Longform

How the Slumlord Beats the City Every Time

Page 5 of 8

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.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec