Against boarded-up windows and smoke-stained white bricks rests the memorial for Karen Perez. Candles, crosses and Bible verses and a flurry of pink and red flowers decorate the ground. Stuffed bears are tucked in the branches of two trees, serving almost as pillars framing the memorial site. And what appears to be Perez's quinceañera photo is nailed to the boarded window — the surrounding messages of love and flowery tributes contrast eerily with the deteriorated building and what happened inside.
In May, Perez's teen boyfriend brutally raped and murdered her in one of the vacant apartments, prosecutors allege. Though the South Houston Police Department claimed it had searched the abandoned lot and failed to find her body, a Texas Equusearch crew found Perez stuffed underneath a kitchen sink.
The boyfriend's cellphone records would later prove he had threatened to kill Perez if she did not skip school with him to have sex with him that day. He recorded nearly the entire attack on his phone, as Perez pleaded with him, saying, “I don't want to die.” (He reportedly admitted to the murder after the records surfaced).
Now, after Perez's family and community members have demanded the vacant lot be demolished, Perez's mother, Rocio Perez, is suing the apartment building's owner, 1600 Avenue M LLC, claiming that, had it taken reasonable precautions to secure and monitor the building, her daughter would still be alive today. Since the building is directly across from South High School, where Perez was a freshman, attorneys argue that the owners' lack of precautions were grossly negligent, and they should have reasonably anticipated teenagers and other trespassers partaking in dangerous criminal activity as a result.
“The property owner claims to have contracted with off-duty Pasadena police officers to provide security, but the patrols were so infrequent, inadequate or perfunctory; they might as well not have been conducted,” the lawsuit says. “Responsible adults were nowhere to be found. Referring to the people he had observed on the property who were visibly intoxicated by drugs or alcohol, one young person described the complex as 'the place where the zombies live.'”
Fittingly, then, attorney Melissa Moore told the Houston Press that the first time she drove up to the lot, she thought it could be the site of one of those giant haunted houses — even in the daylight.
She said she attended several community meetings and City Council meetings following Perez's death in which residents demanded the building be torn down, lest another tragedy take place inside. It has been vacant since after Hurricane Ike and has consistently deteriorated since then, becoming a haven for criminal activity, residents told her. According to the lawsuit, some of Perez's family members walked through the complex after Perez went missing and found drug paraphernalia, drugs, condoms, beer bottles and trash — “evidence that students from the neighboring school had been visiting the abandoned apartment complex for some time without any trouble — and with alarming regularity,” the suit says.
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Natalia Guzman, who is now retired and who graduated from South Houston High School in 1969 — the year before the complex went up — was among the dozens who have appealed to the city to either tear down the building or renovate it. Guzman said they have consistently been told the building meets code and that forcing the owners to tear it down through litigation is too expensive. In other words, she said, the community feels as though the city has swept aside its concerns — even in the face of the tragic death of Karen Perez.
Guzman said she got involved with the push to demolish 1600 Avenue M because she feared more teenagers will get caught up in violent tragedies in the future.
“The school is 800 feet from there. Kids can literally walk across the street and there's this inherently dangerous building,” she said. “It's been a blight to the community for at least five years.”
We reached out to 1600 Avenue M LLC, which is, strangely, based in Delaware and unregistered to do business in Texas, through its “registered agent” in Delaware, who forwarded along a message and told the owners to call us. We did not hear back.