Fail Safe

She thought she lived in a secure place. What she didn't know was that her landlord, desperate for tenants, would invite terror inside.

It was a Saturday night and 23-year-old Karen was home alone, and she didn't mind one bit. She'd rented What About Bob? -- Richard Dreyfuss as the psychiatrist Bill Murray drives crazy -- and, for suspense, The Hunt for Red October.

She popped the comedy into the VCR and stretched out on her long, modern beige sofa, letting the stresses of her sales job melt away. The last pink-and-gold streaks of sunset glowed from the balcony behind the TV, and she could see Centenary United Methodist in the distance. She wriggled deeper into the overstuffed cushions and glanced around her tiny studio apartment with a rush of satisfaction.

She loved living here, up on the twelfth floor of a Plaza Square high-rise -- her first grownup apartment. St. Louis University's dorms had been fun, but living alone was peaceful. She couldn't understand why her friends didn't want to live downtown; this place had better security than the pricey low-rises in Clayton. Her grandfather, a retired city cop, had made sure of that, nixing at least fifteen places before she showed him this one.

A mugshot of Walter David Kemp, the ex-con who 
attacked a Plaza Square neighbor
A mugshot of Walter David Kemp, the ex-con who attacked a Plaza Square neighbor
The Plaza Square Apartments, where security 
measures were compromised by a desperate need for 
Jennifer Silverberg
The Plaza Square Apartments, where security measures were compromised by a desperate need for tenants.

While the previews rolled, Karen pried the first floppy square of Imo's pepperoni pizza out of its cardboard box. She was licking Provel from her fingers when she heard a knock on the door.

Odd -- nobody ever knocked. Her friends had to buzz from the lobby, and she could see their faces through the snow on the closed-circuit TV.

The knock came again, louder. She went to the peephole and saw, in distorted curves, the guy from across the hall -- what was his name again? They'd smiled at each other a couple times; he seemed nice enough. Older guy, maybe midforties. He was holding up a note, a phone message for somebody with her last name.

She opened the door to tell him she didn't know that person.

The second she met his eyes, she knew something was wrong.

He lunged.

With streaky blond hair, high cheekbones, a wide smile and cornflower-blue eyes, Karen looks like a cross between a Scandinavian model and the girl next door. She graduated from SLU in 1997 with a degree in criminal justice, and she intended to apply to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, as soon as she saved a little money, paid off her student loans.

She filled out her Plaza Square leasing application in May 1997, planning to move in at the end of the summer. Her grandfather nodded approvingly at the cameras trained on entries, parking areas and laundry room; the monitoring station staffed 24/7; the locked balconies and windows; the men hired to walk the halls and check the locked access doors and gates.

Karen wasn't so worried about the mechanics of security, but she did want to know what kind of people lived there. Many of the tenants were older, said the leasing agent, glancing at her grandparents with a smile -- and they also had a lot of students and grad students.

Karen took comfort in Plaza Square's tight leasing criteria, which insisted on verifiable employment, credit and rental histories. "I felt safe, I really did," she recalls. "I was happy there."

She never dreamed that Plaza Square would undermine its own safety precautions, ignore its own leasing criteria. But the management company had government loans to pay off, renovation bills piling up, mortgage payments overdue and an occupancy rate that had skidded below two-thirds. Desperate to fill vacant apartments, they'd begun recruiting tenants from halfway houses and accepting applicants who'd just been released on parole, hadn't worked longer than a month, couldn't meet a single one of their highly touted criteria for responsible tenancy.

On September 12, 1998, Karen found out who lived across the hall from her. Walter David Kemp kept Karen in his apartment for eleven hours and, by his own admission, sodomized her seven times. She thought fast, fought the panic down, heard herself saying, by some miracle of adrenaline, the right things.

But she could have paid with her life.

Kemp had applied to Plaza Square just a few weeks before Karen, on April 30, 1997. On his application, he claimed he'd worked at T.L. Clark, a seat-cushion manufacturer on South Jefferson Avenue (the company has since moved to Southwest Avenue), since September 1996.

When the leasing agent ran a routine check, Kemp's supervisor faxed back a correction: Kemp had only worked there since April 3, 1997 -- less than a month.

His credit record wasn't bad, it was nonexistent.

His record as a tenant was also nonexistent: The Missouri penal system doesn't charge rent.

Kemp had spent twenty of the previous twenty-one years behind bars. A $5 criminal-record check would have revealed multiple convictions for assault, resisting arrest, burglary, robbery, felony stealing and second-degree murder. He'd admitted beating and robbing a couple on a restaurant parking lot in Frontenac. He'd admitted one homicide and done time for it; he'd been acquitted of a second.

Kemp got out on parole in 1990 but was arrested shortly thereafter, charged with kidnapping a twenty-year-old woman in St. Louis County and sodomizing her nine times. He was acquitted -- apparently the jury thought the young woman was just afraid of getting in trouble with her parents. Kemp was sent back to prison for a parole violation, though. Even in prison, he assaulted other inmates.

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