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‘Complete indifference’: The bullets keep flying at Cambridge Heights

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Cambridge Heights Apartments

Cambridge Heights Apartments complex, center, as seen on Monday March 2, 2020. The affordable low-rise townhomes and apartments were built in the mid-2000s to replace the Cochran Gardens public housing high rises that were built in the early 1950s. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — One stray bullet that blasted through a back door at Cambridge Heights Apartments in 2017 managed to captivate the city for a brief time. The gunshot pierced the neck of a promising young woman, who, of all things, was catching up on laundry at her mother’s home.

The injury instantly left Tamara Collier, a nursing assistant, lying paralyzed in a pool of blood. Her infant daughter climbed on her until help finally arrived.

During months of grueling recovery and healing, Collier vowed to come home one day. To raise her children, now ages 3 and 7. But she died nearly one year after the shooting.

Her family recently settled a wrongful death lawsuit against Cochran Redevelopment Phase I L.P. and Cochran Redevelopment Phase II L.P., the owners of Cambridge Heights, and McCormack Baron Management, which ran it. The settlement amount was not disclosed.

“It was millions,” said Collier’s cousin, Carla Austin. “That’s all I can say.”

The shooting happened in an area of near north St. Louis that used to be home to Cochran Gardens, a collection of 11 dodgy high-rise public housing buildings that were demolished in the mid-2000s to make way for the promises of Cambridge Heights. Millions of dollars in government and private investment were spent to transform the 15-acre area into affordable and attractive town houses and apartments.

While Collier’s fate represented perhaps the worst outcome — suffering and dying from random gun violence in the new housing development — allegations in the lawsuit signal that bullets were increasingly flying into homes at the 223-unit complex.

In much less publicized incidents, there were about 50 shootings and serious gun-related incidents in the area between 2013 and 2017, including 17 that happened in the eight months before Collier was shot, according to the lawsuit. At least 250 police reports were generated during that time, for anything from trespassing and drug possession to assault and homicide.

Internal correspondence from property management included in the lawsuit showed a list of bullet holes for maintenance to fix and deep concern from families terrified by gunfire.

McCormack Baron Management, which is affiliated with McCormack Baron Salazar, a St. Louis-based company that has been a national player in the low-income housing arena for a long time, allegedly didn’t do enough to help residents and resisted city officials who offered to provide detailed crime data about activity at Cambridge Heights. The firm was accused of failing to accurately report the situation on the ground there.

“Defendants closed their eyes to the serious and salient dangers that residents suffered through each day,” plaintiffs’ attorneys argued in the lawsuit. “Defendants ignored their obligations to provide an apartment community that was reasonably safe. The harm Tamara Collier experienced on September 1, 2017, was not a random act. It was not a question of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’ someone was going to be terribly hurt.”

Defense attorneys argued their clients took active steps to deter crime and relied on “around the clock” patrols by St. Louis police officers assigned to Cambridge Heights and other public housing developments on behalf of the St. Louis Housing Authority.

“Unfortunately, the property is located in a bad area,” defense attorneys wrote in court records, adding that Devonte Morgan, who is accused of killing Collier, was a hardened criminal who couldn’t be kept away: “[D]espite being arrested multiple times, stopped and questioned about trespassing at Cambridge, being a target of gang violence, and actually being shot in the face, Morgan was still not deterred from going to Cambridge. Criminals like Morgan are not deterred from any level of security, evidenced by Morgan himself shooting 13 rounds from his assault rifle at the police in broad daylight the day of the subject shooting.”

Morgan declined to comment through jail officials at the St. Louis Justice Center. His murder trial is set for July 13.

In Collier’s family’s wrongful death lawsuit, Circuit Judge Michael W. Noble indicated that the plaintiffs were on to something at Cambridge Heights. He wrote in a September court order that there was “an abundance of factual inferences that show complete indifference” on behalf of defendants Cochran Redevelopment and McCormack Baron Management. The case settled not long after.

The lawsuit analyzes life at the complex leading up to Collier’s shooting. Reporter spot checks after the shooting showed people continue to live in fear.

“They are like doll houses. They are cute,” Pinkie Johnson, 71, of the 1300 block of North Ninth Street, said the other day about the housing stock. “But that’s not enough.”

She said residents are regularly frightened by cars passing through, guns blazing.

“It sounded like a cannon the other night,” she said.

Cambridge Heights Apartments

A car moves along North Ninth Street in the Cambridge Heights Apartments on Monday March 2, 2020. Residents in the apartment complex report the sound of gunfire and speeding cars are common in the area. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

A bullet hole in the front window of an apartment along North Ninth Street in the Cambridge Heights Apartments on Monday March 2, 2020. Reside…

Collier was shot at 1418 North Ninth Street, one block north of Johnson’s residence. Just three doors away from the crime scene, cardboard covers a bullet hole in a window. Across the street, a bullet zipped into another home one night last summer and hit the washing machine. Evidence tape on the window frame remains.

“We still hear gunshots, but no other ones have come into the house,” said Barrie Johnson, 20, while babysitting his 4-year-old cousin, whom he kept away from the playgrounds in the area.

The amenities

When public housing started being built in earnest in the 1940s and ’50s, Cass Avenue was the northern boundary line. The high-rises of Cochran Gardens were among the earliest.

“It was a horrible place,” said Cheryl Lovell, the retired former executive director of the St. Louis Housing Authority, which oversees public housing and administers rental subsidies.

She said Cochran was never sufficiently funded for maintenance. Because security was an issue, the housing authority tried to keep police there full time.

Cambridge Heights

“People used to throw canned food at them,” she said. “They didn’t want them there because it disrupted their enterprises.”

In 2003, she helped the housing authority secure a $20 million Hope VI grant to tear Cochran down and make way for Cambridge Heights, a New Urbanism-style development. Lovell said the goal was “less warehousing” and more walkability — in other words, “a nice community where people would like to live.”

After the land was cleared, the housing authority leased it to Cochran Redevelopment. Kennedy Associates Architects Inc., of St. Louis, designed and built the complex. Executives from Carleton Residential Properties in Dallas helped Kennedy develop it.

The total cost of the housing was $38.7 million, of which $27.5 million was financed by the sale of state and federal low-income housing tax credits granted by the Missouri Housing Development Commission.

“I put together a team and the team did a good job,” Michael E. Kennedy Sr., managing member of Cochran Redevelopment, said in a recent telephone interview. “The team delivered a quality product.”

About a third of the 223 units are market rate. The rest are subsidized or public housing units, which also receive operating funds from the housing authority.

McCormack Baron Management ran the complex until early February.

“For the very best in secluded city living — think Cambridge Heights!” the firm recently advertised on its website, adding: “Our community amenities include 24-hour emergency maintenance and a fun playground for the little ones. Blocks away from the Mississippi River in Columbus Square, you’ll be steps away from casual dining, sports venues, casinos, shopping and the best entertainment in St. Louis!”

The firm promoted one online testimonial saying neighbors are friendly and the office and maintenance staff are helpful. But that positive statement didn’t reflect what residents told the Post-Dispatch.

“All I know is when I hear the gunshots, I just try to get away from the windows because I am on the first floor,” said Betty Ellis, 69.

Early on, Ellis was glad to get out of Cochran towers and move into Cambridge Heights. There was central air, fewer steps and access to your own washer and dryer. But she doesn’t knock on doors anymore and doesn’t want anybody knocking on hers. She doesn’t go outside unless she has to.

She has a lot to lose. Inside her apartment, there’s a cookie jar on the kitchen table where her dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren tend to flock. The walls and shelves are covered with photographs and mementos from a full life. An illustration of The Last Supper. A TV tray with images of Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the last of whom she once marched with as a teenager growing up in Batesville, Mississippi.

Today, her doctor wants her to get out and walk for exercise.

“I do it inside the house,” she said.

Threatening police

While new public housing is being built closer to the ground these days, McCormack Baron has moved up, occupying the 25th floor of the 31-story Laclede Gas Building in downtown St. Louis. Appointments are needed for access to the elevators. Last week, company representatives weren’t available to sit for an interview.

In addition to documenting crime at Cambridge Heights, the wrongful death lawsuit mentions another case that also was settled with McCormack Baron affiliates. It involved Markeyki Carter, who was 11 in 2011 when he was shot in the neck while playing basketball at O’Fallon Place Apartments, a 675-unit complex along Cass Avenue.

At the time of the nonfatal shooting, residents blamed the incident on a turf war between teens at O’Fallon Place and neighboring Murphy Park apartments, both developed and managed by McCormack Baron.

“They are shooting people just to be shooting people,” Theresa Jones, a resident, told the Post-Dispatch at the time about O’Fallon Place, which has since been renamed Preservation Square.

Around that time, Daphne Allen, a city police officer assigned to the problem property unit, had grown frustrated with McCormack Baron Management for how it was addressing security, according to court records. Allen, who had been a police officer for 20 years, testified that she’d wanted McCormack to provide more security at O’Fallon Place. Since that didn’t work, she reached out to high-level “money people” involved with the property, which she claimed infuriated McCormack Baron Management CEO Tim Zaleski.

According to the lawsuit, Allen testified that during a lunch meeting with Zaleski the executive threatened to contact city officials to have her removed from her job for going over his head.

Last week, Zaleski said through a spokeswoman that he had lunch with Allen but didn’t have a recollection of threatening her employment.

One mile from O’Fallon Place, Cambridge Heights Apartments has also wrangled with the city’s problem properties unit. Cambridge Heights received cease and desist orders from the city each year between 2011 and 2017, according to Collier’s wrongful death lawsuit. McCormack Baron managers were not “eager” to remedy the situation, Sandra Zambrana, a problem properties attorney, testified.

She testified that management wasn’t showing up to meetings and, if they did, issues from the previous meeting hadn’t been addressed.

Rich Sykora, who oversees the problem property unit for the city counselor’s office, said last week that Cambridge Heights has been considered a nuisance property at least since 2015 because of the level of police calls for service. He said there have been occasions when management didn’t show up for scheduled meetings meant to identify problems and suggest possible solutions.

He said McCormack Baron area manager Franschell Little met with the nuisance team Nov. 18 at Central Patrol. Sykora said a follow-up meeting for Jan. 14 was missed by McCormack Baron due to a scheduling mishap on behalf of management and not rescheduled.

Zaleski said through a spokeswoman that McCormack Baron routinely attended meetings with problem property officers “unless the meetings were canceled by the city.” He said the Jan. 14 meeting was to happen after McCormack Baron notified Cambridge Heights owners on Dec. 2 that they were terminating the management contract with them.

Zaleski said through a spokeswoman that the termination didn’t have anything to do with the settlement of the lawsuit, rather that the property’s owners “repeatedly failed to approve funding for reasonable and necessary requests to support the operations and maintenance of the site.”

‘A reputation’

Managing member Michael E. Kennedy Sr. disagreed with McCormack Baron’s response. He said there were “hundreds of thousands of dollars” available in reserve funds from the Missouri Housing Development Commission and other sources to spend on the complex.

“You do not need to ask the owners to fund that,” he said. “As property managers, they had access to that.”

Baumann Property Company took over management of Cambridge Heights on Feb. 8 and has been doing an inventory.

“I have been working very hard in the area with the new management company to make sure they are doing the things that need to be done to improve the service, the maintenance, getting units occupied, keeping people from breaking in,” Kennedy said. “They are working very hard to get all of that corrected.”

A visit to the property a couple weeks ago to see how things were coming along seemed to sum up the situation for Kennedy. He said a new secretary was sitting at her desk with a broken overhead light. There’d been a leak upstairs. Water had been coming in through a door that needed to be replaced. He said there was a work order to fix the problem from a year ago.

“I can’t see where the management was taking care of managing the property,” he said of McCormack Baron.

Acknowledging a lot of gunfire and bullet holes, he said he’s committed to improving security at the complex. He said he asked Sheriff Vernon Betts to come up with an estimated cost to hire off-duty deputies for help.

“We have a reputation,” Kennedy said. “We respect our responsibility, and we are trying to get in there and get things straightened out right now. We could walk away, but we didn’t.”

No childhood

On Tuesday at Cambridge Heights, Angela Rinsem, a traveling nurse on rotation in St. Louis, walked the 1400 block of North Eighth Street, unaware of the fatal shooting of a man there March 8.

“The people we are caring for in these units are wonderful,” said Rinsem, 39. “They are saying it’s a struggle getting nurses down here because of the safety issues.”

Cambridge Heights Apartments

Cousins Kieth White, left, and Leroy Hulesy visit with each other in the inner courtyard and parking area of White’s apartment in the Cambridge Heights Apartments on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Early Sunday, March 8, 2020 a man was shot and killed down the street from White’s apartment that he has lived in for three years. White said in the days leading up to the fatal shooting he heard gunshots three nights in the row outside his apartment and “never once saw a police car” investigating the area. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

The manager of a UPS distribution center testified in Collier’s lawsuit that deliveries were stopped at Cambridge Heights because two drivers were victims of armed robberies. A silver SUV that roared past Rinsem also spoke to the sense of lawlessness.

“Look at that,” she said, watching the vehicle speed away without a license plate.

Her eyes eventually rested on a distinctive dent in a metal fence that only could have happened from a bullet. A few days later, on Friday, a double shooting two blocks away left one man dead.

Rinsem will rotate to a different city soon. If only some of the Cambridge Heights residents had the same flexibility.

“It’s crazy,” said one woman on the block who didn’t want to be named because she feared retaliation. “My kids don’t have a childhood. They don’t go outside.”

Irving Blue, the new on-site manager, said he’s been doing inspections so he can draw up an accurate budget to make repairs. He’s reached out to other apartment managers in the same area of the Columbus Square neighborhood in the interest of working together for the common goal of improving the atmosphere. It was unclear to him why something like that wasn’t already in the works.

He acknowledged the gunfire.

“My concern is how random it is, and how direct it is,” he said. “Because there is a difference. My concern is both, but really direct.”

He was speaking near the town house where Tamara Collier was shot by a stray bullet on Sept. 1, 2017. New management took down a memorial of teddy bears and pictures on the front door of the unit, but nearby bullet holes serve as reminders of what’s likely to come.

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