Downright unneighborly

Tenants of drug-infested apartments find that help is not just a phone call away

The message left on the answering service was unnerving.
"Hey man, what's wrong with this phone?" a male voice demanded. "OK, I'm going to be over there in 20 minutes to bring the drugs you ordered. It's going to be $10,000. I got a great deal on it, man...What's wrong with this phone? What's wrong with this phone? Hey, don't fuck around. These guys killed a guy last week."

The caller setting up the drug delivery didn't know it, but the phone lines in the 12-unit apartment building he was calling were crossed. A neighbor got the message.

"It was chilling, quite chilling," says one building tenant who later heard the message. "It made me paranoid about everybody." She, like other tenants interviewed for this story, asked that her name not be used for fear of retaliation from their drug-dealing neighbor.

Since early October, the small, tightly knit group of tenants at 3720 Rawlins have felt under siege in the place they call home. Built in the early 1920s, the building, which neighbors say once housed Social Security Administration offices, sits just off the corner of Rawlins and Oak Lawn Avenue. All was well in the three-story converted apartment house until tenants began noticing what they describe as seedy, dangerous-looking strangers loitering on the grounds and traipsing in and out. With good reason, they suspected that one of their neighbors was dealing drugs out of his apartment.

Most folks know what to do when their homes become infested with bugs: Call an exterminator. But whom do you call when you suspect the place you call home is infested with drugs? The tenants at the Turtle Creek-area apartment house took the most obvious route: They called Dallas police and communicated their suspicions to the building's manager, MTA Management. But it took several weeks of repeated reports, broken promises, nerve-wracking hand-wringing, and calls from the Dallas Observer before they saw any action--an eviction notice posted on the suspect apartment December 12.

Yet for nearly three months, residents faced a steady stream of strangers, mostly men in their 20s and early 30s, who climbed over the fence leading to the tenants' back doors.

Van- and carloads of "rough-looking, punk-looking young men" would park in the same area talking loud and playing their music even louder. Seldom would more than one guy get out and go up to the apartment, coming back down quickly. After making a buy, customers sometimes would sit on the building's front porch talking, laughing, and shooting up.

"They drove up and honked like they were pulling up to a drive-through window," says one tenant.

A couple of weeks ago, several tenants witnessed a loud and bloody fistfight as one of the apartment's tenants kicked and beat a drugged-out looking man on the back-porch stairs. The victim, a man they'd seen coming and going before, kept yelling, "I want my fucking money, man. Give me my fucking money. That's the deal, you keep $15, I get $10. That's the way it works."

Police officials' best advice to residents who suspect drugs are being sold in or around their neighborhoods is for them to notify the department in writing or by telephone of their suspicions. Sgt. Jim Chandler, the department's public information officer, says the narcotic division completes at least an initial investigation on each of the hundreds of citizen alerts it receives each month. "Sometimes people don't see any immediate relief," he says. "It sometimes takes weeks to follow up and to make cases or determine there's nothing there we can do."

The tenants on Rawlins followed that advice, but either because of a heavy caseload for police or indifferent property managers, they saw no relief until last week. After several calls were placed by the Observer to MTA Management, the occupants of the apartment in question were served with the eviction notice.

Until then, MTA Management hadn't done much beyond collect the rent. The lock on the fence was replaced, but within 48 hours it was broken again. In a letter to the company a tenant writes, "If all of your responsible, clean-cut, hard-working tenants moved out...what would be left? Maybe you could open a top-notch crack house and name it 'Villa Crack on Turtle Creek.'"

Kim Ervin, the building's new manager, says she hasn't been on the job long enough to comment on the tenants' complaints. She referred calls to the woman in the corporate office who hired her, Trish Dimon. Calls to Dimon were not returned.

On numerous occasions, tenants have also called 911. "I talked to some policemen about it," remembers one tenant, "and they said, 'Call 911.' And 911 said, 'You need to call narcotics.' I called narcotics once, but nothing was ever done about it. Finally, I just got frustrated and called narcotics again until I got someone on the phone who actually acted like he was interested."

The narcotics division sent two detectives to the building. While there, Detectives Jack Perritt and Tim Robbins observed the whistling and pebble-throwing and took down some license-plate numbers. The tenants turned over to the detectives a tape of the crossed-line conversation. The tenants say that during the two weeks the narcotics detectives surveyed the area, traffic slowed. But when they left, business picked up again.

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