How the Slumlord Beats the City Every Time

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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."

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec