Unwitting owner has house of debt Surprise: Years after suing her landlord over lead paint in her apartment, Sandra Williams discovers she owns the building.

April 08, 1997|By John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner | John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

The stately old three-story townhouse at 2206 Linden Ave. "was in terrible shape," drafty, peeling and "all leaky" when Sandra Williams moved into the second-floor apartment in 1982 with her two youngsters.

She stayed 13 months. But, Williams discovered last year, she hasn't escaped the long-vacant house. Records show that she became its unwitting co-owner when her former landlord gave her the house in 1987 - but didn't tell her - after she sued him for the lead poisoning of her son.

Now, based on the name on the deed, the city expects the 35-year-old mother, who receives public assistance, to pay more than $47,000 in debts on the house - including taxes and a $31,000 repair last year.

"Forty-seven thousand dollars," laughs Williams in amazement. "Oh, my gracious."

Williams moved out of the house in June 1983, after her 20-month-old son, Robert Ward, was hospitalized with lead poisoning. Three years later, she sued the owners, Kenneth B. Shepherd, a Washington lawyer, and his wife, Julia Rose Shepherd, claiming Robert was poisoned by lead paint in her apartment.

She says that Shepherd offered her the house to settle the suit and that she turned him down. "It needed major repairs," she said. "When you sign into something like that, you're just buying into trouble."

Nevertheless, Shepherd and his wife signed a deed in 1987 making Sandra Williams and Robert Ward owners of the house.

Handwritten on the deed is the address of a lawyer Williams once hired - now a suite in a University of Maryland medical complex building on Redwood Street. Year after year, tax bills and other city correspondence go to that suite.

After the Shepherds unloaded the vacant house, it continued to deteriorate. "Entire house ready to collapse," said an April 1994 Department of Housing and Community Development document.

The department hired a contractor last year to install a new roof and shore up the house to prevent its collapse, adding the $31,000 bill to back taxes, interest and penalties.

Williams learned of the debt - and her ownership of the house ` when a reporter asked her about it in November.

The Shepherds won't comment, refusing to acknowledge that they once owned the house.

As for Williams, she is still hoping to collect for the lead poisoning of Robert, a Douglass High School ninth-grader who has learning problems.

Meanwhile, she and her mother worry that she may be pursued for the bills on 2206 Linden Ave.

"How can you be liable for anything and not know anything about it?" asks her mother, Rachel Williams, 51. "I don't understand it."

Pub Date: 4/08/97

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