This Property Is Condemned
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."
The family members, though, say they've cleaned up their act and aren't going anywhere. "This is a holy house," says Michael Walker's brother Kenneth, a 35-year-old carpenter who fails to mention his own lengthy arrest record, which dates back to 1984 and includes convictions for felony larceny and misdemeanor assault. "This is a house of God. This here's a blessed house. I ain't goin' nowhere. And they can't get me off the block. I'm'a be here."
Many neighbors who complain about the Walkers haven't been inside their house recently. The floors are in poor shape and the place looks in need of work, but the furnishings are standard fare. There's a piano, and there are drapes on the windows. A large TV displays the networks' evening programming.
The Walkers are friendly enough to a guest--with the brief exception of Uncle James, who flies into a rage at one point and hits a visitor on the head with an empty cranberry-juice jug. But they are acutely tired of having to defend themselves. Family members or friends tend to drop by regularly, and people constantly seem to emerge from the second floor or the basement. Of the fourteen Walker siblings, two, Michael and Kenneth, are now living in the house, along with their Uncle James, a nephew and a brother-in-law. Some of the other brothers and sisters live in California. Two are dead. Michael Walker says he doesn't know about the rest.
The Walkers' parents, Tyler and Susie, came to Denver sometime in the 1950s, say relatives. The couple married while they were teenagers. Tyler, an outgoing motorcycle rider, worked at Martin Marietta and as a mechanic; the quiet Susie, who stood just 5-1 and weighed 99 pounds, was a homemaker. Her brother, James, says Susie was a "very good cook, good seamstress, beautician--the total package in a woman."
The family lived for a while on Columbine Street, then moved into the house on Humboldt in 1969. They say the house was built that year by Manual High School as part of a school project.
Michael Walker says the police were a friendly presence back then, because Susie was a well-liked fixture of the community. "When their parents were alive, these things didn't happen," notes block-watch captain Lockhart. But even from the beginning, says Kenneth Walker, the family didn't feel welcome. Tyler and Susie already had a baseball team's worth of children by the time they moved to Humboldt Street, he says, and the older neighbors "didn't want us on the block. They didn't want to be irritated by nine kids."
Conflict with police came early enough. Kenneth says that as a boy, he was stopped by officers for urinating in an alley. He ran home and hid in the basement. He says nine cops showed up, demanding that his bewildered mother, who thought he was in school, present her son.
In 1981, at the age of 46, Tyler Walker was stabbed to death in Curtis Park. Nobody was ever arrested, though some in the neighborhood suspect that Tyler's death was drug-related. Michael and Kenneth say they'll take care of the culprit if they ever find him. "I'd kill 'em, go to jail and do my time," says Michael.
After Tyler died, the family was never the same. "When Tyler was livin', those kids better not be doin' nothin," says Crayton Jones, who runs the C&B Cleaners in Five Points. "He ran that house with an iron fist."
Tyler left his family "fixed up pretty well," says Jones. But after Susie died six years later, the home began to deteriorate. The kids, many of them adults by then, had to fend for themselves. The house was soon overrun with their kids and with troublesome friends. Even some of the Walker girls got into trouble; three of the sisters have lengthy arrest records in Denver.
Marcus Grossenbach, who rented a house behind the Walkers for about six months in the early 1990s, says that soon after he moved in, one of the Walker sisters approached him and his then-girlfriend about buying and using crack. (The girlfriend, who asks not to be identified, confirms the account.)
Grossenbach says the experience tainted his whole perception of the family. But, he adds, "I'm not gonna fault the Walkers. I had the feeling they were doing the best they could to keep a roof over their head. But there was nothing they wouldn't do--lie, cheat or steal--to keep it. They were some of the better liars you'd run into."
Lockhart says the family bred up to nine pit bulls at the house in the 1980s. One of the dogs, she recalls, once killed a German shepherd. "Fightin', police bein' there all the time," she recalls. "Neighbors shouldn't have to put up with it. You pay taxes, you work to keep your house, and they don't, and nothing happens to them."
One complainant called in 1993 to say that gang members were holding her sister at the Walker house. In March 1995 someone was shot with a shotgun; the shooter escaped on foot, and an ambulance was called to take away the victim. A neighbor called in August 1995 complaining that people were fighting and throwing bottles; three days later she called again, this time because people were fighting in the middle of the street with knives. A call the following November indicated that someone had been hit in the head with a wrench. According to police-department records, the victim "had been there bleeding (outside) for almost two hours."
In 1996 a domestic-violence dispute broke out between Kenneth and an unnamed juvenile nephew. The police department's calls-for-service records indicate that one of the combatants--it's not clear which one--"has been known to use kitchen knives during arguments."
Michael Walker acknowledges that he's been arrested for assault and domestic violence. Years ago he got into an argument with his sister, Shannon. "I told my sister, 'I'll beat your ass,'" he says. "They arrested me, gave me a domestic-violence assault charge. I didn't assault no one.
"My sister called the police on the littlest thing," he continues. "She's a police-caller, 'cause she knows when the police come, they generally take somebody. She'll hold that over your head."
McBride's problems with the Walker house culminated at a 1996 barbecue he had with his family. He says members of the Crips were outside the Walker house, arguing and flashing their weapons. McBride says he went into the street to confront them. One of the kids pulled a gun, aimed it at McBride's head and squeezed the trigger. Whether the chamber was empty or the gun jammed, McBride doesn't know. He says it took 45 minutes for police to arrive.
"They go to jail, they come out, they go to jail, they come out," he says, recalling his anger and fear over the incident. "It's like a revolving door."
The most recent trouble at the house was the New Year's Eve stabbing of Uncle James by his girlfriend. James refuses to say much about the incident, only that he was asleep when it happened. His nephews complain that the police were more concerned about sending a platoon of squad cars than they were about sending for an ambulance.
Neighbors claim the house remains a den for drugs and gangbangers. Michael Walker says those days are over. He admits the family once owned pit bulls but says they never bred them to fight. There may have been drugs and gang members around, too, he says. But neighbors have nothing to worry about now, he says, and "if we ain't harmin' them, why should they be tryin' to harm us?"
The family also thinks the police are out to get them. "What I'm trying to say is this is harassment," says Donald Keys, the Walkers' brother-in-law. "They always try to check who's in the house. They walk in through the house without a search warrant. They stop me and search me every day."
Keys, a deacon at a Five Points church, says McBride is behind much of the harassment. "He got pull," says Keys. "That's the only reason. They harass us. I'm late for work every day. They put the city on us: 'Fix this and that.'" (Keys also has an arrest record, including an assault rap in Aurora and a drug-possession bust in Denver last May.)
McBride denies that he's used his connections at city hall to go after the Walkers. "I never use that I worked for the mayor on any of this stuff," he says. "I just don't do stuff like that."
"Why would me and the other neighbors harass peaceful neighbors?" McBride continues. "Their history hasn't been that of a peaceful neighbor. When have they had to call the police on me? Have we been selling crack and fighting in the front yard? You just don't decide to harass your neighbors."
"They've been trying to take the house for ten years," Michael Walker fires back. "They ain't got it, they ain't gonna get it. They just trippin'. They can't take the house, 'cause it's ours, bought and paid for."
The house is bought and paid for, although who actually owns it today is uncertain. City records show that the deed to the house is still in Susie Walker's name. The Walkers say the house was willed to them when their mother died, but they are unable to produce evidence of a will or the name or address of an attorney who may have handled the matter.
"We ain't bothered no one," says Michael Walker. "We pay our own bills, regardless of whose name it's under. What does name have to do with anything?"
According to the city treasurer's office, the house has two years of unpaid taxes, for 1995 and 1996; there are liens out for those taxes, as well as for unpaid sanitary sewer and storm-drainage charges.
Michael Walker says that none of the neighbors have ever taken their concerns to them. "We've never had a neighbor complain directly," he says. "Most likely we'd tone it down."
But McBride says attempts to iron things out at this point would be a waste. Weis-Heath says she did go over to the Walkers' house once to distribute fliers for Denver Digs Trees. When one of the Walker girls opened the door, the "fog rolled out so bad I thought the roaches would come out," Weis-Heath says. "The girl was half-naked, high as a kite, cursing. I'm not inclined to go back and have tea."
Last year the city overhauled its nuisance-abatement ordinances, making it easier for citizens to complain to authorities about problem properties. But the extreme measures neighbors sometimes hope for are taken only rarely.
According to Lieutenant Bricker, most nuisance houses come to the city's attention because of narcotics and weapons violations. In drug cases, the worst-case scenario for a homeowner is if police find paraphernalia like scales or bags of drugs packaged separately for distribution. In those cases, the city has the right to order the house vacated or to force owners to sell the house. Both actions require approval from a county court judge.
As a last resort, the district attorney's office can take a confiscation case to the state. Pending a district court judge's authorization, authorities can then seize the house and keep the proceeds of the sale.
However, Roger Beery, one of five detectives in the DPD's nuisance unit, says only about four or five people per year are evicted in Denver. Generally, he says, "We don't strike to draw blood, we just seek to level the playing field."
At this point, it seems many neighbors would prefer blood.
Many people assume that if police officers respond often enough to the same address, they'll figure out that a problem exists and find a way to solve it. "I thought when you got enough calls, you were a nuisance house," says the Walkers' next-door neighbor, Lydia Albright.
But according to Bricker, the sheer number of calls for service doesn't matter. Captain Marco Vasquez, the department's top commander in District 2, adds that neighbors have to follow through and sign a complaint if they want their 911 calls to amount to anything "You have to sign a complaint," says Vasquez. "Calling the police is not good enough." (So far, the only person who's signed a formal complaint against the Walkers is McBride.)
Detective Tyrone Campbell, formerly a Weed and Seed officer in the area, says he started working on the Walker house in late 1995 or early 1996 because of McBride's complaints. Campbell says police tried different approaches, such as talking to the city's Department of Zoning Administration and other city agencies, but little came of it.
"Sometimes they [city agencies] never showed up, sometimes they showed up and said there's nothing we can do," Campbell says. "A lot of times [the Walkers] just didn't open the door, and we'd be stuck. We'd sit up on [stakeouts], all different times and didn't see anything, so what do we do now?"
However, several city agencies have gotten into the act. After Weis-Heath called the Animal Control Division in December 1994, Donald Keys was issued a ticket for having a pit bull. He was fined $48 and sent to jail for a day when he refused to show in court. The dog was put to sleep.
Charles Meredith, a senior zoning specialist with the Department of Zoning Administration, says his agency inspected the house in September 1995 and found problems such as junked cars and gang activity. However, he says those problems were corrected the next month and that there have been no recent complaints.
Since 1993, when the city's office of Neighborhood Support Services began keeping records of such things, the Walkers have been cited for numerous code violations. Infractions ranging from rubbish and weeds to unsecured entries (generally, missing doors or broken windows) have been reported. However, virtually all the violations were corrected after one notice, and none required more than two notices.
Police captain Steve Allison, the former commander of District 2, says that in 1995 the district's Impact Team worked with Weed and Seed officers to keep an eye on the house. Allison says things got better over the next few months and that during that time, no complaints found their way to his desk.
When problems re-emerged, more police officers were brought to help out and the house was made a priority, Allison says. But he says the police lacked the right "opportunity"--a single incident that, in and of itself, was enough to put the Walkers away.
The city's Building Inspection Division conducted an investigation of the house this past July. Inspector Dave Emge found that the electricity and water had been turned off and issued the Walkers an order to vacate, meaning that no one was allowed in the house until the utilities were restored.
Neighbor Albright says that when that happened, the Walkers "boarded up windows and pretended that they didn't live there anymore." She says family members tried to steal water from her outside hose, so she had to remove the faucet handle and turn her hose on with a pair of pliers. She also says one of the Walker girls begged her to let her connect an extension cord to her house for power. Albright said no.
By September, the power and water were back on. The Walkers, though, still had a slew of other violations to deal with, ranging from bad floors to faulty plumbing.
In October 1997 the police department initiated what it calls Problem Solving Policing (PSP) as a way to address neighborhood problems. If there are two or more related incidents at the same address, an officer is ordered to analyze the problem, respond to it and then write a formal report.
The Walker home became a PSP house on November 3, 1997. McBride filed the initial complaint, says Captain Vasquez, alleging continued drug and prostitution activity, bad plumbing, filthy property and the continued presence of known drug addicts and drunks.
Police officer Eddie Morales was assigned to the PSP probe. But when he filed his report last month, it wasn't what McBride had expected. Instead, Morales came back in the Walkers' favor. The officer tells Westword that, although the department plans to continue monitoring the house and may even use plainclothes detectives as part of that operation, he believes the criminal activity at the Walker place has "dried up." According to Vasquez, the plumbing is repaired, the electrical wiring has been restored, and the property is cleaned up inside and out. "The property's looking a lot better since we came back," says Morales. "They're making an honest effort."
McBride, however, says the recent absence of trouble is just the result of neighborhood vigilance--and cold weather. "We've gone through this 'We're gonna be good neighbors' before," McBride says. "After the first few continuous warm days, we'll see what happens."
Not all neighbors have such a bleak view of the family.
Mary Pat Holliday, a teacher at nearby Gilpin Elementary who lives behind the Walkers, says that she's had no trouble with the family. She also says she feels uncomfortable with neighbors taking their troubles to the city or the police. "If I had a personal problem with my neighbor, I'd go to my neighbor," she says. "People in the city sometimes play music too loud. So do I. People work on cars--done that, too. No one's tried to sell me anything. I haven't witnessed anything."
Even Robert Heath, Debbie Weis-Heath's husband, takes a live-and-let-live attitude. "They're more a pain in the ass than dangerous," he says. "More talk than anything. As long as you keep it on your side, turn it down when I say turn it down, I don't give a shit what you do. I'm not out to save the world."
Captain Allison, however, refers to the Walkers as an "infection," and he says there's only one cure. "Until the Walkers are removed from that house, this is not going to be resolved, in my opinion," says Allison. "There was progress made the first time, more progress made the second time. Now with the PSP, the same ground is being revisited again. When that attention comes, usually there is an improvement. [But] unless their hearts are in it for the long term, problems will likely rear their head."
Michael Walker looks tired and irritated one recent weekday evening. His sister Audrey died recently in California, he says, and he's on his way to the funeral. "The police came by today," says Michael. "They just waltz right in, asking the same questions. 'Is the power on?' 'Is the water on?' They says this is a gang house. I let 'em come on in. If you don't let 'em in, they have a tendency to sit out front and harass."
A few days later, the Walkers are in the process of scraping off old paint to repaint their house. The front yard is all torn up in preparation for new sod. ("I would be shocked if a lawn actually went in it," says Weis-Heath.)
Health inspector Dave Emge comes by and says the house is in 50 percent compliance--enough to earn the family another grace period to fix the problems. Emge still has complaints--the kitchen floor is in disrepair, the kitchen sink drains into a bucket--so he issues the family a court summons. But for the most part, he's satisfied. "I'm happy with this," he says. "I think they've come along good."
After three police officers arrive to "reinforce" Emge--standard procedure at the Walker house--Michael and Kenneth get impatient. All this attention from the city, they say, is keeping them away from work.
Michael says that since he came back from Minnesota last year, things have been mellow. "We got a bad reputation, hard to live down," he says. "We're bettering ourselves."
But Walker sounds unfazed--or exhausted--from the neighbors' criticism. "They say we're over here fightin' and killin' each other," he says. "We'll either end up in the penitentiary or the grave. Apparently we must not be breaking them [laws] enough.