Investigative report: After latest homicides, neighbors try to understand what went wrong
BY ZIVA BRANSTETTER World Enterprise Editor, CARY ASPINWALL & CURTIS KILLMAN World Staff Writer
Sunday, January 13, 2013
1/13/13 at 7:39 AM
Get the latest news on the Fairmont Terrace homicides: Read coverage of the apartment complex killings and on other homicides in the area nearby.
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Tulsans take various approaches to 61st and Peoria's problems
The neighborhood encompassing 61st Street and Peoria Avenue needed a name, an identity - something other than the "south Tulsa ghetto" or the "South Peoria pocket slum."
After all, there are nice homes here, too, and hard-working people who wait in the rain for bus rides to work, walk their kids to school and go to church on Sundays to ask the Lord for a little help.
More than a decade ago, they renamed it Riverwood. They designed new signs, defined the boundaries, had neighborhood meetings, made plans for a community center, fought for progress, improvements and carried a sense of pride.
But crime and a downward economic spiral fought back against their hard-won progress. The new name never really stuck.
In the wake of a brutal quadruple homicide that took the lives of four women in publicly financed apartments, locals are wondering: What happened to Riverwood, and how can we get it back?
Four women - Rebeika Powell, 23; Kayetie Powell Melchor, 23; Misty Nunley, 33; and Julie Jackson, 55 - were found shot to death in the Fairmont Terrace apartments at midday Monday. Rebeika Powell's 3-year-old son was found at the scene, uninjured.
Police are still searching for the killer or killers. They have questioned several people but made no arrests, asking for the community's help and patience as they do the difficult work.
Fairmont Terrace has been the scene of eight killings in the past two years, including the four Monday.
Killings have decreased citywide since 2009, but the homicide rate in the area of 61st and Peoria has remained steady and sometimes increased, as it did in 2011, a Tulsa World analysis shows.
Those who've lived there long enough remember it as once placid and peaceful, with crime increasing after the oil bust hit local real estate hard in the 1980s. There were crime waves in the mid-90s, early 2000s and now since 2011.
Homicides and violent assaults became the headlines that got the neighborhood noticed.
Much of the violent crime in Riverwood (the area between 51st and 71st streets and Riverside Drive and Lewis Avenue) has occurred within a handful of complexes using tax dollars to offer affordable housing options to low-income individuals.
Many of the complexes are owned by limited liability companies formed by out-of-state investors. The companies take a "hands-off" approach to management and aren't bothered by the crime as long as the checks keep coming, say longtime residents of the area.
Records show Fairmont Terrace is owned by two California-based limited liability companies: D.K. Ukiah Properties LLC and 1574 Pacific LLC. Community activists and neighbors say recent efforts to communicate with Fairmont Terrace's owners about safety concerns have been unsuccessful.
Records list Constance Reynolds of Alameda, Calif., as the sole member and manager of 1574 Pacific LLC, while Doug Solis of Mendocino County, Calif., is listed as managing member of DK Ukiah Properties LLC.
HUD did not respond to a World request for information about its policies and inspections of Fairmont Terrace.
A Tulsa World investigation has found that 17 multifamily properties accepting Section 8 rental subsidies exist in the area surrounding Fairmont Terrace, excluding small developments of a few units. Eight of those properties are owned by out-of-state interests.
In terms of total individual Section 8 apartment units, out-of-state interests own about two-thirds of those available in the area.
Four properties, including Fairmont Terrace, are "project-based Section 8" developments owned by private companies. Funds are paid directly to the owner by HUD and cannot be used by the tenant elsewhere.
The remaining properties on the list are privately owned and accept Section 8 vouchers from tenants who qualify and have made it to the top of the program's waiting list. If a tenant leaves the complex, the voucher travels with him or her to the new residence.
The first of these properties in Riverwood was built in 1965 and the last was built in 1985, as oil prices were plummeting. Employers fled, and so did residents who could afford to move elsewhere.
Those left behind often lived in fear, as crime rates spiked. Killings, robberies, drug deals, vandalism and other crimes became increasingly common at some of the complexes.
Lucky Lamons came to Tulsa from Lawton in 1981 to attend the Tulsa police academy and moved into what was then the Sun Gardens Apartments. Police cars soon began to frequent his complex.
Some of the officers were his classmates at the academy, but they didn't live at Sun Gardens - they were responding to an increasing number of crimes there, Lamons said.
At the time, the complex was unsubsidized, and residents paid market rates for rent. The federal "Section 8" voucher program did not yet exist.
But the oil bust in Oklahoma led to vacant store fronts and soon vacant apartments, including Lamons' former apartment. He moved out and into a single-family home in a different neighborhood by December 1982.
"I got out then because I saw the area deteriorating," he said.
As building owners used housing assistance programs to fill vacant apartments, residents say, the neighborhood changed.
Two people were killed in 1994 at Sun Gardens, sparking meetings between the tenant association and property management about the violence and dilapidated conditions.
By 1996, problems continued at the complex but the name had changed to St. Thomas Square. Names of apartment complexes in the area change frequently as owners try to escape the stigma of past violence, officials say.
In the late 1990s, the city came up with a unique idea to purchase and tear down the dilapidated, crime-riddled Village Square apartments, adjacent to St. Thomas Square. The city would use federal Community Development Block Grant funds and a local contractor built affordable homes.
The homes were purchased by buyers without housing assistance via conventional financing. The hope was the homes would breathe new life and stability into the neighborhood.
Henry Mitchell was the first buyer, and 15 years later, he lives in the same home on Madison Place.
For a while, things had been quiet in his neighborhood, he said, but recently, the crime has started back up again.
"You see 61st and Peoria all the time on the news," he said. "People call and ask me if I'm OK out here. People say a lot of bad stuff about the neighborhood, but it's not coming from the people who live here."
'Face of poverty'
Lanny Endicott has lived in the Heller Park area of Riverwood since the 1970s. For nearly two decades, he has made revitalizing it and helping residents his mission, through the South Peoria Neighborhood Connection and its South Tulsa Community House.
As director of the social work program at Oral Roberts University - its campus is less than a block away from Riverwood's southeast boundary - he sends students into the publicly financed housing complexes to survey residents about their needs.
"The face of poverty here is a single woman with a couple of kids," he said.
Frequently, there are boyfriends who come and go among the various complexes, many involved in drug crime, he said.
The South Tulsa Community House offers GED classes, counseling, a food pantry and computers that residents can use for job applications or schoolwork. It sits next to the towering fences of Fairmont Terrace.
“People call and ask me if I’m OK out here.”
Volunteers there hear the sirens responding to meth fires (one of the buildings burned down last year) and domestic disturbances at the complex. On the worst days, they hear gunshots.
"One of my biggest frustrations is you can talk to the management, and they're good people, they work hard - but they get intimidated and beat up a lot," Endicott said. "And the piece that's missing is the owners."
For many years, his organization and students developed a good working relationship with a management liaison at St. Thomas Square, he said. They set up a tenants' association and sponsored holiday parties.
Then the complex's management changed. The liaison was fired, and all the programs they had set up were abandoned, Endicott said.
Neighbors were once optimistic about the city's interest in a possible Johnson Park community center, he said.
Then ideas started to surface from outside groups about a Little League baseball park or lacrosse fields.
"It's a basketball and soccer neighborhood," he said.
Officials lost interest, he said, and the project went nowhere.
Johnson Park used to host annual activities, including a post-holiday Christmas-tree-burning ceremony. The city used it as a parking lot for the PGA Championship in 2007 and as a dump for ice storm debris. It's currently littered with construction equipment and rubble as the city widens 61st Street.
"It's 30 acres, and it's just been sitting there," Endicott said.
Steve Olsen is an architect who has lived in the Heller Park area since 1968. He drafted plans for the multipurpose community center at Johnson Park, something to bring resources, activities and a gathering place to an area that badly needs them, he said. Neighbors presented the idea to city officials with enthusiasm and hope.
"We were trying to whet their appetite with it," he said. "I don't know what the hang-up was - probably that we didn't have any funding."
A community center with recreation, education, medical and counseling services at Johnson Park would be "a big deal" for Riverwood, Olsen said.
"This would be something the whole community could use," he said. "We keep trying things, and one of these times it will hit, I guess."
'Money keeps running out'
Cheryl Davison and her husband, Dale, got involved in the South Tulsa Community House after they realized the food pantry at their church, Christ the Redeemer Lutheran, might serve the community better if it were closer to the heavily traveled bus routes on Peoria. So they put their efforts into the food pantry and the community house, and became involved on the board.
They don't live in Riverwood, but their church sits on the edge of it, and they care about what happens in that community.
"It's something that people have talked about for years - but nothing's happened," she said. "The money keeps running out."
Residents of St. Thomas Square and Fairmont Terrace frequently walk to the Warehouse Market southeast of the complexes and push the groceries home in shopping carts across rush-hour traffic on Peoria Avenue. Families walk their children to school at McClure and Marshall elementary schools.
Safety in that neighborhood should concern all Tulsans, Davison said.
"After what happened on Monday, people are going to say, 'Hey, we can't ignore what's going on at 61st and Peoria any longer,'" she said.
News researcher Hilary Pittman contributed to this story.
Original Print Headline: What went wrong?
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477
Curtis Killman 918-581-9471
Ziva Branstetter 918-581-8306
Lanny Endicott, a social worker and longtime neighborhood resident, talks about Fairmont Terrace (background) and his work in the community around 61st Street and Peoria Avenue. JOHN CLANTON / Tulsa World
A Riverwood neighborhood sign lies on a section of 61st Street under construction at Madison Avenue near Fairmont Terrace apartments in Tulsa. JOHN CLANTON / Tulsa World
A woman watches as police investigate a quadruple homicide at Tulsa's Fairmont Terrace apartment complex Monday. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Architect Steve Olsen shows renderings of the community center he envisioned for Johnson Park near 61st Street and Peoria Avenue. STEPHEN PINGRY / Tulsa World
A covered body lies in the foreground as Tulsa police investigate a shooting at the Fairmont Terrace apartments at 60th Street and Owasso Avenue in March 2011. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World File
Construction workers wave traffic through the intersection at 61st Street and Peoria Avenue. JOHN CLANTON / Tulsa World
Johnson Park is located between Fairmont Terrace and Riverside Drive. JOHN CLANTON / Tulsa World