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.

Strode didn't handle Kemp's application herself but said that his lack of credit, employment and rental history would not have concerned her:

"We weren't picking up any reports of any former landlords that were showing that he had been evicted or that he had any debts."

Owen and McGovern filed Karen's civil suit against Plaza Square Partners in St. Louis Circuit Court, citing "enhancement of risk" and arguing that the company was therefore liable.

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 placed Mr. Kemp in a position where co-tenants would not be guarded and cautious in their dealings with him, where he would be viewed without suspicion, and where he could watch and stalk his potential victim without difficulty or arousing suspicion," the suit alleged. "The attack on Plaintiff would never have happened but for the lack of due diligence on the part of Plaza Square."

The management company fought the suit tooth and nail, claiming they'd never promised to provide security for their tenants. Dennis O'Quist, manager of Plaza Square at the time of the assault, professed ignorance of the move-in instructions Karen had received -- a typewritten sheet that referred to "the security guard," "at the direction of Security" and "secured buildings."

In his deposition, Copeland, the Plaza Square employee who referred Kemp, said he'd received security-officer training from the Missouri Department of Corrections, mandated and paid for by Plaza Square. Copeland patrolled the building floors six to ten times in each eight-hour shift, as did his counterpart on the day shift. The video cameras trained on the parking garage, lobbies and laundry room were monitored around the clock.

Plaza Square said that didn't mean the complex was providing security.

The complex's representatives also said the lawsuit assumed recidivism on the part of former halfway-house residents. They insisted that they couldn't discriminate against Kemp. Yet in depositions, none of the Plaza Square managers or employees remembered even considering, let alone discussing or invoking, fair-housing laws.

There was no need; they'd accepted Kemp's application the very day he submitted it.

Robert Copeland weighed more than 400 pounds, all of them benevolent. He worked days at the Salvation Army and nights at Plaza Square, where he patrolled the halls and monitored the security cameras.

Copeland met Kemp through Gussie May Parks, a friendly, easygoing woman he'd had a crush on since they worked together at the Salvation Army. Now she worked at Dismas House, and Kemp was one of her clients. She thought maybe Copeland could help him get an apartment at Plaza Square, the way he had for several other Dismas graduates.

"He mentioned that Plaza Square had some openings and he was looking for peoples, you know, because there wasn't lots of peoples there," Parks said in her deposition. "So I thought maybe our residents could go there, and so he said he could get them in."

Copeland has since left town and could not be reached for comment. In his deposition, he recalled meeting Kemp and escorting him to the leasing office:

"He looked to me as a good person, a good friend. We laughed."

McGovern, representing Karen, asked, "Did you have any concern that Mr. Kemp was coming from a halfway house?"

"No concern at all."

"If you knew an individual had a violent criminal background, would you pay a little more attention to that individual?"

"Well, not really.... Because, and maybe I'm wrong for this, but I trust what I see.... Honestly, I don't even want to know a background check on anyone, because it's not important to me."

It wasn't terribly important to Plaza Square, either.

When Kemp applied, the complex's occupancy rate was 63.1 percent. In the four-month period around the time of his application, that rate increased by almost 10 percent. By the end of 1998, it had risen to 80 percent.

Karen's attorneys requested Copeland's tenant and employee files, curious to see just how many referral bonuses he'd received.

Plaza Square couldn't find either file. Nor could the management locate the files of two of the tenants he'd referred there.

"Defendant is diligently searching for these documents," Plaza Square's lawyer replied to the interrogatory, "and will produce them as soon as they are located."

They never did.

Meanwhile, Owen and McGovern obtained a court order to see the records of Dismas House. Two other halfway houses, Salvation Army and MERS/Goodwill, then agreed to open their records. All told, the attorneys found evidence that "Plaza allowed Kemp and approximately ten other ex-convicts to lease apartments at the complex" -- a pattern that continued even after Kemp's attack on Karen.

The management did lower the referral bonus to $100. But Copeland continued to make referrals, including two tenants who came straight from residential drug-treatment programs at the Salvation Army.

It's doubtful they could have met the leasing criteria. Yet O'Quist said in deposition that, at least under his management, Plaza Square made no exceptions to those criteria.

He also admitted that he used the leasing criteria as a marketing tool.

Owen asked O'Quist whether, after learning of the assault, he had talked to Copeland about referring Kemp.

O'Quist said he hadn't.

"Is it your belief that it's irrelevant if one of the employees is bringing in people -- ?" asked Owen.

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