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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

She could hear him moving around the room and muttering. Then he came close again, so close she could hear his breath rasp. He tied her hands behind her back with some kind of cord -- for some reason her mind fastened on this, trying to figure out whether it was a telephone cord. Then he made another drink, twisted his fingers into her short blond hair and pulled her up until she was sitting. He took the sheet out of her mouth and held the glass to her lips, tilting it, pouring vodka into her.

He said he was going to call his buddies over so she could "take care" of all of them.

Thinking fast, Karen told him she had AIDS.

Furious again, he gagged her. Finally he said he'd make her a deal: He wouldn't call his buddies if she'd give him all the blowjobs he wanted for the next 72 hours. His voice softened, turned conciliatory. If she did it good, he said, maybe he would let her go home early.

He pulled off her black shorts and soft white cotton T-shirt and fondled her body. Then he made her take him in her mouth.

Over the course of the night, Karen had to perform oral sex on him seven times, smell his musk and taste his skin and fight not to gag. A couple of times he passed out. Then he'd come to and push her head between his legs again. He untied her hands and indicated, after masturbating, that she should hold his penis. He told her it had been twenty years since he had come with a woman. He made her swallow the semen that finally spurted.

He said she was going to stay with him for 48 hours or he'd kill her, put her body in storage in the basement where nobody would ever find it.

Then he said that if she promised to give him another blowjob in the morning, he'd let her go afterward. She promised, then pretended to fall asleep. He lay down next to her but soon got up again.

She heard him walking around for much of the night, restless as a caged animal.


In Kemp's version, given in a phone interview from prison, he had his apartment door open that evening, and Karen stepped in for a drink. He says he always "kept the ladies a cold drink" and was never short of female company at Plaza Square.

"You know how many ladies of the evening used to come up to my apartment? The cheap ones?" he clarifies. "I met them at the halfway house. I had plenty of sex."

He says he drank more heavily than Karen did that night. He thinks it was beer but says, sure, it could've been vodka -- he drinks that, too.

"Shit escalated," he recalls, "but not like she said."

He repeats that she was with him of her own volition. Then he notes that he could've killed her if he'd wanted to:

"I've done three homicides, a couple stabbings in the joint -- so I'm just wondering why this lady would say all this and not have a scratch on her. She wasn't chained or gagged or hangin' off my balcony. My background, I would've had her in a garbage can."

Kemp says Karen made him angry:

"She was a little uppity. She's yuppie, money-hungry. I'm kind of kicked-back, I don't judge people too much, just do my thing and float down the road. But Miss [Karen] didn't like people that lived week to week, and she didn't like ex-felons. She said something kind of downgradin', and I just took it wrong."

Later he insists that Karen enjoyed his attentions:

"When the alarm went off the next morning, she wanted me to reset it for a couple hours later so we could sleep longer."


Karen says that when the alarm shrilled at 5 a.m., she yawned, pretending she'd slept. Kemp seemed sober, his behavior subdued.

"You better promise not to tell anyone in the building what happened last night," she dared, keeping her voice light.

He assured her that it would be their little secret -- as long as she didn't call the police. If she called the police, he'd kill her.

Karen promised she wouldn't call the police. Kemp, forgetting the promised blowjob, apologized for what he'd done and let her go.

Back inside her apartment, she ran to the shower and spun the faucet as hot as it would go. Then she put on fresh clothes and called her friend Nicole, who lived out in Chesterfield.

Karen begged Nicole to come get her, pointing out that she couldn't call the police from her apartment or Kemp would see the patrol car pull up.

Nicole brought her father, who came upstairs to get Karen. They went straight to police headquarters on Clark Avenue, and Karen's mother and stepfather met them there.

When Detective Linda Mopkins showed up for work at 7 a.m., they were waiting for her.

Upstairs in the Sex Crimes Office, Karen reached into her purse and pulled out Kemp's black-handled knife. He must have left it on her kitchen counter when he took her across the hall; she'd found it that morning and wrapped it in a plastic bag.

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.


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."

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.

"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.

"It's legally irrelevant," interjected Gerard Noce, the attorney representing Plaza Square Partners. "And whether or not he thinks it's irrelevant or not is actually irrelevant itself." He turned to O'Quist: "But you can answer."

"I have no answer," said O'Quist.


Karen kept hoping Plaza Square would settle out of court so she could avoid dredging everything up again. She says that to this day, her grandfather doesn't know the details. A warm, deeply loving man, he's always been eager to talk about her life. But he still can't bring himself to ask how she was hurt.

"I think he always felt especially protective because I didn't have a dad," she says. "Having this happen -- it really tore him up."

On August 9 of this year, Plaza Square did settle, agreeing to pay Karen $500,000. She rejected any condition of confidentiality, determined that the rental company's actions should be made public.

"She does not contend that ex-convicts should not be afforded housing," her attorneys explained. "She simply believes that an apartment complex that promises or markets itself as safe and secure cannot breach that promise in exchange for sheer profit."

For Noce, the attorney hired by Plaza Square's insurance company, the settlement still rankles.

"Does everybody who doesn't have a job commit violent crime?" he asks. "This is a big city. I don't know of any landlords who do criminal-background checks. I think the general manager felt she could make exceptions. You know, [Karen] lived next to this guy for more than a year and never had a problem."

His tone turns formal:

"Plaza Square was very sorry it happened to her, we wish her the best and hope she's able to do well in the future." An edge -- sarcasm, defeat -- cuts into his voice: "She's doing pretty well right now."

So far, Karen's only plan for the settlement money is to pay off her student loans. That would free her to fulfill the dream she'd nurtured since seventh grade: applying to the FBI Academy.

Except that she no longer wants to become an agent.

"I'm not dumb," she says crisply. "I know I didn't walk away from this unscathed. What if I get into the FBI and something happens?"

She's afraid of how she'd react.

Thus far, she's chosen not to undergo therapy. She's convinced that reliving everything out loud, over and over again, would make it worse, give the terror more power over her.

"I never used to be scared walking through a parking lot or down the street alone," she says. "I lived downtown -- none of my friends would. I was careful, but I wasn't scared.

"Now I am.

"And I always will be."

She moved to another city, a place where nobody knows what happened and nobody looks at her with sympathy.

She isn't dating anyone seriously.

And she hasn't been able to forget.

"It's so much more than a sexual offense," she says. "That first minute was probably the hardest in the eleven hours. I honestly thought he was going to kill me. Everything I'd believed for 23 years -- he not only took my sense of the world but also my sense of trust in people. To have that feeling inside -- " she shudders. "He should never be forgiven for that."

Kemp resides at the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, eligible for parole in 2015. He says he only pleaded guilty because his lawyer urged him to; besides, he says, his father had died, and he'd been having trouble at work ...

He seems content.

"The joint doesn't bother me too much," he says. "I'm pretty well known after 25 years in here."

He is, however, irritated to hear of the lawsuit settlement.

"She came out pretty good," he snorts. "You tell her she owes me."

"Karen" is a pseudonym. Her account is based on her depositions and interviews and the police report.

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