By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
After the Topletzes made some jury-rigged renovations last month--moving a hot-water heater out of a back closet and into a plywood lean-to, then running the plastic pipes back through the house about six inches off the floor--they found a tenant willing to pay the $400 a month they wanted for the reborn "three-bedroom."
"My nephew got in a little trouble at our other place, and they gave us five days to move," says John Sanders, who had begun renting the house three weeks earlier, paying a month's rent and $200 deposit. "It's not too good, but this is what we could get."
Walking over floors so warped they induce mild seasickness, Sanders points to the pipes, a hole in the ceiling, and some breakers in an old electrical box. "That's a hazard," he says. "We've been asking them to come out and fix things ever since we got here.
"It was real dirty," he adds, pointing out how the landlord had tossed down some cheap carpet to try to disguise the filth.
A few miles south, on Alabama Street in Oak Cliff, it was easy to spot which one of the little frame houses belongs in the Topletz family of homes.
It was painted the same dreary shade of gray as the West Dallas one--a color produced by buying surplus paints at bargain prices and mixing them together, according to the landlords' longtime contractor.
The tenant's grim story matched too.
"I fixed this screen here myself," says Juanita Garcia, pointing to a spot in the double screen--hog wire over regular screen--where a square hole had been cut.
The hole was the service window for the drug-dealing former tenant, and a few people still come around late at night trying to buy crack, she explains. She's locked a side gate with a piece of chain and a bicycle tire to slow them down.
Garcia, who pays $400 for the three-bedroom place, showed some of the other problems she's wanted fixed: an empty plastic shell where the smoke detector should be and a drain pipe under the bathroom sink held together with knotted rags.
"They paint inside, but it was nasty. There were bugs. Ooooooh!" she says, shuddering. "We start to clean it up."
Such squalid conditions are hardly news to Dallas code inspectors. A special unit that takes aim at nuisance properties has written the Topletz family more than 300 tickets for various fire, code, and safety violations in just the past two months, a supervisor says. But they don't appear to have the Topletzes overly worried.
This isn't the first crackdown on the Topletz properties, not by a long shot.
For decades, despite various blasts of publicity and city-led ticket blitzes, the Topletzes have managed to outwit, outmaneuver, and outlast Dallas' code-enforcement machinery.
Rather than shrink, their empire of substandard housing has grown through the generations. Dennis Topletz--who, along with his octogenarian father, Harold, and uncle Jack, manages the family business--says the family owns about 500 properties.
The Topletzes' longtime attorney says he's handled about 9,000 code citations written against their houses over the past 20 years, each a class C misdemeanor currently punishable by a maximum $2,000 fine. That's piles of tickets, many coming after unheeded warnings to make repairs on broken railings, holes in roofs, bad wiring, high weeds, unsafe locks (like their "Mexican lock," a two-by-four across the door that saves on the cost of hardware), junked cars, bad floors, and on and on.
The Topletzes say they have contested each and every one. When the dust cleared and the cases completed their slow trudge through the municipal courts, only "one or two" resulted in fines, attorney Bill Trantham and his clients say.
The Dallas Observer could not confirm Trantham's numbers. And he's known to boast. But a review of court records from the late 1970s, the late '80s, and from 1996 through 1998 turned up a sample of 235 Topletz tickets. Of those, 233 were dismissed or otherwise thrown out in various courts under the direction of prosecutors and judges. The reasons varied from want of prosecution to insufficient evidence to unavailability of witnesses to no recorded reason at all. In the stack were two guilty verdicts in 1995, for which the Topletzes were assessed $1,300 in fines. They got around to paying those just last fall. "Our lawyer missed them; we didn't make it to court," says Jack Topletz, who at 86 still makes his rounds through South Dallas collecting overdue rents.
"It's a complete train wreck down there," says attorney Trantham of the stumbling march of city code inspectors, city prosecutors, and, in the 1990s, Dallas police. Working for separate, uncoordinated, and at times warring departments, they are batting just over zero against the Topletzes.
"They make me look like Samson at the temple," says Trantham, a 55-year-old solo practitioner who has been hanging around city courts since the '60s, when he was a clerk working his way through SMU law school. "I've beat them up every way you can dream of. The ball over there isn't even in play. It's out in the bushes somewhere. It's like a Fellini movie down there."
A few municipal judges who have been around the courts almost as long as Trantham see the city's fruitless pursuit of serial code violators as an outgrowth of inattention at the top levels of Dallas city government.
"Back in the '80s, with the severe economic downturn, these budgets were cut severely. They never were brought back," says Judge Michael O'Neal, the administrative judge over the eight city courts.
Judge Daniel Solis, who has been on the bench through much of the '90s, says green prosecutors, poorly trained code-enforcement officers, and a city code rife with loopholes have all made life easier for Trantham and his clients.
Some parts of the code are written so sloppily that they seem designed to be unenforceable, he says.
"Maybe somebody's too busy going after the Olympics to watch out for this, I don't know," Solis says. "The city has been after these guys for a long time. You think they'd have learned how to do it by now."
The Topletzes, who have been in the rent-house business for most of this century, made one of their rare appearances in the daily media recently when news broke of an extraordinary investigation. Assistant City Attorney Robin Page, a six-year veteran of the office, was placed on paid leave in April pending the outcome of a police probe into her handling of Topletz tickets.
Two WFAA-Channel 8 reports focused dramatically on the fact that 32 Topletz houses are under police scrutiny because drug dealers have rented them at some time in the past two years. The report failed to point out the rather high odds that a few drug dealers would be renting some of the Topletzes' houses, considering that scores of them are on the most blighted streets of South Dallas, West Dallas, and Oak Cliff.
On some streets, particularly in the Fair Park area at places such as Peabody Avenue, they're the only houses left standing among empty lots and boarded-up hulks tagged with big red signs: demolition fodder.
The TV reports, constructed around pictures of young black men and women toting cash and little baggies, completely ignored the long history of the city's losing war against the Topletzes' substandard housing.
Page, reached by the Observer at her home in a Mesquite subdivision, denied any wrongdoing in dismissing several dozen Topletz tickets. The dismissed cases, which had been brought by the Dallas police S.A.F.E. team about 18 months ago, appear to be the main beef against her. But police and city officials won't say exactly what she is alleged to have done wrong.
The 29-member police S.A.F.E. unit, formed in 1991, focuses on drug houses and problem apartments and combines police, code, and fire inspectors in an attempt to clean up crime-ridden nuisance properties.
Page's defense of her work rests in part on several city documents, including a log tracking the status of cases against the city's biggest code violators. The log, prepared by Page and former Assistant City Attorney Janet Dill Stewart, states the Topletz cases were dismissed because "S.A.F.E. team did not follow their procedures and therefore lacked needed info[rmation] to pros[ecute]," according to a copy of the document.
In November 1997, around the same time the cases were dismissed, Page wrote a detailed memo to S.A.F.E team Sgt. Preston Gilstrap laying out "new procedures to be implemented."
It described the process of researching deeds to establish who owns the properties and how to give property owners legal notice of violations. "When dealing with a 'problem' property owner (ex: Topletz...) all correspondence must be sent certified mail or hand delivered," Page's memo states.
Stewart, who handled ordinance cases for three years until she moved to Oklahoma in 1998, says that during her time with the city the complexity of code cases was often lost on city code inspectors and S.A.F.E. team police, resulting in many futile prosecutions. The cases require precise identification of legal owners and formal notice done just so in order for them to stick.
"There was a lot of friction with code inspectors," she says. "You'd get someone trained. Then the turnover was so great, someone else would come in, and you'd have to start over again."
Beyond that, judges would let lawyers like Trantham string the cases along for months and sometimes years, she recalls. Sometimes Trantham would fail to appear, then be granted continuances because judges rarely blame defendants for attorneys' absences.
Stewart says she was contacted several weeks ago by a police investigator pursuing Page. "That's a personal battle between Robin and the S.A.F.E. team," she says, adding that she is certain nothing will come of it.
Stewart and Page--who moved from starting jobs in prosecution to more specialized posts--developed far more experience prosecuting code violations than most prosecutors.
"Prosecution is a starting position in the city attorney's office," says O'Neal, the administrative judge. Hired fresh out of law school, most of these junior prosecutors are simply passing through on their way to positions down the street at what's known as "big City Hall." "They don't have any experience with this type of law," the judge says.
One look at the working conditions in the dirty, worn-out municipal courts building--where some attorneys are afraid to drink the water--and they realize it isn't a place they want to stay in for long. Some hang around only a few months before moving up, says one assistant city attorney. It's hardly long enough to learn the job.
An assistant city attorney who asked that he not be identified says prosecutors have, on one hand, the normal run of cases in which nobody is picking over the details. Sloppiness by code inspectors doesn't matter. But then there are the cases defended by Trantham and a small handful of other skilled practitioners in which every mistake will be exploited. "There was a standard you needed for most cases and the Trantham standard," the lawyer says, reaching up with one arm. "The Trantham standard was up here."
Because these are criminal citations, the same detailed rules of procedure that govern murders or other felony cases apply, and any number of technicalities are in place to protect defendants' rights.
The difference is that in municipal court, where the stakes are usually a few hundred dollars in fines, cases typically do not get that kind of detail-oriented effort. That goes for the defendants, who often represent themselves or hire low-powered lawyers, as well as the prosecutors, who work out plea deals by the thousands. They rarely test themselves or their cases against good lawyers. Preparation time for a prosecutor may be as little as 10 minutes per trial.
"They shear sheep down there," Trantham says. "It's batch-processed justice."
Stewart, who specialized in prosecuting major ordinance violators during her years in Dallas, says her best weapon was being "a good bluffer." She recalls how she'd plea-bargain tens of thousands of dollars in fines from companies and lawyers on code-violation cases she knew wouldn't hold up against even a moderately competent defense.
Her log is filled with notations such as this on 187 tickets the S.A.F.E. team wrote against one landlord, Junction Holding: "Of the 187 cases, only 7 were possibly good cases. The remaining cases lacked the necessary evidence to meet our burden of proof. Secondly, the notice given to these defendants was four years old and not for the same offenses. Thirdly, no time was given for the defendant to fix the problems."
The company apparently wasn't aware of these technical defects, because, as records show, it was content to accept probation on 53 cases and pay $5,000 in fines.
The Topletzes, meanwhile, contest everything--the procedures, the law, sometimes even the substance of the allegations.
In other words, they call the city's bluff.
Trantham, who says he charges the family a fee of about $100 a ticket, has appealed Topletz tickets all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.
"Usually, I've got 10 tickets dismissed by 10 o'clock, and I'm done for the day. I've got time to play," he crows. Over the past 18 months, he has shifted his practice--and its niche of picking apart city ordinances--to Denton County. "Time for a change. I've done that for a long time," he says of his Topletz work.
Trantham, a big man with a rapid-fire voice, is spending his semi-retirement indulging his love for Civil War reenacting--he'll play a Yankee or a Rebel--shooting cannons, black powder rifles, and just about anything else. On the screen saver of his office computer is a photo of his 14-year-old son firing a Thompson submachine gun into the West Texas desert.
The effectiveness of the Topletzes' don't-give-an-inch approach was demonstrated in mid-March, the last time a Topletz ticket went to trial in municipal court.
One of the jurors, Sharon Hiner, remembers that Trantham was abrupt and rude to his clients. "He was sort of ordering them around," she says. But there wasn't much to recall about the trial, which was over before it began.
The case involved a house just west of the Trinity River, on a rutted, muddy stretch of West Main Street, a sort of tobacco road plus heavy trucks.
The house, tucked below a tall railroad bed, was ticketed for peeling paint in November 1997. The Topletzes apparently were not moved to action by this, because they were ticketed again for peeling paint on the same house five months later, in April 1998.
"They thought they had a fine case here, so we said, great, let's go to trial," Trantham recalls, a bit mockingly. "They're hard chargers down there. There was this kid on it named Ajay."
Ajay Shaw, to be precise, a freshly minted attorney who joined the city attorney's office last year.
"He's brand-new, and I thought, I'll be a jerk, break him of being arrogant, so I picked a fight," Trantham recalls. He offered a motion challenging whether the city could prove that the Harold Topletz against whom they wrote the ticket was the same Harold Topletz who was sitting there in court.
Judge Solis, who conducted the trial, explained later that identification must be proved in virtually every criminal case. It is an essential step in prosecution.
"I asked Ajay if he had a witness ready, anybody, a tenant or a secretary or the code inspector, who knew whether this was Mr. Topletz," recalls Solis. "He didn't. So I had to grant the motion dismissing the case."
After a rather lengthy speech from Solis--in which Hiner recalls him wondering aloud whether the system was designed to let property owners skate--the jurors were dismissed and sent home.
Shaw and his boss, Robert Miklos, referred requests for interviews about this case and a number of other matters to their boss, interim City Attorney Angela Washington. She declined to return three telephone calls. Likewise, James Mongaras, director of the city's code-compliance department, did not return multiple calls seeking an interview.
Shaw might have been a victim of inexperience, but at least he tried, which is more than happens in a lot of Topletz cases.
In 1994, in the city's biggest offensive to date against conditions at Topletz houses, the city attorney's office filed a 179-page civil lawsuit against Harold, Dennis, Jack, and a number of other relatives who don't share the same last name but nevertheless own interests in some of the houses: Gloria Schwartz, Bennie A. Goodman, Evelyn Lisner, Richard Suckle, Abe Levin, Gladys Levin, and Ivy Rabinowitz.
The suit included long lists of code violations at more than 200 Topletz houses. It sought a temporary injunction halting the family from renting out the properties, a permanent injunction requiring repairs, and a $1,000 penalty for each violation listed.
Juanita Garcia's house on Alabama is in there with 15 code violations alone: heavy wire over the windows creating a hazard, peeling paint, a rotten porch, holes in the floors, an insufficient water heater, unfit plumbing, no cover on the electrical box, no smoke detector, and "the interior of the structure is heavily infested with insects."
The lawsuit hardly got off to a fast start, and as the file shows, the city did almost nothing to push it along. The two former city attorneys who prepared and signed the monster lawsuit both left the office for private practice before long.
By October 1995, when the case was set for trial, former Assistant City Attorney Mark Benavides noted his call to jury service the month earlier "as causing a delay in the preparation of this case." Both sides agreed to a continuance.
The next year, the city asked for another continuance "so settlement negotiations can continue."
In August 1997, yet another attorney was on the case, Walter C. Davis III, and he, too, was agreeable about putting off a trial.
"My job is delay. It's not my work to push these things along," recalls Trantham.
Davis, who is still with the city attorney's office, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
If a settlement was reached--and that is extremely doubtful--it was never recorded in the court files. Instead, the case was dismissed by a judge's order in December 1997. The reason: "Want of prosecution."
"We fixed all those. It was dismissed for compliance," says Dennis Topletz when asked what happened to the big case and the 200 houses. "They spent millions getting that thing together."
At the city, there's nobody to say whether the expensive stack of paper prompted the Topletzes to fix a single rotten floorboard. If it did, the little house on Alabama, for one, didn't stay fixed long.
On December 4, 1997, just four days before the huge lawsuit was dismissed, an inspector was at the Alabama house again. She wrote at least one citation: failure to fix "rotten wood and holes in floor--potential injury hazard."
Early last month, a year and a half after that citation was penned in the inspector's ticket book, Jack Topletz was in court to defend it. A white-haired, avuncular sort in a madras plaid short-sleeved shirt and jeans, he had his straw-covered pith helmet on the oak bench next to him, along with an overstuffed briefcase sprouting receipts from a faucet-parts company.
He and his nephew, Dennis, had already noticed that the inspector who wrote the ticket had shown up for the court date. When city witnesses fail to appear, which happens often enough, it's easy to beat the ticket. The Topletzes were waiting for Trantham to arrive when a small group of prosecutors approached the bench.
"Case dismissed by request of department," the judge announced abruptly. "You can go."
Jack and Dennis didn't stick around to ask why. For some reason, the city wasn't going to try to make its case.
"We don't ask," said Jack, before limping down the steps of the soot-covered Municipal Building and heading across Commerce Street to his spotless Cadillac Fleetwood, trimmed all around in smart-looking chrome fenders.
Meanwhile, the S.A.F.E. team has been doing volume business at the same Alabama house. Inspectors have written 32 fire and code tickets there since the beginning of 1998. All are awaiting their day in court.
Who knows whether a single one is any good.
One thing is certain: It'll take more than a good bluffer to get something done against the Topletz clan. As their lawyer says, "You don't accumulate that much property being dumb."
Maneuvering around his desk on the top floor of the three-story 1960s-vintage office building the Topletz family owns on Inwood Road north of University Drive, Dennis Topletz points out a stack of paper 18 inches tall. "Those are citations we're working on now," he says.
"I'll bet you a dollar to a doughnut the city don't give up," says his father, Harold. "The word here is harassment more than anything else. It's like getting a tiger by the tail. But the good thing is, they're lousy at it, like Trantham told you."
Referring to Page's memo on procedures, Harold, a white-haired man with a soft voice, concludes, "Their own lawyer told them they weren't good at it. If they worded their cases good, they could put us to trial."
Harold and his son run the office side of the business. Their desks are side-by-side. They live next door to each other as well, in a couple of sprawling 5,000-plus-square-foot homes on Royal Lane. Dennis' place, the slightly more lavish of the two, has a pool, servant's quarters, and a porte cochere.
His uncle Jack has lived for more than 45 years in a mansion on Swiss Avenue, an address that made the news briefs in 1995 when Topletz shot a would-be robber to death in his driveway, plugging him in the leg and back. Dallas police filed a murder charge, but a grand jury declined to indict.
Trantham, his lawyer, tells the story like this: "Jack returns home one night and there is this guy there, and he shoots him. He goes in the house to call police and comes back out and...nobody, not a soul. They checked the hospitals, and they checked everywhere they could check, but they couldn't find him. So Jack thinks maybe this isn't the only one. He goes out and buys some of those bullets that bust up in a thousand pieces, and Jack comes home one night and a guy jumps him inside the gate. 'I'll cut your fucking head off,' the guy says. Jack spins around and shoots him, goes inside and calls the cops, and tells them, 'This one ain't going nowhere.'"
The family business, which over the years has included home mortgages and loans to black churches, was begun by Solomon Topletz, a Russian immigrant who moved his family to Dallas in 1907. He ran a shoe store on Elm Street, then started buying real estate and loaning money.
"We built a lot of these houses and have owned them ever since," says Jack. Some were acquired en masse, like the two blocks of duplexes on Hopkins Avenue near Love Field that now resemble a real-life Pottersville. There's no air conditioning or screens on the windows. Appliances and upholstered furniture litter the dirt yards.
A few of the houses have been purchased over the years by tenants on Topletz terms. Right now, that means interest rates of 10 to 14 percent, Jack Topletz says, mentioning a top rate that is double that offered by savings and loans. "We tell people, if you can get a bank loan, do it," he says.
They do some foreclosures, as one might guess, and at least five evictions a week, according to Ken Harris, who for 20 years has handled much of the Topletzes' repair work.
At the entrance of the cluttered offices on Inwood, in a tiny vestibule behind a plastic window, several Mexican men just off work and covered in cement dust waited on a recent evening to see about renting a house.
"We're at nearly 100 percent occupancy," Dennis says. "If our houses were that bad, then why do we have so many occupied?"
The answer, in simple economic terms, is the large, unmet demand for low-income housing in Dallas, where there's a two-year waiting list to get into publicly subsidized housing. That makes for good business at Topletz Investments, says Trantham, who has moved into the rent-house business himself in Denton: "There's a lot of money to be made off poor people. They pay more for everything."
There is no doubt the family has made a lot of money. They have donated millions to their temple, Congregation Shearith Israel, where an auditorium bears their name.
Their office secretary, Laferne Zauner, says they have been generous with tenants too. "I've been with them 16 years, and they have some people paying $175 a month simply because Mr. Topletz says they can't afford to pay more. He's paid utility bills for elderly people. Nobody ever mentions that."
Until a few years ago, Jack would bring cakes at Christmas to some of his long-term tenants, says Harris, who handles all their repairs in South Dallas and Oak Cliff.
The family insists that its riches aren't built on slums and that their houses are fundamentally sound.
Says Dennis Topletz: "At the Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board [which rules for the city on demolitions], they ask me, 'Would you live there?' I say, 'No, I wouldn't.' But that's what these people...you need low-income housing. We keep on 'em, but for $250 a month they're not gonna be perfect...I'm sorry that is the condition they have to live in, but it's not that bad."
The Topletzes and Harris, who says he has invested in the Topletzes' company, all give variations of the same lament: Our houses are good. Our tenants often aren't.
Jack: "Roaches. That's a housekeeping problem. They bring 'em in. They're not there when they move in...We have some nice homes. You move a family in there, and in three months' time it looks like all hell."
Harold: "Vandalism is a big problem. People say these are slums, but they're not. They are in good condition. The city provides welfare and builds these projects, and then people tear them up, and the people move someplace else."
Ken Harris: "If you build these people a new house down here, what do you think it looks like in six months? They break toilets. They break windows. If you put in new faucets, they steal them out when they leave. I promise you."
And before long, that kind of talk turns into something nastier.
Jack: "The inspectors don't pay any attention to the lifestyle of the people of the house. A lot of 'em just don't clean up things. They pile 'em on the floor. That's their lifestyle. They don't know any different. Just like with the coloreds and the cuss language they use...Every once in a while, they take one of these big carts you get down at the store and take it all to the washateria."
Harris: "I can show you houses we fix, and they vandalize them again. They keep 'em filthy. I don't know why they live like that. It's their nature, I guess."
The Topletzes assigned Harris, who commutes every day to Dallas from his farm in Hillsboro, the job of spending a day showing the Observer their houses. Some Harris picked. Others the Observer chose.
There was a consistent difference between the two. In the half-dozen, mostly vacant houses Harris stopped at, there were bugs, and holes in the roofs, and doors that barely shut. But he said these things would soon be repaired. At the three occupied houses selected by the Observer, the tenants said this stuff hadn't been fixed.
Even Harris had a hard time explaining away all the problems at one of the homes he chose: a little purple-gray shotgun house at 420 N. Denley St. in Oak Cliff.
Judging by the color of the walls, it already had received the treatment many Topletz houses get between tenants: a blast of paint sprayed over everything, including the dirt. As Harris opened the door, at least a dozen roaches rained down on his shoulders. "You can see why I keep my pants like this," he said, pointing out how he keeps them tucked into his boots.
One could see daylight out the back door, which lacked any sort of weatherstripping. The roof, which had been redone over the back half of the house, had a hole in the section the landlords had obviously stretched past its prime.
From back to front, the house was so askew on its foundation that it felt as if one were on a jacked-up treadmill. "What do you want for $175 a month?" Harris said, then corrected himself by saying it probably rented for $225.
Harold and Jack say that when they think of city codes, they think of keeping the exteriors of their houses looking decent so neighbors won't complain. They don't believe the city has any business inspecting inside. For that reason, they contend, they instruct their tenants not to let inspectors in. But most do. "They think they're gonna get a free ride then," says Dennis.
Responding to the TV reports and the Page suspension, Harold Topletz talks at length about how he tries to keep drug dealers from renting his houses. They are read stern warnings. They sign a no-dealing pledge on their application. Phone calls are made to employers listed on rental applications. With the damage done by SWAT teams--broken doors, smashed windows, walls destroyed in searches--and the cost of evictions, $203 for filing and set-outs, and the general destruction the drug trade does to his houses, there is no sane business reason why he would want to rent to dopers, he says.
Still, he laments, "We're talking about low-income tenants. We don't know who's doing what out there." It's not unusual for one person to rent a house as a front and let someone else use it, he says.
Tenant screening and scrutiny of who is actually using the house are things the S.A.F.E. team will typically review with landlords, says Sgt. Tracy Hearn, one of the unit's supervisors.
The unit claims that 97 percent of the landlords it approaches about drugs or prostitutes on their properties will cooperate with police. They are asked to sign an agreement "as to what abatement strategies will be employed and the mutual support expected," according to the team's information pamphlet.
The Topletzes and Trantham agreed to attend one meeting with the S.A.F.E. team several years ago, with the police running a video camera from one end of the room. "Trantham told us, you are going to be on videotape with them telling you, showing you what they want you to do. He said, don't stay here."
Adds Dennis, "They weren't there to work with us. They were there to tell us this is the way things are going to be."
The Topletzes haven't made another meeting since.
Instead, they found themselves in a paper war, a battle of tickets fought via certified mail. Thus far, the Topletzes have held the high ground, but a new city offensive is clearly under way.
Over the past six months, there have been shake-ups in the city's code-enforcement operations and assignment of a new lead prosecutor at the municipal courts.
Code enforcement, which has been reorganized into a new department, started getting some attention after a series of critical audits began in 1997. The audits detailed code-enforcement officials owning substandard properties, inspectors with criminal backgrounds, a lack of educational standards for new hires, poor training, and outdated policy manuals. And tucked well into the back of one of the reports by City Auditor Robert Melton was the conclusion that the city does not use its power to write citations to crack down on repeat offenders.
"You know, for years they hired the ladies to investigate these code cases, give 'em a ticket book, and tell them go out and write tickets. There was no training," says Judge Solis.
"I must tell you, though. The council is responding to these concerns. Code enforcement has a training academy now, just this year. Hopefully, in the next few months we'll start seeing results."
And at the S.A.F.E. team, procedures have clearly been tightened up.
Since early 1998, not long after Page wrote her memo on procedures, all Topletz cases have been assigned to one detective, one code inspector, and one fire inspector. They say they are researching property titles and attempting to be meticulous in giving proper legal notice.
At present, the Topletzes are given 10 days' notice to fix problems before a ticket is issued. A year ago, they were given 30, but nothing was being done, police say. "We have gotten back one or two letters where they say they are not in violation," says Detective Michael Ozga, the S.A.F.E. team detective assigned to the Topletz cases. "Some of these houses we've been at continuously since '97, and we still are finding [code] violations."
Occasionally, he says, they will see a couple of things repaired. And they aren't piddling problems, Hearn and Ozga say.
"We have a lady living in a house with her children. The windows are nailed shut. There's hog wire over the glass. No smoke detectors, and probably for the last six months there's been no electricity because of a wiring problem," says Hearn. "This isn't nitpicking...We have people telling us, 'Get these drug dealers out of our neighborhood. The drug dealers from the Topletz house came and shot up our house.' We have people crying to us to come and help clean up their neighborhood."
But back at the Fellini film on the corner of Harwood and Main, something always seems to be working in the Topletzes' favor.
Ozga, who has been assigned to the Topletz beat for a full 17 months, says none of the hundreds of cases he's helped prepare on the family's houses has made it to trial.
"It's such a maze. They know how to work the system," says Hearn. "They're pretty adept at it."
Says Ozga, "It's a little frustrating. I've been dealing with these since January '98, and I've expended a lot of my manpower. We don't know why tickets get dismissed."
"It is frustrating," adds Hearn. "We aren't trying to target anybody. We are trying to help clean these neighborhoods up. The neighbors are being victimized. The tenants are the ones who are victimized. They are trapped in this situation.