The Investigators: Blighted properties become havens for crime

The Investigators: Blighted properties become havens for crime

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A WMC Action News 5 investigation into thousands of blighted properties reveals the impact those eyesores can have on community safety.

In 2018, a young girl was raped inside one blighted home and a teenager was murdered in another. In both cases, the homes had been reported numerous times to Memphis Code Enforcement and to Memphis Police.

On April 23, 2018, 32-year-old Bobby Milton forced a girl into an abandoned duplex on Radford Road in Orange Mound and raped her.

Soon thereafter, Memphis Public Works Director Robert Knecht issued an emergency “board and secure” and said the duplex owner would be sent a notice to correct his blighted property.

Knecht said that if the owner didn't fix the code violations on the house, the case would be sent to the Shelby County Environmental Court.

WEB EXTRA: What happens when a Memphis citizen reports a blighted property?

It’s been over a year and the case still hasn’t been sent to court and the house stands neglected.

The WMC Action News 5 Investigators went to Knecht to ask why.

“Notice was given but what I found was due to we lost an inspector, we had an issue with an inspector,” Knecht said when we sat down with him. “This is one of those ones that, unfortunately, hasn’t had enough follow-up on.”

However, city records show the duplex on Radford Road was problematic before the young girl was raped. In 2016, a resident called to complain about the condition of the structure. A code enforcement inspector found the property to be in violation. Since August 2016, 21 complaints have been made to 311 about the duplex, most concerning high weeds and grass.

"We haven't done our job in managing this property," said Knecht. "It's not really moved anywhere where we want it to. Luckily, nothing else has happened but we haven't done, code enforcement hasn't done its job to properly manage that property from that point in time."

Knecht admits that his department hasn't properly managed other problem properties either.

The duplex on Radford is one of 4,160 homes that have open code violations because of their poor condition. Some properties have been on the city's radar for more than ten years.

Knecht says one issues is tracking down property owners. We tried tracking down the owner of the Radford duplex but had no luck.

The Public Works Director hopes that when he starts fining homeowners in January, that will draw out difficult-to-find homeowners.

The Investigators: Thousands of blighted homes impacting Memphis neighborhoods

But the WMC Action News 5 Investigators had questions about that strategy.

“How will you go about collecting fines from homeowners, especially from those who are hard to track down or out of town?” asked WMC Action News 5 Investigator Jessica Jaglois.

"We've been working very diligently to identify a practice to utilize fining. It's a new process for us," Knecht answered.

Knecht believes that once a system is in place, the move will take the burden off taxpayers, neighbors and police.

"Blighted properties sometimes brings the crime elements to them," said long-time Memphis Police Commander Col. Greg Sanders.

Sanders said suspects use blighted properties to hide from police, store stolen goods and for gang activity.

"We're very concerned when that sort of thing starts to grow in a neighborhood because we have innocent people in those neighborhoods and our job is to protect and serve those folks," he said.

Carlotta Hill, 70, knows what it’s like to live near blighted properties that attract crime. In 2013, the Shelby County District Attorney barred a local gang from operating near her home.

At the time, then-Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton had a message for the gang known as the Rollin’ ’90s Neighborhood Crips.

“Just as they tagged this building we have now tagged them,” Wharton said.

However, the graffiti and criminal activity simply moved closer to Hill until it landed right next door.

On Sept. 4, 2018, Memphis Police say several people were inside the blighted property at 1867 Farrington when someone opened fire from the street. A teenager was shot and killed.

Only then, according to Hill and her neighborhood watch group, did the city board up the home.

"A young man lost his life to get a problem resolved we had been complaining about for three or four years," Hill said.

Prior to the shooting, dozens of complaints had been made about the house to 311. Officers were also called to the property multiple times for issues like domestic disturbance, persons selling drugs and shots fired.

List of 911 calls at 1867 Farrington St. property in Memphis.
List of 911 calls at 1867 Farrington St. property in Memphis. (Source: WMC)

To this day, the house is still standing and no legal action has been taken against its owner.

The same goes for the duplex on Radford Road.

“It looks like a house that could be in a scary movie,” said neighbor Georgia Winston. “I don’t understand why they haven’t knocked it down. Hopefully, something happens soon.”

Knecht told WMC Action News 5 that he plans on suing the property under the Tennessee Neighborhood Preservation Act. That state law allows cities to sue nuisance properties when they can't find the owner.

We plan on following that development.

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