INSIDE THE STORY: A 75-year-old man and 66-year-old woman terrorized fellow residents of an Englewood senior housing complex – turning their apartments into a brothel and drug den that drew undesirables from throughout the city — until police teamed up with the Housing Authority and its law-abiding tenants to take back the building, Police Chief Arthur O’Keefe told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .
O’Keefe ( above ) said he stepped in after attending a packed tenants meeting in March, during which dozens of seniors in the 152-unit Vincente K. Tibbs Building on West Street complained of having to share hallways with drunks, drug users and prostitutes.
“We’re seniors. You have to help us out,” one said.
“We have crackheads in our halls, knocking on our doors,” said another.
“One of the constants I’ve seen in my career as a police officer is that predators have no compunctions about victimizing those they perceive as weak,” O’Keefe said. “And who are the weak if not the elderly and the disabled?
“Once I was aware of the magnitude of activity and the discomfort experienced by the residents of the Tibbs building, I was compelled to act, no matter the cost,” he told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .
The chief had a willing partner in Maria Iwano, who recently took over as the Englewood Housing Authority’s executive director after being appointed acting director last year.
Working together, O’ Keefe and Iwano – along with Detective Capt. Timothy Torell – devised an action plan.
Iwano took the first step, having her staff document complaints and issue “No Trespass Orders” to frequent violators.
Meanwhile, O’Keefe said he and Torell – whom he called “arguably the best detective in Bergen County law enforcement” – came up with the best way to provide round-the-clock police presence without compromising safety elsewhere in the city.
“We decided to select a cross section of officers who would be diligent, personable and compassionate,” the chief told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “They were advised of what was expected of them: They were to be aggressive with offenders and sensitive and caring with the residents.”
O’Keefe selected Officers Zelvon Lucas, Tracey Temple & Fabian Gallego. One covered the early shift, another the middle and the third overnight, providing constant presence.
Call it vertical community policing: The trio gave residents numbers to city-owned phones they carried and encouraged anonymous tips. They made frequent checks of the building, both physically and by reviewing surveillance footage. All the while, they kept on the lookout for undesirables, stopping anyone who looked suspicious.
They also did “knock and talk”s at various apartments, which produced evidence of people who didn’t belong in the building and other illegal activities, O’Keefe said.
“The residents were initially reluctant, despite their fears, to complain about their fellow residents and neighbors,” the chief said. “But this approach has already shown merit, as residents have opened a trusting dialogue with these officers.”
The Englewood Housing Authority’s oldest building (opened 36 years ago), Tibbs was originally dedicated to needy residents 65 and older. The criteria were later extended to include those 55 and older with disabilities.
Trouble surfaced soon after, residents said.
“They began having problems with crack users and prostitutes being allowed into the building,” Torell said. “It grew to the point where the seniors were afraid to go out in hallway. They found used condoms in recreation areas of the basement, used crack bags, crack pipes.”
The federal government, which funds such complexes, doesn’t provide for protection. Housing authorities in other cities – some large, some not as big – hire their own security if they can afford it. Others pay local police.
Englewood’s housing authority isn’t able to afford the protection. So Iwano turned to the city.
“How could I allow seniors and disabled people to be confined inside their apartments, fearful of leaving their rooms?” O’Keefe told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “I am responsible for the safety and general welfare of everyone in this city. Just because they are in a building, hidden behind closed doors, does not make them exempt from those considerations.
“There are priorities in this job. Choices are made on a daily basis, particularly when faced with diminished resources, as to where to place your efforts,” the chief said. “For me, the elderly, the disabled and the innocent young are at the top of that priority list.
“If I cannot help them, then I am in the wrong business.”
Neither James Parham, 75 ( photo, top ), nor 66-year-old Cheryl Chaney had a criminal record when they applied for and received units in the building – both on the fifth floor – within the past three years, Torell said.
Both were arrested in late April after O’Keefe’s officers found that Cheney had turned her apartment into a drug den while Parham was bringing in prostitutes – hooking up neighbors and non-residents – and letting various dealers, users and the homeless crash at his place down the hall, the captain said.
Parham is charged with offenses that will be heard in Municipal Court.
Chaney is facing county grand jury action, however, after police reported finding crack in her apartment.
Also arrested was 54-year-old Selma McDuffie, a city school crossing guard, on charges of having a crack pipe when she was picked up at Chaney’s place.
Among the others arrested is Bonnie ”Mama” Pearl, a 59-year-old homeless woman from Englewood who was charged with defiant trespass twice in one month after receiving a “No Trespass Order” from Iwano’s staff.
Lucas also arrested Monica Peters, 44, of Teaneck, after serving her with a similar order at Wides Corner deli and discovering that she had failure-to-appear warrants for her arrest. She was also carrying a crack pipe, for which she was charged, Torell said.
O’Keefe said his squad’s work is far from done.
“I hope and expect that these relationships we’ve formed with tenants, as well as our recent arrests, will enhance our ability to uncover and prosecute criminal activities before they become entrenched,” he said.