Culpeper crime watch becomes force for change

10-year program started as an effort to combat drug dealers

September 29, 2002|By Donnie Johnston | Donnie Johnston,THE FREE-LANCE STAR

CULPEPER, Va. - When former Culpeper Mayor Waller Jones discussed his upset loss in a bid for a fourth term this spring, he mentioned the role of a small core of political activists - the South East Neighborhood Watch.

What began 10 years ago as a community effort to rid the block of drug dealers has evolved into a close-knit group of neighbors who are involved in social and philanthropic issues and form perhaps the county's second-most powerful political force, behind the Republican Party.

`Public-safety group'

"We're still fundamentally a public-safety group," said Gary Close, the county's commonwealth's attorney and a South East Street resident. "But we have expanded our mission."

It also involves wielding substantial political clout. A two-block section of East Street is home to the mayor, a town council member, a county supervisor and a town planning commission member, in addition to Close.

All but Close have been elected in the past three years. All had the backing of the South East Neighborhood Watch.

Political activism, Close says, comes as a direct result of battles with the town government during the early years of the neighborhood watch.

The South East Neighborhood Watch came into being a few weeks after Tom Hennaman, its first president, had an unsettling experience one night in 1992.

"From my bedroom window, I could see three or four guys standing on the corner," the computer analyst recalled. "I was going to work at 11 p.m., and when I went out there these guys started hollering at me."

Hennaman, who says he saw the men making drug deals, went to the police and told them he was concerned both about the illegal street-corner sales and the fact that his wife, Sue, was home alone at night.

"The police came the next night and I saw one of the dealers slap the cop on the back and say something to him," said Hennaman. "Then the police car moved off."

It was Richard and Jacki Kaiser, however, who spurred the neighborhood into action.

The artisan couple bought an old home on the street and were dismayed after they moved in.

"We used to be afraid to sit on our porch," Jacki Kaiser said. "There were shootings, and the language on the street was terrible."

The Kaisers decided to find out what their neighbors thought and printed up a flier they took door to door inviting residents to a meeting at their house. The meeting drew 29 people.

The group took its concerns to the town council. But the council was unhelpful.

So the neighbors decided to band together to fight for their community.

Members took up positions at night and counted the cars that went down East Street and onto Chandler, where one house seemed to be at the center of the drug activity.

"The weekend traffic going down Chandler averaged out to one car every three minutes over a 24-hour period," Kaiser recalled.

Little police response

The group reported its findings to the police, but members say they got little response - except a warning that they were not law-enforcement officials and had no business out on the street.

The neighbors ignored that advice and continued their war against the dealers. They had caps made up with "SENW" on the front and wore armbands.

They took down license-plate numbers and yelled them out to each other in an attempt to intimidate passing drivers.

The dealers responded with intimidation tactics of their own. There were numerous instances of name-calling, and cars often drove slowly past the patrollers to try to frighten them.

"Some guy got out one night with dogs and walked around trying to scare us," said Close. "I felt like we were living on the frontier there for a while, but we were not giving up our homes."

A shooting at a Chandler Street house where illegal activity was suspected brought the FBI into the picture. One of those arrested after the shooting was convicted as a drug kingpin and remains in jail, Hennaman says.

"Eventually, we got wonderful police cooperation," said Kaiser. "The chief began sending cars down and officers would sit there from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. as a deterrent. We would take them hot chocolate and cookies or bake them muffins and doughnuts."

Although the police presence eased the crime problem, the group soon found itself in conflict with the town council on another issue: saving a 19th-century, two-story house known as the Reams House.

The town bought the property intending to tear down the house to widen Chandler Street, which leads to the town's power plant.

The Reams House had been abandoned and the yard had become a hangout for drug dealers. The neighborhood group wanted the house cleaned up. It mounted a campaign to save the structure.

At one point, the town told the group that if it could find a buyer who would restore the old house, the council would sell it for $1.

"We found a buyer and they reneged," said Close. "It makes me mad, what happened there. That explains why we are so politically active now."

The group eventually saved the Reams House. It was bought for substantially more than $1 and moved back on its lot to allow for the street widening.

After almost three years of extraordinary effort, the neighborhood also won its battle with the illegal drug traffic. Hounded by residents, the dealers finally gave up and moved on.

South East Neighborhood Watch still holds monthly meetings, attended by a police representative. It conducts periodic neighborhood cleanups, holds Easter egg hunts and helps fund worthwhile projects.

Members acknowledge that the group has become something of a social club, but it is one with plenty of clout. And this social club is part of what today is the quietest and most prestigious neighborhood in Culpeper.

"I think this neighborhood watch now plays a great part in making Culpeper a beautiful town," said Ludwig.

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