Evicted tenants hopeful of justice

Trial begins today for city landlord

May 21, 1999|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Eric Holmes was not accustomed to living on the street. From the comfort of his parents' Park Heights rowhouse to a U.S. Army barracks in Germany to his own modest rental dwelling in East Baltimore, a roof above his head seemed a small given.

Two years without one taught him a simple, but profound lesson: "You get sick, a lot, and you get mad."

This is the essence of case #CC3258, Holmes vs. Dangerfield, set to begin in Baltimore Circuit Court today. Holmes and his fiancee are suing former landlord, George A. Dangerfield Jr., for allegedly hiring a group of thugs to illegally evict them from their Patterson Park rowhouse on a sweltering summer night two years ago.

In a last-minute maneuver to stave off the former tenants, Dangerfield's lawyers filed bankruptcy papers late Wednesday afternoon, declaring their client all but penniless and seeking a court order protecting him from lawsuits.

But U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge E. Stephen Derby withdrew the court's protection yesterday, after learning that Dangerfield is accused of assaulting Holmes -- a potentially criminal act for which immunity cannot be granted.

"It's not very attractive to be using the bankruptcy court for leverage in a civil proceeding," Derby said. "The filing of bankruptcy on the eve of a state court trial is not something the court is sympathetic with."

For Dangerfield, a 29-year-old convicted drug dealer who owns more than 125 rental houses in the city, the timing couldn't be worse. The case is the opening round in a month of legal ordeals leading up to his June 14 trial in federal court on drug conspiracy charges that could result in a prison sentence of more than a decade and $4 million in fines.

"I'm not going to comment on my client's personal affairs," said Stanley Alpert, Dangerfield's lawyer, Wednesday.

Derby's ruling clears the way for Holmes and his fiancee, Rosetta Bailey, to seek up to $500,000 in damages for the events of July 3, 1997.

The tension between the landlord and his tenants had been building for weeks before that date -- ever since they moved in and began complaining about such problems as leaking gas lines, a broken stove and vermin in the basement.

The couple got a court order compelling Dangerfield to make immediate repairs and prohibiting him from evicting his tenants in the meantime.

Two weeks later, Dangerfield arrived at the home in the 1900 block of Patterson Park Ave. behind the wheel of his midnight blue Rolls Royce and sent a crew of men charging in. Upstairs, they rousted Holmes and Bailey from bed, herded them into the street and began throwing their belongings into the rear alley.

"I was on crutches, with a broken ankle, in my underwear, in the middle of the night," Holmes said yesterday. "And he didn't show me any mercy at all. No, sir. He just stood there laughing at us. All up and down the block, people were laughing at us."

"That's what this is about -- what he did, how it was done. I still got a nasty taste in my mouth."

When Holmes pointed out to Dangerfield that he was violating a court order, he recalls, the landlord snapped: "Don't tell me about the law! As far as you're concerned, I am the law! I can do as I damn well please!"

Called into court for violating the judge's order, Dangerfield later pleaded guilty to wrongful eviction and received a $500 fine. Meanwhile, Holmes and Bailey began a nearly two-year odyssey of homelessness, sleeping in abandoned houses, parks and shelters.

A former prison guard, Holmes had quit his job with the state Division of Correction in 1990 to work for a construction company that soon went bankrupt. In the years that followed, he moved through a succession of low-paying, temporary jobs. "The eviction was the last straw," he said. "We just never recovered."

Holmes says he suffered three bouts of pneumonia, dehydration and a nearly constant low-grade fever during his time on the street. Ultimately, he landed in a veterans hospital, where he underwent surgery to carve "a bunch of junk" out of his heart. He is only 43, but he looks every inch of 50.

Now on disability, he and Bailey have lived in a subsidized apartment since October, their first stable home in two years.

For the trio of young lawyers representing them, it is a case they hope will announce to Baltimore's landlords that their tactics must change. After years of fighting petty rent-court actions on behalf of tenants, they are pursuing full-blown lawsuits with the potential of financially ruining a property owner.

"At the bottom end of this city's rental market, it's like the Wild West," says Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Public Justice Center, a free law clinic for the poor. "This is not an isolated incident, by any means. This didn't just happen to Eric and Rosetta.

"The difference is that they've had the courage to hang in there, long after most people in their condition would have given up."

Pub Date: 5/21/99

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