Who killed April Dabney?

Parents of retarded adults blame city's failure to heed plea for sidewalks

These young adults don't miss work--no matter how scared they are. No matter how hard it's raining or sleeting. No matter how dark. They start heading out just after 5 a.m.--when those tractor-trailers are whizzing by, sloshing water and mud onto their feet and clothes. "They will go to work with colds, fever, everything," says Sister Damian. "Because we stress the importance of a job. The job is what keeps them independent."

As Sister Damian and I drove around, we passed two AFIL residents walking home from the bus: Greg, who works in the cafeteria at EDS in Plano, and Thomas, who works in the laundry at a hotel on Northwest Highway. Greg grinned at us from under his Texas Longhorns cap, waving as he tried unsuccessfully to dodge a huge patch of soggy, muddy grass on Starlight. Thomas stepped carefully along the side of Storey Lane, not far from where his friend April was killed. "We have one young man with cerebral palsy who has to catch the bus on Northwest Highway every day," Sister Damian said. "It's scary when you look at him--the way he walks and the distance he has to travel. You don't want him to see the fear you feel watching."

But this is not a story about people who have a hard time getting to the bus. It's a story about people who have a hard time getting to the bus after 12 years begging the city to build them sidewalks.

It all started in 1983, when a man named Guillermo Vidaud and his wife Maria bought a piece of property on Storey Lane to build their mentally retarded son Freddy a place to live for the rest of his life. Sure, there were nicer residential neighborhoods. But it was important to the Vidauds and other families to have their children close to the Bachman Lake Recreation Center, which the city had built in 1980 to cater to the handicapped. The center offered an array of classes for the mentally and physically challenged, including Special Olympic sports, drama, pottery, singing, weight-lifting, and wheelchair basketball.

The story of how these families--with not a penny of public money--constructed a successful, four-building facility for their children is a subject for another column. Suffice it to say that there was only one thing they couldn't get from the private sector--sidewalks, curbs, and gutters along Storey Lane.

The city of Dallas told them no problem--all they needed was two-thirds of the property owners on the street to chip in to pay for it. The city sent the Vidauds the standard petitions that needed to be signed, dated November 30, 1983. The couple still has them in a meticulously kept series of notebooks on the project. "I went to all the property owners on the street," says Guillermo. "But they weren't interested in improvements. And I couldn't blame them--after all, they're businesses. They don't need sidewalks. So I forgot it. I figured in time I would build more so I would wait three or four more years and try again."

In the late 1980s, as the parents were building their first building, the sidewalk problem was aggravated by yet another development--increased crime in the area, fast losing upscale establishments in favor of more striptease joints. The change introduced a large number of prostitutes, drug dealers, and assorted other lowlifes to Storey Lane.

"It is with grave concern that I write you to ask for your help with the problems that exist in our neighborhood," Maria Vidaud wrote in February 1988 to city councilwoman Lori Palmer. "It is beyond our capability to combat the undesirables and prostitutes that plague our area at all times of the day and night. We are further anxious about the safety of a group of minimally handicapped young adults, residents of this block, who are decent, hardworking individuals that deserve a safe environment and safe streets to walk to and from the bus and the Bachman Recreation Center, which they constantly use."

Palmer and the Dallas police worked with the parents. Still, in 1989, the parents' worst fears were realized. "I would like to inform you that one of the mildly retarded young adults who lives at AFIL (which you visited last year) was brutalized and raped on April 3 at 5 a.m.," states a 1989 letter to Palmer from two parents. "The young molested adult had missed his daily bus and was walking to the adjacent bus stop at Denton Drive and Webbs Chapel Extension to take another bus route to his place of employment."

The AFIL parents mounted a serious campaign. Calling themselves Concerned Citizens of Storey Lane, they recruited several business owners on the street and made new requests for police protection, street lights, sidewalks, curbs, and gutters. There were meetings with council members Palmer and Al Gonzalez. Thanks to a quick response by Deputy Chief Pam Walt, who headed the Dallas Police Department's northwest division, crime around Storey Lane dropped. The prostitutes, who liked to hang out at the car wash, moved on.

But still there were no sidewalks.
Understand, the AFIL parents are very dedicated people. They are very intense people. They have managed, through sheer grit and determination, to solve their worst nightmare--leaving behind sons and daughters who have nowhere to go and no one to take care of them.

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