By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
The last time anyone saw Clairice Blackshire alive, she was naked, drunk and walking from her apartment room to the North Freeway feeder road.
She had been living at the Northline Inn at Crosstimbers and I-45, a former Howard Johnson's hotel that is now a privately owned affordable housing complex for the mentally ill, recovering drug addicts and the formerly homeless. Blackshire, 47, was under the care of Harris County Social Services.
Luke Imoisi, a Northline tenant as well as the property manager, says he saw Blackshire stagger out of a car at about 2 a.m. on January 3. He says he escorted the woman to her apartment, then returned to his own room. About 30 minutes later, the front desk security guard called Imoisi, saying he saw Blackshire walk about 30 steps off the property and take off her dress.
Imoisi says he looked for Blackshire -- a nude, six-foot-tall, 170-pound woman -- but couldn't find her. He told the security guard to "wait and see if she don't come back," before anyone called the police. He says he had no reason to alert law enforcement since she was not a missing person. Plus, he says, Blackshire had a history of getting drunk and walking out of the complex.
"If my clients are in my building, I take care of them in my building, on my property," Imoisi says. "But if they're off my property, there's nothing I can do."
Imoisi went back to his room. No 911 calls were ever placed from Northline Inn, according to Houston police.
Sometime around 8:30 a.m., police were notified of a body on I-45. A red pickup had hit Blackshire and driven on. The driver turned himself in the next day.
Police believe Blackshire was walking in the left lane of the freeway when the truck struck her and knocked her about 75 feet into the HOV lane. She was carrying $31 and a cigarette case.
Blackshire's was not the first death involving the operators of the Northline Inn.
The facility is run by a nonprofit called Self-Sufficiency Through Housing and Economic Development, better known as Shed. In 1994, with an $821,000 loan from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, Shed bought the San Jacinto Gardens apartments in the Third Ward.
Shed entered into what Shed CEO Larry Martins calls a joint venture with Bankers Investment Trust. That company was formed by Lemont Curry, a onetime Shed board member. Shed and Bankers set out to convert the complex into low-income housing units.
In August 1997, a 15-year-old high school honor student named Jarvis Hooks was visiting his girlfriend at the complex when he decided to take a swim. He jumped in the pool and started screaming for help. His friends outside the pool thought he was playing a prank. Hooks was a natural athlete, a champion sprinter and star football and basketball player.
When it became apparent that he wasn't joking, there wasn't much others could do for him. One tenant grabbed a metal rescue pole, stuck it in the water and was shocked -- Hooks had been electrocuted.
A jury in 1999 found that the pool's lighting system lacked a ground fault circuit interrupter, required by Houston codes. Jurors found Curry and the property managers responsible for Hooks's death, awarding $3.1 million to Hooks's family and $85,000 to Hooks's friends and the tenant who tried to rescue him.
Before that case ended, Shed began looking to convert another building into low-income housing units. It applied for a HUD grant that would subsidize the tenants' rent.
By the time HUD approved the funding, the city had condemned and demolished the building, apparently unaware of the pending HUD agreement with Shed, according to Dave Zappasodi of the City of Houston Housing Authority.
HUD allowed the group to find another complex, which they did in the former Howard Johnson's on the North Freeway.
But there were complications with the HUD funds. The original agreement was based on the demolished building, which had 80 rooms, but Shed's new property had 120 rooms. The HUD contract required Shed to maintain 90 percent occupancy, even though HUD could subsidize only 80 units. Shed applied for another HUD grant through Harris County for the other 40 rooms.
It was too much. In 2001, HUD accused Shed of overcharging tenants and, in one instance, trying to bill HUD multiple times for the same tenant. HUD said Shed was violating the terms of the contract by charging tenants for meals regardless of whether they chose to eat in the facility's cafeteria. A year later, the housing authority accused Shed of not renting enough units and renting to tenants who did not appear to meet HUD's eligibility requirements.
Shed CEO Larry Martins told the housing authority that many tenant records were destroyed in 2001 during the flooding from Tropical Storm Allison. But instead of trying to correct the violations, Shed opted out of the contract.
In addition to the housing authority funding, the City of Houston lent Shed about $957,000 from 1998 to 1999 to purchase and rehabilitate the property.
At the same time, Shed scored a $1.4 million HUD grant, to be administered by the Harris County Community and Economic Development Department.