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.

In 1997, he was moved to the Dismas House halfway facility, where his caseworker noted problems with alcohol abuse and aggression.

One month later, he was released on parole.

"I just went down to Plaza Square and got me an apartment," he recalls. "I liked it there. Went eighteen months with no trouble."

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.

Plaza Square knew at the outset that Kemp was lying about his work history; they had received the fax from his supervisor.

But Plaza Square needed tenants.

The management had recently kicked out a slew of nonpaying tenants, and more than one-third of the units stood empty.

Kemp had no credit, and the only prior landlord he could list was his father. Plaza Square's leasing criteria stipulated that relatives and friends would not be accepted as landlord references.

But Plaza Square needed tenants.

The management accepted Kemp's application the very day he submitted it. And they gave one of their employees, Robert Copeland, a $200 bonus for referring him, deducting it from Copeland's rent after Kemp had stayed one year.

Copeland earned additional $200 bonuses for referring other graduates of halfway houses and drug programs.

Karen had moved into Plaza Square because the apartment was so well secured, locked away from the outside world.

But the danger was already inside.

When Kemp lunged, Karen screamed. According to her police report and depositions:

He pushed her inside her apartment and kicked the door shut with his cowboy boot. She struggled to free herself from his hot, wiry arms, but he was strong, fired up with need and twisted purpose. He pulled a knife from his jeans and laid its thin metal edge against her throat, telling her to shut up or he'd kill her.

He backed her into the living room and made her sit on the beige sofa. Then he sat down on the loveseat and leaned forward, agitated. He said he needed $350,000 or a ride, because the guys he worked with were blaming him for stealing money. He said he'd been drinking with them the night before at Harry's Bar and Grill.

He repeated his story several times, and it shifted and wandered -- but the hysteria rose steadily. He told Karen he'd been watching her for months through the peephole in his door, tracking what she wore and whom she dated and when she came home for lunch.

The vodka he'd been drinking made his brown eyes dart. Behind the glazed pupils, she could see want and panic fighting for dominance.

Old lessons from her criminal-justice courses leaped whole into her brain: Keep calm to keep him calm.

She told him she'd help him.

Then he suggested they go across the hall to his apartment and have a drink.

"No, now, let's just think this through," she said.

She was fighting to keep her voice steady, but her words still infuriated him. He sprang off the loveseat and got his hands around her neck.

"We are going to walk to my apartment, relax and have a drink," he told her through clenched teeth, "and if you scream as we go across the hall, I swear I will kill you."

Across the hall in his apartment, Kemp mixed drinks of vodka and orange juice and, in a perversion of courtesy, made Karen sit in the chair -- his only piece of furniture, standing oddly in the center of the room. She looked down at the floor, saw a mat with sheets and blankets and something that was either a microwave or a TV. No phone.

Kemp explained that he'd moved to Minnesota a few weeks earlier but came back because his father was ill.

Play the game, she told herself, play the game. She kept him talking -- about the Army, about his job, about his electric bill.

He asked what her major was in college.

"Criminal justice," she said.

Maybe he thought she was mocking him. Maybe the words reminded him he'd already blown it.

All Karen knew for sure was that the phrase sent him into another rage. He grabbed her around the neck, lifted her from the chair and accused her of playing mind games.

Until that moment, the fear had jolted adrenaline through her body, skittered over her skin, made her heart race. Now it took a tighter hold.

She had to get away.

"I've got a date," she told him. "I've got to go get ready."

He began choking her, kicking her, hitting her.

Calmer afterward, he apologized for hitting her.

Then he hit her again.

He told her she wasn't going on a date -- he was going to keep her there for at least 72 hours. He promised that if she tied herself up with the sheet, he'd leave. She fumbled with the sheet, leaving it loose.

He lay down next to her.

"I thought we had a deal," she protested. She stood up and pulled the sheet off, saying she was tired of this and that she was leaving.

"No more playing games," he thundered. "No more talking." He punched her, pushed her down on the floor, stuffed the sheet into her mouth and made her lie face-down.

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