Anne Arundel targets area problems

Multifaceted approach focuses on crime, blight

Severn

October 01, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel and Rona Kobell | Andrea F. Siegel and Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

In one courthouse last week, jurors who had heard jumbled versions of a shooting found a young man not guilty of trying to kill three people in Anne Arundel County's most crime-ridden neighborhood.

Down the road in another courthouse, a longtime landlord in the community tried to convince a judge that he should not have to pay $700 in fines for failing to promptly fix health code violations at four of his houses.

The trials - one criminal and one civil - are part of a multipronged attack on crime and blight that officials hope will help clean up Arwell Court in the Pioneer City section of Severn, troubled over the years by open-air drug dealing, gunfire and rundown homes.

"It probably just comes down to the fact that yes, there has been an additional effort in the community for some time now, and some of these cases are coming to court," said Robert J. Weber, director of community and environmental health for Anne Arundel County. "I feel like we're trying to make a difference. I'm unclear whether we're making a difference yet."

Weber noted that his office has pressed three civil cases against landlords.

Prosecutor's conclusion

But Assistant State's Attorney Thomas J. Fleckenstein draws one conclusion from Friday's not-guilty verdict in the four-day attempted-murder trial of Carlus L. Johnson.

"You've seen an example of the difficulty of bringing justice to Pioneer City," said Fleckenstein, who, in his closing arguments, called several of his witnesses "liars" because they recanted their statements. "Where the actors don't want justice, you can't force it."

Defense lawyer John M. McKenna, who argued that the state had no case, acknowledged the prosecutor's bind.

"It's never easy where witnesses start changing their stories," McKenna said. "It's a hard case to make."

Last week's criminal and civil trials illustrate the nature of the battle to reclaim an area that critics say the county practically abandoned for years.

The attempted-murder trial played out against allegations of revenge and issues of witness credibility.

Two brothers accused

Carlus Johnson and his brother Dedrick - who is scheduled for trial next month - were accused of shooting three men May 11 last year on Arwell Court, in a dispute allegedly started over suspicions that one of the victims became a police informant in an unrelated homicide case.

Two of the three shooting victims were in jail on drug convictions at the time of last week's trial. One prosecution witness was awaiting trial on armed robbery charges. Another never turned up for the trial - despite a court order requiring him to be jailed to ensure his appearance. (The order remains in effect - the witness is wanted for Dedrick Johnson's trial.)

After Friday's verdict, juror Frank Monczewski said that questionable witnesses, lack of a weapon and only the whiff of a motive led jurors to conclude the case was more gap than substance.

The civil cases against property owners accused of failing to repair rundown rental housing continue in District Court, a mile away.

Last week, landlord Amarjit Bhandhel argued that he should not have to pay $700 in fines for failing to fix health code violations at four of the nine homes he owns on Arwell Court.

Bhandhel, whose trial continues this week, contends that the county has unfairly targeted a few landlords when others have violations.

3 landlords to court

Health Department officials counter that, after they cited all but one Arwell Court property owner in their first survey in six years, only three landlords failed to make repairs. They took those three to court.

Even Judge Vincent A. Mulieri seemed surprised that the county is pressing the case because Bhandhel belatedly made all but one substantial repair.

Assistant County Attorney Kathleen Byrne said Bhandhel won't pay the fines. Taking it to trial, Byrne said, was the only way to get the attention of other property owners.

The county also is mired in District Court with Mohammad Zuberi, who owns 20 percent of Arwell Court's 134 properties and has sought bankruptcy protection.

Officials allege that since June, the landlord has made no substantial repairs on 88 pages of health code violations. Court-ordered mediation flopped, and Mulieri has vowed to hold a hearing on each of nearly 1,000 alleged violations starting next month.

Argues code is vague

Zuberi contends that most of the county's complaints are over cosmetic repairs and argues that the code is vague.

A third landlord, Stanley Ruddie, admitted to violations at four homes, made repairs and paid $200 in fines.

Weber said the department would have to wait until after Zuberi's trial next month to gauge his department's success in Pioneer City.

"A lot of landlords are doing a better job," he said. "We just need to tackle the people who own the most property who aren't cooperating. A lot of it now is in the hands of the judge."

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