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  Arson in my Apartment Building

by Bill McGaughey

 Yesterday (April 4, 2003) an arsonist torched a basement unit in a nine-unit apartment building which I own in Minneapolis. The suspects are drug dealers who hang out near a larger apartment building across the street; they seem to have complete freedom to terrorize the neighborhood. Meanwhile, U.S. troops are encircling Baghdad in, hopefully, the final phases of the war to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein's government. I see a connection between these two events.

In February, I accepted a disabled Vietnam veteran named Randy to be a tenant in my building. I knew he had personal problems but not their extent. Randy admitted to being a former drug addict who had gone through treatment and been sober for several years. He had lived with his mother in a Minneapolis suburb until she died several months earlier. He could not afford the rent increase announced by his current landlord. His story seemed plausible to me. I did the usual checks and was convinced, or wanted to believe, that this applicant was clean.

My illusions were punctured when Randy started to bring people from off the street into his apartment. He said that they were acquaintances "from church" - a Lutheran church just down the street. I raised several objections but legally could not deny him permission to have guests in his apartment. When these "guests" were reported to be roaming the hallways and steps of the apartment building in the early morning hours, I objected. Randy agreed not to have guests after 10 p.m.

Next, the caretaker reported that he had personally watched Randy leave the apartment building across the street (known to be a haven for drug dealers) and show a plastic bag with a white substance inside to a woman in a van parked outside my building. The caretaker, a former drug addict, recognized this as a drug deal. Again, I confronted Randy. He first said that he had brought "infant formula" for a friend. Then he showed me a small plastic bag containing ear rings. This is what my caretaker had seen, he suggested. However, the caretaker was adamant that he had seen a white powder. When I reported this to Randy, he admitted that the substance was cocaine but said that my caretaker had observed him doing a "controlled buy" for the police.

I asked Randy for proof of his working for the police. I said I wanted a uniformed officer at the police precinct station to tell me this in person. He gave me the telephone number of officer "X" at the police station. By telephone, this officer confirmed that Randy had been a police informant several years earlier but said he had not done any work for the police lately.

With that information, I wrote a letter informing Randy that I would not be renewing his lease. (The leases have month-to-month terms.) He would have to be out of the apartment by April 1st. Randy said he was going into the hospital for major surgery on April 10th and would then be staying in transitional housing for several months after the operation. Would I extend the period of his tenancy until April 10th? I agreed. I thought I could wait out this troublesome tenant without further incident.

However, my caretaker reported that a window and screen to Randy's apartment unit were broken. At some expense, I had them repaired. The same thing happened again a week later. I instructed the caretaker not to repair the broken window until after Randy moved out. Meanwhile, a steady stream of unfamiliar persons were entering the building. When I opened the door to show the apartment unit to a prospective tenant, a strange man was sleeping in Randy's bed. Randy himself telephoned me from the county jail to ask me to lock his apartment door and turn off the coffee pot. When I entered the unit, I found drug paraphrenalia in the living room.

Randy's possessions were piled up everywhere. Evidently his sister, CEO of a health services firm who told Randy never to contact her again, had dumped there whatever remained of his belongings from his mother's house. Randy had no place else to store these except in his small apartment. It looked like a warehouse. During these weeks, Randy was beaten up several times. He was a frail-looking white man with a cane and a big mouth - quite a target for the thugs who hung out across the street.

On Thursday, April 3rd, Randy knocked on my door to say that he had had enough. He was bleeding from both ears having been severely beaten. A young black drug dealer named Chris - a.k.a. "slim" - was the assailant. Randy wrote out a paper giving me permission to dispose of his belongings after one month if he had not returned by then to retrieve them. He also wrote down the numbers of the units where he thought drug deals were being made in the apartment building across the street.

My former brother-in-law, who was a tenant in the apartment, accompanied me to the police precinct station. We wished to report the assault and request closer police surveillance of the neighborhood. The officer responded by suggesting that the precinct was severely understaffed. The cuts in state aids to the city of Minneapolis meant that dozens of additional officers would soon lose their jobs. The best thing we could do to fight crime in our neighborhood would be to call our City Council representatives and the Mayor to demand that the proposed budget cuts to police be restored. Such cuts directly threatened service to city residents in crime-ridden neighborhoods such as ours.

I was initially put off by such talk which seemed to say that the police would not help us and someone else was to blame. Yet, this officer did promise to devote additional resources to my neighborhood. The officer went on to describe the frustrations which the police face in trying to combat drug and gang activity. The police do make arrests, but the criminals are soon back on the streets. The city attorney typically declines to prosecute most cases. A particular court official screens criminal cases seen by the county attorney, rejecting many more. The judges in Minnesota prefer to "divert" cases to parole officers to sentencing the criminals to prison knowing that prison space is inadequate.

On top of this, defense attorneys skillfully exploit the law to win freedom for their clients. They appeal cases to higher levels putting further strain upon public resources. Decades of case law require that city police jump through ever more hoops in seeking to prosecute street criminals. In summary, the whole criminal-justice system is creaking to a halt under the weight of its sanctified tradition.

On the following day, Friday evening, I learned that a fire had broken out in Randy's empty apartment unit. I had been planning to remove Randy's belongings over the weekend and put them into my basement for one month before tossing them into the trash. It was too late. We did change the lock to the apartment unit but had not boarded or repaired the broken window. Evidently, someone had climbed through this window and set fire to the mound of clothing piled next to Randy's bed. This was a combustible mix which could have destroyed the entire building and killed someone.

Fortunately, the caretaker and another resident smelled smoke in the building. They emptied the contents of two fire extinguishers on the blaze before summoning the city fire department. The smoke was unbearable but direct damage was confined to Randy's unit.

During the next several days, I divided my time between dealing with this horrible situation and watching CNN reports on the war in Iraq. (Billows of black smoke were the common element.) On one hand, I felt pride that the U.S. and British troops seemed to be "winning" this war so decisively. On the other hand, scenes of death and destruction should please no one. I had enough destruction of my own to take comfort in this kind of entertainment.

Why were we in Iraq? It was to free the people of Iraq from the terroristic government of Saddam Hussein. Yet, my own neighborhood was meanwhile being terrorized by thugs who believed that crime paid better than regular jobs. The police felt powerless to control the situation. The criminal-justice system was inadequate to handle this task. While the U.S. government was freeing the people of Iraq, government officials in the United States were ignoring the safety and security of our citizens in big cities such as Minneapolis.

Randy is a wounded Vietnam veteran who acquired a drug habit while in the military. His veterans pension had been cut from $430 per month to $57 per month in the first month when he began renting from me. More recently, the Veterans department has cut the benefit to zero citing previous overpayments related to the deduction for child support. Randy relapsed into drug use. His former service to country offers scant excuse for what he has become lately.

Minnesota elected a Republican governor in 2002 who promised not to raise taxes although the economy was in a post-9/11 downward spiral. This has precipitated budget cuts in local police and other areas. In 2000, the people of the United States elected a Republican president who, promising better education and "compassionate conservativism", has instead cut taxes for stock-market investors and led the country into an expensive war with Iraq and the Moslem world as the national economy struggles with recession.

With their head in the stratosphere, both Gov. Pawlenty and President Bush come off as strong leaders who exude youthful vigor. Meanwhile, my big-city neighborhood is thick with petty criminals. People tell me it's my fault for living there. I say that what's wrong with America is that it has 'strong leaders" who look good on television but have little understanding of or empathy for the "losers" at the grassroots level of society who depend on their decisions. I also think that the U.S. court and lawyering system are on their way to becoming an experiment which has failed.

Let's get our own house in order before we go off on new crusades to save the world. Forget Saddam Hussein. Can we not find a way to defeat the thugs who have taken over our streets? 

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