Woman files suit over son's slaying

Says building manager, owner didn't deter crime

Columbia

September 15, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The mother of a 23-year-old computer student who was fatally shot at the Stevens Forest Apartments in Columbia is suing the apartment owner and operator for $5 million, claiming they knew or should have known about criminal activity at the complex and did nothing to prevent it.

In a lawsuit filed yesterday in Howard Circuit Court, Celestina Wallace alleges Cornerstone Stevens Forest Inc., the owner, and Shelter Properties LLC, the manager, implemented no security measures at the apartment common areas before her son was shot in the head during a botched robbery.

The suit claims the owner and operator knew or should have known for "a long period of time" before DeShawn Anthony Wallace's death Jan. 25, 2002, that the Oakland Mills apartment complex was the site of "numerous acts of criminal activity."

John H. Johnston, an attorney for Celestina Wallace, said there were at least six reported crimes at the apartments in the 5800 block of Stevens Forest Road between July 19, 2001, and Jan. 17, 2002, including three attempted vehicle thefts, a home burglary, a business vandalism and a robbery.

The suit states the defendants "did nothing to implement proper security or take any other reasonable measures" to protect residents and their guests. The owners and operators did not fix the "inadequate or nonexistent" lighting in the parking lots and other common areas of the apartments, according to the suit.

"Maryland has clearly placed a duty on landlords to take reasonable measures to protect tenants and their guests when they know or should know of prior criminal activity in an area," Johnston said. " ... I don't think they attempted to obtain any kind of private security."

Stephen A. Goldberg, a lawyer for Shelter Properties, said he did not have enough information to comment on the lawsuit. A lawyer for Cornerstone could not be reached for comment.

Deshawn Wallace of Columbia was a guest of a tenant when three men approached him, his younger brother and three friends outside and ordered them to the ground at gunpoint. Wallace tried to walk away and was shot in the head.

In June, Tavon Donya Sands, 23, was sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus 20 years, for the murder. His cousin, Jonas L. Askins, 20, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder last year and was sentenced to life in prison with all but 40 years suspended. He was also sentenced to five years for a handgun conviction.

Prosecutors dropped all charges against another cousin in November 2002, explaining they could not prove their case against him.

When Celestina Wallace heard trial testimony about inadequate lighting, she wondered if that was an avenue she could pursue in a lawsuit, Johnston said. Wallace's family wanted to wait until the end of the criminal prosecution, he said. Sands' first two trials - in October 2002 and August last year - ended in mistrials.

"Obviously adequate lighting is very helpful," Johnston said. "That's elementary to crime prevention - to keep common areas well-lit."

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