“I’m not a criminal,” a tearful 78-year-old retired schoolteacher said in court Friday while awaiting arraignment on 28 counts of code violations at a Newhallville property she owns.
Meanwhile, her niece lay in a hospital bed recovering from a fall from the property’s second-floor porch. And a prominent local developer who also happened to be in court stepped forward with an offer to finish fixing the property for free.
Those are the latest developments in a case that, in addition to its elements of personal drama, raises a still-unanswered question: How did the matter get to this point if authorities started trying to address it 18 months ago?
City housing inspectors and police have been after Joanne Keyes to fix up a house she owns at 94 Shepard St. since November of 2009. They even succeeded in having a warrant signed by a judge this March.
But by June 20, the warrant still hadn’t been served. The house’s second-floor porch remained in disrepair. And a 59-year-old woman who lives there fell 20 feet to the ground when the porch gave way.
The police then served the warrant that day and arrested Keyes, who lives elsewhere in the Newhallville neighborhood, on numerous counts of failing to keep up her property.
Holding back tears, Keyes, a former English teacher at Wilbur Cross High School, protested her innocence as she fingered a bead necklace and prepared to appear before Judge Joseph Licari in Courtroom A of the Elm Street state courthouse Friday. Licari (pictured) later transferred Keyes’ case to housing court. (Keyes asked not to have her picture appear with this story.)
Meanwhile this week, her niece lay in a bed in the Hospital of St. Raphael, barely able to talk, also fighting back tears and recovering from the broken ribs and brain swelling she suffered in the fall. The niece has long struggled with a chronic health problem; she gets treatment at the Connecticut Mental Health Center and has a visiting nurse help take care of her at home.
“I’m trusting in the Lord” for her recovery, her cousin, Daphine Shepard, said Friday. Shepard said her cousin has long struggled with substance abuse; she gets treatment at the Connecticut Mental Health Center and has a visiting nurse help take care of her at home. Keyes loves her niece and has helped her over the years, including allowing her for a time to live rent-free in the apartment, Shepard said.
Shepard was in court with her mother, Keyes, to help her with the court appearance. Shepard is a retired marshal who used to work in the same courthouse. She greeted old colleagues warmly and sought help shielding her mother from TV cameras waiting outside.
She found a more welcoming reception in the hallway from Angelo Reyes, a prominent Fair Haven developer. Reyes had happened to be in Courtroom A, too, for an appearance on charges of tampering with a witness in an arson case. (Reyes, too, said he has done nothing wrong.)
Reyes followed mother and daughter into the hallway after their brief appearance before the judge. He had heard about their case. He asked to see the list of violations outlined in the arrest warrant. They ranged from missing doorknobs and broken doors to peeling paint, filthy hallways and rooms, rodent infestation, inadequate lighting, and worn wiring to leaks, broken ceilings, and “free-falling windows.”
“Whatever it needs, I’ll fix it,” Reyes said. “It doesn’t look like a big list. They’re [inspectors] just doing their job. We’ll have the whole crew there on Tuesday.” Reyes said he’d do the job for free.
After Shepard exchanged information with Reyes in the court hallway Friday, she and Keyes thanked him for his generosity.
They turned to leave the courthouse. Then they saw the cameras outside. (WTNH had already shot footage inside the courtroom.)
Mother and daughter stepped back inside.
“Why are they doing this?” Keyes wailed. “I haven’t done anything.”
Shepard arranged for her mother to back inside to wait out the cameras while Shepard left to feed the meter. Along the way she admonished the TV reporters to treat her mother “the way you would treat your own mother.” She proceeded to Temple Street, where the car was parked.
“Oh God! They booted the car!” she exclaimed. “Jesus, keep me near the cross.”
She then headed to the tax office get the boot removed. She called the whole affair an unfair prosecution of her mother. “She didn’t do anything wrong,” Shepard said.
Warrant Gathers Dust
New Haven’s anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative (LCI), disagrees.
According to an arrest warrant application, the problems at the three-family house on Shepard first came to the notice of the city’s Livable City Initiative in May 2009. LCI’s Mark Stroud, responding to a complaint, did an inspection of the premises. He found a slew of problems, from peeling paint and plaster to rodent infestation to exposed wiring and doors that wouldn’t lock. A weak or rotting porch railing was not on the list of findings.
On June 2, 2009, a state marshal delivered to Keyes an order to repair all the violations Stroud had found.
On Nov. 23, 2009, a reinspection of the property found that nothing had been repaired. A total of 37 violations remained. Those were listed on the affidavit that Stroud swore to on Jan. 6, 2010.
That affidavit was then submitted to state housing court, as is standard operating procedure, according to Erik Johnson, head of LCI. When people ignore calls to address housing code violations, it becomes a criminal matter, he said.
Next, the court put out a summons for Keyes to appear in court. She didn’t show, and a bench warrant was issued for her arrest, Johnson said.
LCI did what it could do given the situation, Johnson said. The items to be repaired did not rise to the level of having the building condemned or deeming it unsafe to occupy, he said. Had the violations occurred at, say, a house where tenants receive federal Section 8 subsidies, LCI could have ordered rent withheld until the repairs were made.
“We push the rock up to the cliff. It’s up to the court to take action,” at that point.
It took a while for state housing prosecutors to get the warrant signed. It wasn’t issued until March 3. It was signed by Judge Terence Zemetis, said Judith Dicine, a supervisory state’s attorney in housing court.
Dicine said this week that she wasn’t familiar with the case. The prosecutor who is handling it, Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Patrice Palombo, declined to discuss it Friday. Although she did say that once a warrant is signed, it’s up to the police to serve it.
Lt. Kevin Young, who handles records for the police department, said police currently have eight outstanding bench warrants issued from housing court. He said the department’s standard procedure is to send the warrants to the district manager corresponding to the wanted person’s address. It’s then up to the district manager to execute the warrant, Young said.
Newhallville’s current district manager, Lt. Thaddeus Reddish, said this week he had never seen the warrant or been told about the case.
The district’s previous manager, Lt. Rebecca Sweeney, was familiar with the case. She regularly visited Keyes’ niece, bringing food for her cats. She said the woman, while struggling with her health problems, held block parties and tried to be a good neighbor. Sweeney said she did know of the warrant and tried on several occasions to serve it.
Later on Friday the prosecutor’s office issued a gag order to the police on discussing the case.
Meanwhile, a visit to 94 Shepard St. this week found carpenter Luis Martinez preparing to put in a new railing on the second-floor porch. The wood he removed was visibly rotted. The floor was squishy underfoot.
The second-floor apartment was unoccupied. LCI’s Johnson said the hospitalized tenant, who lives on the third floor, would not be allowed to return until LCI determines the conditions are safe.
Tenants on the first floor, who declined to give their names, said they had have no problems with Keyes as a landlord.
“We will continue to work with the owner to make sure that the owner, under the direction of the state’s attorney’s office, to make sure that the improvements are being made to the property now that the owner is holding herself accountable,” Johnson said.