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.

Karen poured out everything she could remember; then an officer took her to the Barnes-Jewish emergency department. The physician's report noted tenderness in her ribs, where she said he'd kicked her; decreased hearing in her ear, which she said he'd punched; and aches, bruises and abrasions all over her body.

At 8:30 a.m., police went to Kemp's apartment to arrest him.

He was gone.

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 
tenants.
Jennifer Silverberg
The Plaza Square Apartments, where security measures were compromised by a desperate need for tenants.


On September 27, two weeks after the attack, Kemp turned himself in to the Los Angeles Police Department. Two St. Louis detectives flew there and brought him back. According to the police record, he said he'd hitchhiked out there but didn't remember what day he left because he'd been drinking. He also claimed he hadn't known there was a warrant out for his arrest until he arrived in LA on September 25 and a friend showed him a St. Louis newspaper.

"I had a $110,000 bond out on me," he says proudly.

For two weeks, Karen had beat back terror, convinced Kemp was still in St. Louis and looking to kill her. When she heard he'd made it to the West Coast and had been returned in custody, she felt relieved but a little dazed.

"Everything was happening so fast," she says. "I didn't have time to think and be shocked. They asked me to come down and identify him, and I'm walking through the jail and it hits."

Officers led her to a lineup room that "looked like a closet, nothing like those big rooms you see on TV. There was this thin mirror -- I could have reached out and touched him. He had tattoos all over his arms and neck; he was filthy."

She left feeling sick.

Kemp pleaded guilty to seven counts of sodomy, plea-bargained down from a list of charges that included felonious restraint, unlawful use of a weapon and assault.

Karen went to the sentencing hearing, flanked by her family.

"I had my whole speech planned out, and I couldn't say anything," she recalls. "Just looking at him makes me sick to my stomach. He looked over at my family and apologized, and then he turned to the judge and asked to be transferred to a different prison. When she denied that, he was back to 'Screw you' and saying he had inadequate counsel."

The judge sentenced Kemp to seventeen years in prison.

Karen vowed to be there every time he came up for parole. By now, she knew his background. What she still didn't know was how he'd come to be living across the hall from her in the first place.

She packed up her belongings and moved back in with her mother, who was so shaken by what had happened that she started smoking again after a six-year hiatus. Mother and daughter treated each other with a new tenderness, the wrangling of previous years forgotten. But Karen still felt awkward living there. She couldn't sleep much, either: She'd close her eyes, then open them again, convinced Kemp was watching her through the windows. When she finally fell asleep, the fear sucked her into nightmares.

Eventually the dreams lost some of their raw power, and she decided she was ready to live alone again. She found an ultrasafe apartment in Chesterfield.

But when a guy came to hook up cable TV, she panicked and locked herself in her car until he was finished.

Karen's friends were wonderfully kind, she says, "but the looks on their faces made me feel uncomfortable."

To this day, she starts when someone comes up and reaches over her shoulder or when she sees a bearded, mustachioed white man in the grocery-store checkout line.

Relationships are problematic, too.

"Imagine never being able to trust anybody," she says, her voice tight.

"He took something away from me that I'll never get back."


Plaza Square Partners, a limited-liability corporation, bought the 900-unit, five-tower complex in 1996, after the previous owners defaulted on the mortgage payments. The general partner in Plaza Square was Comprehensive Management Services Inc., a Chicago-area property-management company that ran apartment complexes all over the country, and they advanced the partnership money to bail out Plaza Square.

The next year, on April 11, 1997, St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Charlene Prost reported that Plaza Square's new owners were "pumping $6 million into the 36-year-old complex," refurbishing and landscaping and polishing its image. Manager Stacy Strode was quoted saying, "We'd like to get the occupancy back up to what it was years ago."

Three weeks later, Plaza Square approved Kemp's application.

In May 1999, Plaza Square would have its hand slapped by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for making steady payments to its general partner, Comprehensive Management Services, while in default on its federally insured mortgage.

Karen's family was convinced that Plaza Square's financial pressures had loosened its management policies and helped make the attack on Karen possible. They hired two Chesterfield attorneys, Brian McGovern and Jim Owen, to investigate and sue.

The attorneys deposed Strode, who had since left Plaza Square, and she summarized the company's situation at the time Kemp applied:

"The management company obtained HUD loans in order to renovate and were well aware that there were going to be deficits for quite some time until we could lease up the property in a proper manner with paying tenants."

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