Complex With Katrina Evacuees Became A Criminal Haven

Todd Bensman, San Antonio Express-News, October 30, 2006

Maybe it was the armed and uniformed peace officers induced by rent breaks who moved in. Or maybe it’s just because enough of the troublemakers have moved out.

Whatever the cause, a fragile sense of peace has replaced chaos and fear since management started kicking out dozens of mostly young and male Katrina evacuees over the summer at the 248-unit Artisan at Willow Springs Apartments.

“It was hell,” said New Orleans evacuee Lashawn Mason, a young mother who lives at Willow Springs. “They had the police running up in here pulling guns. It was all this drama all the time.”

While the relative calm is welcome, it’s still interrupted. Mason said the other day someone pulled out an AK-47 and began firing in the air.

The complex’s first year in the 500 block of Gembler Road has been rough, starting the day in September 2005 when it opened its new gates to its first residents—evacuees. Over time it gained a reputation on the streets of East San Antonio as a criminal hot spot.

Since the city declined to track whether increases in crime were related to 30,000 displaced New Orleans residents who came to San Antonio, there are no firm numbers to show whether or how much crime went up because of the influx.

But if skeptics question the existence of “Katrina crime” around other San Antonio apartment complexes where evacuees resettled, police statistics and internal records reinforce the perception that it reigned at Willow Springs.

The Express-News obtained an internal apartment management company memo, titled “Safety Issues and Sequence of Events,” from which can be discerned how a lack of police involvement left management, ever generous to its new inhabitants, to fend for itself as dangerous crime defied control.

The beginning

Very soon after the evacuees started moving in that September, the gleaming new brick complex, with its pools and grassy courtyards, became notorious among police and area residents for lawlessness inside—and sometimes outside—its gates.

Evacuee drug dealers set up shop inside common breezeways. According to evacuees, nonresident strangers came to the complex almost nightly for door-stoop parties, drunken fights, thievery and, too often, gunplay.

Police records back their statements.

From September 2005 through July, the complex logged nearly 440 calls for police, an average of 40 a month. Crime nearly doubled in one small, older neighborhood nearby, police offense reports show.

Alma Guillen, the complex’s manager, said she has worked in government-subsidized affordable-housing projects like Willow Springs for all of her six years in the business.

“By far, this is the most challenging group I’ve ever experienced,” she said.

Guillen’s bosses at the nonprofit Merced Housing of Texas, which co-owns the property with Franklin Development, did not return repeated calls requesting interviews.

But management officials didn’t stand by idly. The Merced memo chronicling the evacuees’ stay at the complex provides a rare glimpse inside and doesn’t sound far different, based on interviews with evacuees, from what happened at other complexes the Express-News visited.

The first problems “involving drugs and destructive behavior” at Willow Springs surfaced within a week of completing the resettlement of some 40 Katrina evacuee families in October 2005. More would come and be joined by nonevacuee tenants.

Managers responded by hiring Willow Springs’ first “courtesy officer,” Bexar County district attorney’s office investigator Joseph Piette.

The hire didn’t seem to help. By month’s end, residents were complaining at a meeting with Merced staff about “disruptive residents and unsupervised children,” as well as trash dumping.

But those problems would very soon be the least of management’s worries. Piette, who did not respond to an interview request, would move out and leave a few months later, citing fear for the safety of his own family.

Merced responded to residents’ complaints with a stern measure of equanimity that would largely endure through the next difficult months. The company brought in parenting programs and organized children’s activities, set up a 10 p.m. curfew and hosted job-training programs.

In return, the company encountered more problems, especially involving children, as Thanksgiving approached. Management had to evict several families for “disruptive behavior or involvement with drugs,” including a case where the live-in boyfriend of a leaseholder was selling drugs.

On Nov. 20, management sent letters to residents beseeching them to exercise “parental responsibilities” and warned that Child Protective Services would be called to investigate “serious incidents involving children.”

Still, management doled out the sweet with the sour. It made sure that Thanksgiving and Christmas were festive events, holding holiday parties and dinners for Katrina evacuees at a nearby mansion, inviting sports figures to attend and handing out gifts.

The New Year brought escalating problems. Guns began appearing where children played. The memo also pointed to a problem discerned elsewhere in San Antonio: criminal behavior that occurred when San Antonio locals mixed with Louisiana evacuees.

Case in point: A disagreement between small children escalated to older kids and then involved parents in a full-scale brawl.

“The dispute pitted New Orleans residents against San Antonio residents,” the memo reported. “Some residents were beat up and one resident brought out a shotgun.”

Since no one was arrested, police reports don’t reflect this incident, suggesting criminal behavior was worse than the data show. In another incident that produced no arrest, the memo stated, “Someone fired a gun across the courtyard but no one was injured. The shooter was never identified.”

{snip}

In February, management tried another approach to weed out the criminal element. Staff contacted the Bexar County district attorney’s office “to determine whether any information was available on New Orleans residents who had criminal histories” so they could be “re-screened.”

The evacuees had moved in so fast that management didn’t have the time or wherewithal to conduct standard criminal background checks, and Louisiana at the time was refusing to release criminal history information to Texas authorities. The DA’s office was able only to provide a list of serious sex offenders who were being apprehended.

{snip}

The police response

On Feb. 8, management staff requested a meeting with several police officers assigned to the area “to discuss slow police response time.”

An unidentified substation commander explained that “all police calls will not receive a response” and turned down management’s request to establish some kind of regular police presence on site that would bring uniformed officers around and deter crime.

SAPD did offer a “Cellular on Patrol class” as a first step to establish a neighborhood watch program, but “attendance was low,” the memo stated.

Meanwhile, problems continued both on and off Willow Springs property. In two incidents, residents crashed their vehicles into the complex’s iron perimeter fence gates; one person reportedly was high on drugs.

And the gunplay around children continued.

“During Spring Break week, someone fired a gun across the courtyard during daylight while children were playing at the playground,” the memo stated. “The rumor is that there was a dispute over drugs. No one was injured but many residents were frightened.”

{snip}

Smith said crime in Willow Springs was actually reported frequently enough over the summer that Councilwoman Sheila McNeil personally intervened, requesting that a special police “Crime Response Team” task force be deployed to the complex. The request was denied.

{snip}

Meanwhile, disciplinary problems involving the children of evacuees had spread to the nearby Cameron Academy. At a meeting March 29 between school and apartment management officials, an assistant principal told management staff “that there are Katrina kids causing problems on campus.”

Principal Carolyn McClure did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Still striving, management staff got creative, at one point seeking the advice of a “conflict resolution” consultant. Management continued to offer the evacuees what extras it could, including attendance for evacuee families at a San Antonio Spurs Easter event.

Two days later, on April 17, there was another shooting at the complex.

The troubles continued on through the summer, including a June incident that made all the newscasts.

Some armed youths got caught trying to steal the unmarked car of a deputy sheriff who had come to serve an arrest warrant. Shots were fired, and the youths holed up in the apartment manager’s office until police SWAT team members extracted them.

A wall for security

{snip}

One neighbor mounted its own initiative—an RV park built a $100,000 wall to help instill a sense of security for tourist customers, two managers said.

“We never thought of putting a fence up before we started having all the problems across the street,” assistant park manager Judy Swalley said. “I hate to say that, and I don’t like judging people, but that would be the main reason why we’re putting it up.”

A corporate public relations official called several weeks later to say the wall had been planned all along and was not prompted by troubles at the neighboring complex.

By mid-July, when the Express-News began visiting Willow Springs for this report, several uniformed sheriff’s deputies were living in the complex and helping to enforce a zero-tolerance policy that had 15-year-old evacuee Anthony Smith chafing.

“I’m getting tired of this, dog,” he said. “I’m sick of it. They act like we damned criminals. We got a lease. We citizens.”

As recently as last week, complex manager Guillen was declaring that victory was the result of not renewing evacuees’ leases, en masse.

“It’s so clean, so quiet,” she said. “Everybody who wanted to move out wants to stay now.”

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