Longform

How the Slumlord Beats the City Every Time

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"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.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec