealing with the recent events" was too emotional for her. She also acknowledges that "there were some issues that the residents felt toward her." Lippert says the manager's replacement won the Houston Apartment Association's Manager of the Year Award.
"It's not as horrible a situation as it's played out to be," Lippert says, explaining that local media tend to blow things out of proportion. She and police also argue that the domestic nature of the homicides are hardly indicative of a complex's safety, saying that they could happen anywhere.
West, Pointe Royale's former tenant, is not around any longer to engage in the debate. With the arrival of her fifth child last month, her family relocated to what she called a bigger, safer apartment outside Fondren Southwest. She made a day and night tour of the new complex to be certain that she wasn't moving into a place with more problems.
The week before West left, 25 new tenants were scheduled to move in to Pointe Royale. Even as safety concerns force others out, cheap move-in rates draw others in. It seems there will always be someone willing to come, even if it's only for a few months.
West, weeks prior to the move, sat on her couch and cradled her infant daughter, a picture of peace. She was sure she'd miss her friends, the majority of tenants who are good, responsible people trying to survive on limited budgets.
They just have to deal with a reality that people in other parts of town don't face on a regular basis, she says. And for that, they are judged.
"For the most part," West says, "people here are just trying to live."