By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
A few weeks ago, neighbors reported a fire smoldering in John McBride's garage. Firefighters were able to save the detached structure that sits across the street from Manual High School in north Denver. But heirlooms belonging to McBride's deceased father--a piano, furniture and some old photos--were consumed.
Fire-department investigators have ruled the fire an arson and have declined further comment. But whenever there's trouble on this block, McBride and his neighbors immediately look toward 2639 Humboldt, the home of the Walker family.
"When the fire happened, there was cheering out their door," says one neighbor who asks not to be identified. "A woman cheered and somebody told her to shut up."
The Walkers aren't your average neighbors. They haven't been since family patriarch Tyler Walker was stabbed to death in 1981, leaving behind a wife and fourteen children.
McBride, the director of Mayor Wellington Webb's youth commission, has been waging a running battle with the family for months. He and other neighbors call the Walkers a menace. Police have been called to the home 49 times in the past five years on complaints ranging from stabbings to drug dealing. McBride says he's had windows broken at his house. A fire-department official notes that another small blaze was set in the dumpster behind McBride's house a week before the garage blaze.
McBride says he "points to" the Walkers as suspects in the second fire. "But what proof do I have?" he asks. None, actually, and the Walkers say they had nothing to do with it. But when you've developed a reputation for trouble going back a decade, people point the finger anyway.
"We're a respected family, this is a respected house," insists Michael Walker, a 43-year-old electrician who moved back to his childhood home from Minnesota a year ago. The new head of the family points out that the Walkers have lived on the block longer than any of their accusers. "I won't dispute at one time there was bad activity going on around here," says Michael, who has an arrest record of his own. But the family members and friends who caused the trouble are gone now, he says. "Everyone's trying to get their life together."
Police and city officials have been patting themselves on the back recently for closing several crack houses three blocks to the north of the Walker house through a combination of neighborhood activism and community policing. New nuisance-abatement ordinances have made it easier for residents to address problem houses in their neighborhoods, and police and city agencies that have code-enforcement power are beginning to coordinate their efforts more effectively.
If any house seems to warrant the public-nuisance designation, it's the Walkers' brick split-level. Although there's no evidence of present-day drug dealing at the house, two former neighbors say they bought and used crack cocaine there in the early 1990s. Some neighbors claim that since Tyler Walker's wife, Susie, died of heart disease in 1987, they've seen pit bulls trained for fights there. Police say that at one time the place was used as a flophouse for transients.
But through it all, the Walkers have remained. Nearly everyone agrees that life near them has been a trial. But as the experience of McBride and other neighbors demonstrates, just being a nuisance isn't enough to get you thrown out of your house.
Many of the offenses residents have dialed 911 about, for instance, have occurred on the street outside the house, meaning that the home and its occupants can't legally be targeted. Despite the numerous police responses, there have been only a handful of arrests. The family has racked up code violations but has fixed enough of the problems to avoid expulsion. They've even stubbornly stayed in the house for up to a month after the electricity and the water have been shut off.
"This isn't a tool for neighbors to arbitrarily get somebody out of the neighborhood," says Lieutenant David Bricker, who runs the police department's nuisance-abatement unit. Even a long list of recurring incidents isn't enough to evict a homeowner, notes Bricker. Instead, officials need hard evidence of significant criminal activity--something that, strangely enough, has been hard to pin down at the Walker place.
So despite the numerous visits from police, run-ins with several city agencies and two years of unpaid property taxes, the Walkers remain. "They're an institution," says a resigned Debbie Weis-Heath, who moved into the neighborhood with her husband and daughter in 1993.
Over the years the family appears to have done as much harm to itself as it has done to neighbors. "Everything they do, they hurt themselves," says Monica Lockhart, a neighborhood block captain who used to live behind the Walkers and has called police on the family before.
Many of the calls for service from the police came from the Walkers themselves. An uncle, James Martin, was stabbed by a girlfriend at the house this past New Year's Eve, and tense arguments among family members greased with drinks are not uncommon.
McBride and other neighbors remain convinced that they can drive the Walkers out. "Hey, these people aren't gonna stay here," says Weis-Heath. "I'm not one who gives up."