Who killed April Dabney?

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

Darryl Fourte stands at the corner of Denton Drive and Storey Road, looking a bit like Wesley Snipes on a secret mission.

With one hand on his hip, the other clutching a black walkie-talkie, Fourte surveys the skid marks on the road before him through a pair of sleek, dark sunglasses. Across the street, a white van idles at the ready, its occupants awaiting their boss' next instruction.

Suddenly, an unfamiliar car approaches. Fourte watches skeptically as the driver, a woman he has never met, rolls down her window to talk to him. "So," I ask, peering up into Fourte's face, "when did Ron Kirk call you?"

Upon hearing the name of his titular commander-in-chief, Fourte does not skip a beat. "I guess he called LuAnn, and LuAnn put us on it," he says, referring to LuAnn Anderson, director of streets, sanitation, and code enforcement services for the city of Dallas.

"What does she want you to do?" I ask.
"Begin inspecting the area," says Fourte, a district manager for street operations. "Basically just check out the present situation and see if there is anything we can do to improve it."

Fourte lays out the present situation.
"Best I can determine, this person just drove off the road. See the tracks here," he says, pointing to the skid marks that veer toward us, stopping abruptly at a tall, mangled pole holding two street signs and a stop sign.

A terrible thing happened here last month, Fourte tells me: a hit-and-run accident that killed a young woman. To prevent it from happening again, Fourte says, he is going to sic the guys in the van on this intersection. They're going to clean this place up, he declares--even out this stretch of road to make it easier for people and cars to coexist.

"Great idea," I say. Except the hit-and-run didn't happen here.
It happened, I explain, farther down Storey Road--past the railroad tracks and the scuzzy-looking car wash. But even if you want to fix the problem, I tell the city street man, you can't. Because this is not a pothole problem. It's a curb, gutter, and sidewalk problem--in other words, a public-works department problem.

Fourte looks pensive now. As a lowly mid-level manager, stationed out in the northwest hinterlands of city street operations, he is too far removed from the scheming, butt-covering antics of 1500 Marilla to understand how in the world he got this stupid, rush-rush, hush-hush, wrong-place, wrong-people assignment anyway. "I'm in the wrong spot," he says finally, sizing up the situation.

Yeah, well, no rush. The city's already a dozen years and one dead pedestrian too late.

When I first read about the death of April Dabney, it barely registered. The short, just-the-facts-ma'am story that appeared November 19 in The Dallas Morning News described a familiar scenario: A 37-year-old woman with "learning disabilities"--whatever that meant--had been walking to a DART bus stop early one morning when she was mowed down by a 1992 Buick.

I felt bad. I turned the page.
One week later, a woman named Becky Boyer, mother of a retarded child herself, called me. The hit-and-run victim, April Dabney, had lived in a special place for young mentally retarded adults, called the Association for Independent Living (AFIL), Boyer explained. A wonderful, one-of-a-kind facility, it taught the mentally retarded how to live independently so they didn't have to rely on their families or the government. Eventually, they had the option of buying their own condominiums, built by the parents near AFIL on Storey Lane.

The biggest requirement for joining AFIL was a steady, full-time job. Which meant a reliance on public transportation. Which, in this case, meant enormous problems.

Last week, I drove up to the 2800 block of Storey Lane, expecting to find the kind of street you envision when you think of residential condominium living--especially when those condos are filled with people with bigger needs and bigger fears than most mortals and smaller chances of overcoming them. Instead, I found bleak black top lined with big industry--a lumber yard, a steel mill, a noisy warehouse operation with huge tractor-trailers that rumbled up and down the street constantly. I also found a messy hodge-podge of businesses--the car wash, a bar, the Drain Doctor, and a day-care center. Tucked in between it all were the four, fastidiously kept buildings that make up AFIL.

Sister Damian Tucker, a Catholic nun who is the caretaker of one of the two condominium buildings, drove me around. She showed me the two bus stops her residents rely on--both a good hike from home. One is located down Storey, across Starlight, across the train tracks, on the other side of busy Denton Drive, next to a crummy-looking nightclub. The other is farther away--down Storey, down Starlight, to insanely busy Northwest Highway (just west of Bachman Lake as it goes airborne at Harry Hines), which you cross at Community Drive to get to the bus stop.

It doesn't take a genius to see the problem: There are no sidewalks, curbs, or gutters on any of the streets except Northwest Highway. Walking is, to put it mildly, hazardous. Which makes these mentally retarded young people nervous. Especially since the accident. "In my building, they'll ask me, 'Is it all right to go visit my friends at AFIL?'" says Sister Damian, referring to the main building located three doors down from the condos. "In other words, 'Do you think it would be okay for me to leave the building other than for work?'"

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.

Yet they could not, no matter how hard they tried, get sidewalks from the city, even though Guillermo Vidaud was a city of Dallas employee--an architect in the public works department--when all this started. (He retired in early 1984 to start his own architectural firm with his son William.) They could not get sidewalks even though the city has since 1982 offered federal grant money to low-income people who request sidewalks--a program that no one has ever bothered telling the AFIL parents about.

In 1993, the Vidauds' son William began his own crusade--lobbying DART to put a bus shelter at the Denton Drive bus stop. To his surprise, he was told that DART was out of bus shelters. Period. "It was so ridiculous," William says. "It just goes to show you that they're spending so much on the rail side that they're falling back on basic bus service, where it all started."

Like his dad, William had some ties to the people he was lobbying. As a former DART contractor who had designed some of the rail stations, he served on a DART committee made up of consultants, engineers and architects. Last year, he chaired the committee. But none of that made a difference. At one point, DART did put a shelter in--at the wrong bus stop, in a barren, little-used spot farther down Denton Drive. When nobody used it--surprise, surprise--DART yanked it out. And moved it to another part of town.

Vidaud is mystified at his inability to get a simple bus shelter installed for 44 regular DART customers who plan to live out the rest of their days standing in the rain and sleet waiting for buses. In fact, he's so disgusted, that he recently quit the DART committee to spend his limited free time doing something more worthwhile--tackling transportation problems for the Association for Retarded Citizens. "I tell you what I think this all boils down to," he says. "When you have small, special-needs groups spearheaded by a few individuals, they don't give you as much attention as the larger, militant-type groups and the people with big names. It seems like the only way to get things done is if you have this militant approach, which is really unfortunate."

When April Dabney died last month, the Vidauds and other parents went militant. "Who killed April Dabney?" screams the first line of a letter to Mayor Ron Kirk drafted by Guillermo Vidaud. "Was it a drunk driver? Or was it the irresponsible negligence of the city of Dallas for not providing its Storey Lane citizens the basic protection of curbs and sidewalks to ensure their safety?"

Vidaud has given copies of his letter to all the AFIL parents and everybody else they can think of. They are asking people to mail one in and pass on the rest. They're looking for high impact. And they're getting it.

Two weeks ago, after 100 letters had hit his office, Ron Kirk asked his staff to call the city manager's office to get a status report on Storey Lane. Which, of course, suddenly made long-neglected Storey Lane the number-one problem in the city of Dallas.

Last Wednesday--perhaps not coincidentally the day Kirk held his first town-hall meeting--city employees were all over Storey Lane. Darryl Fourte and his van of employees were assessing the condition of Storey Road. Jerry McClain, a street crew-foreman, was filling potholes one street over. Sedley McLaughlin, a project coordinator for public works, was cruising Storey Lane, taking photographs. "I've asked my staff to see if there would be a way to put in some sidewalks to address the concern, short of doing a complete street improvement," acting Public Works Director David Dybala told me later that day.

That night, two AFIL parents signed up to meet with the new mayor on an old topic. Sidewalks. Curbs. Gutters. "I think it's a reasonable request," Kirk told them.

It was no less reasonable 12 years ago.
But then, no one has ever accused the city of Dallas of having its priorities straight. I mean, why spend a couple thousand dollars on sidewalks for 44 hard-working, handicapped young people who want to work and live independently--off the public dole--when you can give $35 million to a millionaire like Don Carter so he can build himself a sports arena--on the public dole? You could build a lot of sidewalks and improve a lot of streets for $35 million. Most taxpayers would consider improving the streets a higher priority.

But maybe these are magic times. Maybe Kirk, hellbent on building Carter his arena, will find a way to do both. Maybe he's going to straighten out the priorities and do the gold-plated stuff. I guess the first test will be Storey Lane.

The parents--and residents--are waiting.

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