Keep a Light On
Polly Sullivan kept lighthouses in her window, rows of miniature beacons that illuminated the old military dormitory at Lowry that is now Crooked Tree, a shelter for the formerly homeless.
It was nice, tenants say, comforting. No matter what else was going on in their lives, and there was usually something going on, Polly would always have those lighthouses glowing.
But on Christmas, the day she died, someone walked into Polly's second-floor apartment and turned off the lights.
"I've got butcher knives strategically placed all around here," Karen Battaglia says. "If someone comes through my door, I can get to them in seconds."
She takes a long slow drag from her cigarette. "And honey," she says, "I'm serious."
Battaglia is no stranger to violence, danger or tragedy. But what happened to Polly, who lived one floor up, has left her spooked.
"I'm not usually the scared type," Battaglia says. "Not with my background. But I have to remind myself of what happened. Maybe we were too lax or relaxed around here. Who's to say that couldn't happen to one of us?"
Many paths lead to the yellow brick housing complex that Polly used to manage. The 43 people who live here range in age from nineteen to sixty. They are ex-convicts, college students, former drug addicts and wanderers. They are Native Americans, blacks, whites and Hispanics. They are, Battaglia says, "a really cool group of good, dysfunctional people."
But no matter where they came from or how they got here, they all have this in common: With Polly, they got a second chance.
Battaglia was a hustler. From the time she was sixteen, she danced in strip clubs all over Denver. She ran escort services, booked newspaper ads under the name "Solitaire" and lived off her looks as a blond bombshell.
"I was paid, not played," she says. "I wore minks and diamonds, not cut-off shorts. And all mine were high-dollar-end," she says of her clients.
Battaglia eventually married a drug dealer who owned a seventeen-room house. She had a maid, a cook and a gold Mercedes.
"Honey, I had everything a woman could want," she says.
In June 1991, FBI agents knocked on the door. Battaglia's husband was arrested on 82 counts of racketeering. After an indictment that read like a who's who of Denver, her husband was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Authorities seized their bank accounts, stocks, bonds, real-estate holdings, business ventures, furniture, jewelry and art.
"I watched them pack everything I had and take it out the door," Battaglia says. "In one day I lost a husband, a home, and everything I owned. Life as I knew it was gone."
Battaglia, who had seven children, was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to a year under house arrest. She tried to get a regular job and a regular life, but with her past and criminal record, it was practically impossible. Somehow she got a job managing a string of seedy apartments along a drug-ridden street, but even working seven days a week, she could barely make ends meet. She began to feel the tug of her old lifestyle.
"I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown," Battaglia says. "This year I'm going to be 45. That's kind of old to be homeless."
Then she met Polly.
Battaglia had heard about Polly from a pastor at her church. Crooked Tree was just what she needed. The facility allowed people with police records, little or no income and spotty credit reports to pay low rent and stay as long as they needed. Battaglia applied, passed the evaluations, met the federal housing criteria and moved into a first-floor apartment in May.
"It was a dream come true," she says. "For the first time in years, I felt like I had stability. It let me get out and see what it feels like to be in society again. It gave me the opportunity to relax. If you're always in a shaky home situation, you can't focus or concentrate on anything else. But when that problem is solved, a person is able to do a lot. Crooked Tree was a real blessing."
Battaglia decorated her one-bedroom apartment with bamboo furniture and Asian artwork. She left her windows open at night and walked the hallways and smiled at neighbors. Crooked Tree felt like a home. And that was exactly what Polly had wanted.
"She wanted this to be special," Battaglia says. "She didn't want people coming from one institutional, prison-type setting going into another one. That's why you don't see security cameras. She wanted people to feel comfortable here. She understood how much friends and community are part of that process."
If someone needed a ride to a job interview, Polly handed out bus tokens. If they were short on weekly groceries, she gave them a box of food. And if they had a bad day, Polly treated them to a steak dinner.
"She understood that people who are down and out need a minute to regroup," Battaglia says. "She had the biggest heart in the world."
But Polly had rules, too. No drugs. No alcohol for tenants on parole. No visitors after 10:30 p.m. No loud music. No children. No overnight guests. Although she bent the rules when necessary, some tenants bristled at the strict structure. But Polly, all 4 feet, 10 inches of her, stood her ground. Several times she evicted troublemakers.
"She was not afraid of anyone," Battaglia says. "She would go heads up and toe-to-toe. She didn't take shit from anyone."
Battaglia liked that. And she liked the opportunities Polly offered her. With Polly's blessing, Battaglia started a residents' library, ran a food bank and joined the tenants' council. She also got a job helping homeless people at the nearby Project Heritage. Along the way, she and Polly became friends. They swapped mystery videos, sipped a few beers, gossiped about this or that, just sat around and talked. When Battaglia visited Polly's apartment, she never wanted to leave.
"Every time I'd go up there, I'd steal a cup of sunshine," Battaglia says. "Her apartment was like a gingerbread house. Everything was in pastel colors. There were Raggedy Anns, blankets, quilts, nautical ships, dishes of all different colors. It was like a magical little toyland."
But more than anything, Polly provided an example. She had graduated from college. She had a law degree. She was smart, tenacious and successful. And she was a woman.
"When you live a bad lifestyle, you tend to lose your hopes and dreams," Battaglia says. "Polly made you feel good about yourself. She was a person who knew all about me, and it didn't matter. She accepted me for who I am--no questions asked. She gave you a reason to hope."
Polly Sullivan was born on November 7, 1954, in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the oldest of two girls. Her mother was Irish and her father was Creek, and when Polly was one, the family came to Denver under the Bureau of Indian Affairs' relocation program.
When Polly was nine, the family moved to a subdivision in Aurora. Her dad worked as an engineer for the state highway department, and her mom stayed home with the kids. Practically every summer, they traveled back to Oklahoma.
"Mom and Dad were really big into family," recalls Linda Gruno, Polly's younger sister. "We never took vacations to Disneyland or the ocean. We always went to Oklahoma. Polly loved that. She always delighted in seeing other people. She loved and enjoyed people in a way I never understood."
While the neighborhood children played with their Barbies, Polly stayed inside listening to Beatles records and puttering around the house.
"She liked to spend time helping Mom," Gruno says. "She never caused any trouble and didn't do anything to make herself stand out. She was just a good, sweet kid. She was nice to everyone."
At Hinkley High School, Polly hung around the debate team, let loose at school dances and buried her nose in books.
"As soon as she learned to drive, she spent all of her time at the library and the Tattered Cover," Gruno says. "She read Shakespeare and Virginia Woolfe and the Beat generation and Kafka. Every book she had, she finished."
At Colorado State University and the University of Colorado, Polly studied English and literature. After graduation she worked as a sports editor, reporter and photographer for a small newspaper in Henryetta, Oklahoma. But she became homesick and returned to Denver, where she worked in insurance and banking.
At age 37, after completing a master's degree and receiving certification as a paralegal, Polly studied law at Arizona State University. She earned her degree, joined the Arizona State Bar and planned to work as a children's advocate.
"She took off out to Arizona not knowing anyone," Gruno says. "Being the homebody that she was, she must have really wanted to do it. And when she went to get her law degree, she told me, 'It might seem stupid to you, but I really think that our purpose in life is to help other people.' She was serious. It was something she really believed."
But again, after a few years in Arizona, Polly missed her friends, family and the mountains, and she returned to Denver. She offered legal assistance to those who needed it and helped with holiday dinners, arts festivals and other activities at the Denver Indian Center. At the time, the Indian Center was just starting work on a low-income housing project at the old Lowry Air Force Base, which was being redeveloped with much fanfare into a 1,866-acre community of custom homes, business centers, neighborhood parks, school campuses and, thanks to federal guidelines, a few shelters.
The Indian Center originally envisioned its Lowry project as a place where homeless Native Americans could settle back and find shelter. But as the program evolved--much to the chagrin of neighbors who tried hard to block it--it grew to include needy people of all backgrounds, ethnicities and circumstances. And when the center was looking for someone to develop the project, Polly applied.
"She was perfect," says Lisa Harjo, the center's executive director. "She had a background in mortgage banking and a law degree, and she really helped with the loan packaging and the renovation. She very much believed in what she was doing."
Polly attended planning meetings, waded through zoning regulations, tiptoed through turf wars, wrote grant proposals, applied for permits, recruited tenants and even named the housing project Crooked Tree, after a warped pine in the courtyard.
"I remember going out to the building and seeing the broken windows and birds flying through and thinking, 'It would take a miracle to pull this off,'" Gruno recalls. "I would get discouraged for her. But she never did. She got all the old furniture out, cleaned it up and got the landscaping together. I never understood how one person could do all that. But she did. She loved that place."
From the beginning, Polly tried to make Crooked Tree more than another halfway house, homeless shelter or affordable housing complex.
"She wanted to give people an opportunity to change their lives," Harjo says. "She wanted to be someone they could talk to and borrow a quarter from. Homeless people do not always feel connected to a place or a community. Polly tried hard to help them make that connection."
And they did.
"This lady was wonderful," says 51-year-old Leona Tafoya, a former heroin addict. "She gave me back my life. I've been in prison five times. When I got out, I had nothing and nowhere to go. She gave me a home. For the first time in my life, I could feel free. There was a lot of beauty that she did."
But Polly's life was more than just work. She loved her church, her yellow Camaro, the Broncos, professional wrestling, playing piano, crocheting quilts, buying jewelry, watching The X-Files and spending hours on the Internet.
"Polly was like a breath of fresh air," Battaglia says. "She was the only friend I had who I could play Trivial Pursuit with. She was the only one of my friends, when we're playing checkers, who would not eat the checkers, if you know what I mean."
But more than anything, Polly, who was single and 44 years old, loved family. She doted over her niece and nephew, who dubbed her "Auntie." She often spoke about the blessing of children. In some ways, her friends say, Polly needed to be needed. At Crooked Tree, she was.
"It was almost like she was a housemother and not building manager," Gruno says. "Every time I went there, two or three people would come to her door needing something. It was like she finally got her houseful of kids."
"We were like her family," Battaglia agrees. "It was like we were like her accomplishment. In a way, she needed this place as bad as we did."
On Christmas, the day she died, Polly planned to celebrate. She invited a few friends over for dinner, bought little gifts of cheese and tea, and prepared for a nice evening.
She was excited, her friends say. They all were. This was their first holiday together at Crooked Tree. They had much to be thankful for.
Battaglia arrived early, about 6 p.m. She had a friend who was handicapped and homeless, and she wanted to ask Polly if there was room for another mouth at the table. Battaglia knocked hard on Polly's door. The noise echoed through the narrow, white-cinderblock hallway.
There was no answer.
Battaglia tried again.
Still no answer.
This was odd, Battaglia thought. Polly's cars were parked outside. Tenants had seen her unloading packages earlier in the day. And if she wasn't home, or if she was plopped down in front of her computer, surfing the Net, she would have left a note on her door. But that evening there was nothing.
Polly had planned to visit her parents around 3 p.m. Maybe they had picked her up and had not yet brought her back, Battaglia thought. Or maybe Polly was somewhere else in the building. Wherever she was, Battaglia figured she'd be back soon, so she left.
A few hours later, though, Battaglia and the other guests began to worry. Everyone had showed up for Polly's party except for Polly. Something was wrong in apartment 201.
At her memorial service, three generations of Baptist pastors spoke about Polly. A Native American woman sang a Creek song, and a jazz trumpeter played "Amazing Grace."
Friends and family wondered aloud why Polly chose to help people with histories of crime and violence. Of all the jobs she could have had, why did she work with the homeless? With all her talent and ambition, why couldn't she have found something safer? She knew about the troubled people who lived at Crooked Tree. Why did she take so many risks?
"Once she broke up a fight between two of the tenants, and I told her, 'Why don't you get a gun or something?'" Gruno recalls. "But she just laughed. 'I don't need a gun. I'm not afraid of anyone.' And she wasn't. She actually believed in the goodness in people."
Police have charged a 48-year-old ex-con named Willie Safford with Polly's murder. He had lived on the first floor of Crooked Tree since the spring but was about to be evicted for, among other things, arguing with fellow tenants, bringing his girlfriend and her children to the complex and being late on his rent.
Safford has a long criminal record that includes everything from robbery to aggravated assault to urinating in public. He was arrested for an unrelated burglary the day after Polly's death and was later held in connection with her killing--the last murder of the year in Denver. He's now in the Adams County jail and is scheduled for a pre-trial hearing on January 27.
His neighbors at Crooked Tree describe him as an erratic man with a quick temper and an appetite for crack cocaine who was seen more than once arguing with Polly.
"He was at her door constantly," says one tenant who wants to remain anonymous. "He would just stand there and argue and try and make you listen. We really had a lot of problems with this guy. He would constantly leave the back doors open all night and walk down the halls checking other people's doorknobs. He really gave me the creeps."
The Denver Indian Center Development Corporation, which oversees Crooked Tree, conducts background checks of all Crooked Tree applicants and screens tenants for sex offenses, domestic abuse and violent crime. But there was no way to foresee Polly's murder, center officials say.
"What happened on Christmas was beyond the violence we prepared for or expected," Harjo says. "How do you know who to keep out?"
Police aren't saying much about the killing, except that Safford is their top suspect. They've also been vague on the cause of Polly's death. Friends and family know only that she was found in her bedroom, bruised and bloodied, and was not robbed.
This secrecy has caused much speculation among Crooked Tree residents, some of whom have barricaded their doors at night, slept at each other's apartments and walked the halls carrying hammers for protection.
"We're not sure police know what they're doing or not, because they're not telling anyone anything," one resident said a few days after the murder. "So as far as we know, they're just guessing."
To calm these fears, the Indian Center has hired a temporary manager for Crooked Tree who has a background in security. Administrators have installed deadbolts and peepholes and are considering adding security cameras and watchmen and tightening admission requirements. No matter what, they plan to keep the project going.
"We opened Crooked Tree to help homeless people get a second chance," Harjo says. "This was an isolated incident. To close it because of the rage of one person is not the answer. If anything, it will make us stronger."
That's good news to those tenants who worry whether they'd ever find another place to live. But even if they do stay--and some are considering leaving--Crooked Tree will never be the same without Polly.
"I've talked to probably half the people in the building," Battaglia says. "Some people are really lonely for her. This has kind of stolen the freedom and enjoyment here. It used to be so quiet. We all felt so secure. No one knew about us, and no one bothered us. We were two blocks from Sixth Avenue but miles away from everywhere else. This has disturbed the peace we had. It has taken something away forever. We'll never be able to relax like we used to. And that's not going to change for a while."
Until it does, she and other tenants will continue to patrol the halls to make sure their neighbors are safe. They'll pick up trash from the parking lot and tend to the landscaping. They'll make a plaque in Polly's honor and hang it in the library. They'll find a way to move forward with the new lives they have begun.
That was Polly's dream, they say. She would have liked that.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.