By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In early 1996, city files show, Redbird Development had found a way to generate income that had nothing to do with flying in the traditional sense. Luis Gutierrez, the city's on-site airport manager, reported to his boss that "a party of some sort" had been held on a Saturday night in one of the big hangars. The following Sunday morning, "six young people were still there cleaning up a hangar" and the airport was littered with trash, reported Gutierrez, who was in charge of city-run facilities such as the terminal building, tower, runways, and taxiways. A few months later, an off-duty sheriff's department investigator attending a meeting at an American Legion Post on the airport grounds happened upon Redbird's night life and filed a three-page report.
The gathering he witnessed was a rave, attended by at least 1,200 kids, with a live band in a hangar and plenty of beer and drugs going around. Detective Larry Oliver reported that the rave was supervised by Redbird Development operations manager White, who stationed himself near the entrance. Admission was $10 a head. "Mr. White stated that the city had endorsed the party and had no concerns with the property being used for this purpose," Oliver wrote in his report. "In fact, the city and Mr. Danny Bruce, director of aviation, were not aware of the scheduled event." The following morning, Oliver observed several youths sleeping on the hangar floor, and several plane owners reported that their aircraft had been visited during the night. One found a used condom in the pilot's seat.
Citing a host of legal violations, including underage drinking, illegal drugs, drinking on public property, curfew violations, and a lack of special use or dance hall permits, not to mention complaints from aircraft owners whose planes were moved out of the hangar to make way for the party, city officials demanded an explanation from Atkins about these "extremely serious allegations of...unsafe, illegal, inappropriate and unauthorized use" of Redbird.
Atkins replied in a letter that Oliver's report "sounds like a lie told by the intoxicated individual who identified himself as a sheriff to Gayle White on the night in question and addressed him as a 'nigger.' ...It is evident that this is another racist attempt to discredit anything that is done by Redbird Development." He said a copy of his letter and the sheriff's report "will be immediately forwarded to the proper authorities including my attorney, NAACP and my congressman."
Oliver today calls these allegations sickening and false. "He couldn't answer for his actions, so he threw up a smokescreen," the detective says. "When you don't have any defense, that's your defense."
After a stern warning by the city not to hold a rave again, the case was closed.
Over the next several years, Atkins and White hustled to fill up the hangars--with whomever--and keep abreast of the city rent payments and late fees. "They didn't know how to get aviation customers in there," says Robert Harrell, a retiree who kept several planes in the hangars and attempted in late 1998 to go into business with Redbird Development. "He [Atkins] didn't know what the hell he was doing as far as aviation goes. He just stumbled around."
The corporations and individuals who paid to store their planes and paid taxes to the city weren't shy about letting the city know that's pretty much what they thought as well.
"Redbird Development Co. is, in my opinion, the single biggest problem the airport and operators on the airport have ever dealt with to date," wrote Jay Cooper, director of flight operations for Club Marketing Services, a Duncanville concern that develops and markets food products, in a letter to the city in early 1997. On one occasion, the company plane buried a wheel in a pothole. Another Club Marketing plane was assigned to a hangar filled with trash and two large motor homes. Worse yet, the hangar door was broken and someone had broken into the plane. "I have tried on numerous occasions to reach the management at Redbird Development with no success," wrote Cooper, pleading with the city to find someone else to run the place.
Other letters complained of the constant turnover in companies managing the fueling operation, as well as leaky roofs, broken doors, and junked cars littering the grounds. Running through them is the constant theme that White or Atkins broke their word, delayed, or simply couldn't be found at their airport office.
In the summer of 1999, the volume of letters increased. Several plane owners and organizations informed the city of their futile attempts to rent hangars or office space. Inez Clark, secretary of the Texas Eagles for Aviation Mentoring, a group committed to introducing disadvantaged youth to flying, explained in a four-page letter how an office her organization had been promised was instead rented to someone using the space as an apartment. "For the past few years, we have witnessed a rapid and remarkable deterioration of Redbird airport services, the facilities and the grounds," Clark wrote. "We have seen many aviation-related businesses relocate to other airports that are sensitive to their needs and we have seen many non-aviation businesses and services move in."