A man, 75, and a woman, 66, suspected of using cocaine and running a prostitution ring out of their apartments at the Vincente K. Tibbs Senior Citizen Building have been arrested after residents complained about vagrants, drunks and addicts invading their building, authorities said.
The suspects and an alleged accomplice are believed to be behind a recent rise in crime that had residents afraid to come out of their apartments, authorities said. Their growing fears prompted an undercover investigation and new round-the-clock police patrols of the complex.
“Essentially, they were prisoners in their own building,” Chief Arthur O’Keefe of the Englewood police said of the residents. “I wasn’t going to allow that to continue.”
In late April, police arrested fifth-floor residents James Parham and his neighbor Cheryl Chaney on charges of possession of drug paraphernalia and maintaining a drug nuisance. Chaney faces an additional charge of possession of crack cocaine.
A third suspect, Selma McDuffie, a 54-year-old school crossing guard, was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia after police found her with a crack pipe, police said. McDuffie has been suspended from her police-run crossing guard job in Englewood and threatened with arrest if she returns to the building.
Parham admitted providing prostitutes — mostly young women with crack cocaine addictions — to some of his younger neighbors in the building, Detective Capt. Timothy Torell said. More charges could be pending.
The Englewood Housing Authority, which manages the property at 111 West St., had no reason to bar either suspect before they moved in. Both had met the income guidelines and passed a criminal background check, an official said.
“They came up absolutely clean,” said Maria Iwano, the housing authority’s executive director. “They had nothing to prevent us from putting them in the building.”
The Englewood Housing Authority bars anyone with recent drug convictions or a violent criminal history from living in its buildings, Iwano said.
Chaney had no criminal record, and Parham had a few minor arrests years ago for disorderly conduct and other low-level crimes, O’Keefe said.
The 152-unit complex, exclusively for low-income people 62 and older, and disabled people 55 and older, has security cameras in the common areas and outside the building. One camera in the lobby allows residents to see who is there before buzzing them in. But the housing authority reviewed the footage after the fact, when someone complained about unwelcome visitors.
“Most of these people were coming in at a time when we were not here,” she said.
The housing authority also manages the 62-unit Jack Drakeford Westmoor Gardens complex next to the Tibbs building, as well as housing units on Morse Place and Humphrey Street. Officials say the federally funded agency cannot afford private security guards. Instead, they rely on residents to report problems or notify police.
That’s exactly what happened in this case.
The housing authority had invited the chief in March to give a safety seminar to the seniors, who were complaining more and more about unwanted people in the building. The seniors packed the room and told the chief stories of vagrants passed out in lounge areas, drunks wandering the halls and used condoms in the recreation room.
“That certainly was not acceptable to us,” O’Keefe said.
The chief assigned undercover officers to find out which tenants were behind the drug and prostitution reports.
“It really is just a few bad apples,” Torell said, adding that the majority of Tibbs residents are law-abiding.
Parham, who moved into Tibbs in January 2012, and Chaney, who has lived there since September 2010, are in the process of being evicted. Iwano said. Parham is scheduled to appear in Municipal Court in Englewood on Wednesday morning, while Chaney and McDuffie are due in court June 11.
Three days after the arrests, Officers Zellvon Lucas, Tracey Temple and Fabian Diego began spending their shifts at the Tibbs building. They handed out business cards with the number of a department-issued cellphone that residents could call to leave anonymous tips. They also spent time inspecting the hallways and grounds, reviewing security camera footage and questioning anyone who looks suspicious.
“If we catch you in the building and you’re not going to someone’s residence, there’s a problem,” Temple said. “If you don’t belong, you stick out like a sore thumb.”
The officers also know whom the housing authority has banned from the property. On May 7, Lucas stopped a thin, disheveled woman as she staggered toward the building. When the woman stepped onto the driveway, Lucas called for backup, handcuffed her and charged her with criminal trespassing. A police cruiser rolled up and took her away.
“She was completely out of it,” Lucas said. “She would pass out here in the foyer. They don’t want people like that around. That’s why we’re here.”
Those who live in the building say they are grateful for the round-the-clock police protection.
“Things are getting better,” said James Harrison, an 11-year resident. “Druggies and drunks, that’s what used to be here, all day long, day and night.”
Iwano, who became the housing authority’s executive director last year, said Tibbs had a security guard years ago before federal funding cuts forced the agency to eliminate the position. Housing authorities in other large cities, such as Newark, have their own security forces, while Hackensack and Paterson pay for police protection at their housing units. Smaller housing authorities, such as those in Fort Lee and Edgewater, do not have private guards.
The Englewood Housing Authority operates on a $1.1 million budget that pays the salaries of 10 employees who administer the Section 8 program for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and three who maintain its properties. Tibbs, which opened in 1976, is the housing authority’s oldest building.
Vivian Forgy, who has lived in Tibbs for two years and whose late sister lived there for more than 20, said police have improved the feel of the building. Forgy, 72, recalled getting an unsettling late-night call a few weeks ago from a 98-year-old neighbor, who was in a panic and asked her to come upstairs.
“Someone was banging on her door real hard and kicking it, literally kicking it,” she said. “She was shaking like a leaf. I had to stay with her that night.”
The officers are slowly building relationships with the residents. Temple, a patrol officer for 19 years, said the seniors were apprehensive when they began patrolling the complex. “Now they’re like, ‘Good morning!’ and tell you about their aches and pains.”
On her patrol Tuesday evening, Lucas checked in on Irma Wright, a petite 76-year-old who had locked herself out of her sixth-floor apartment and had to be let back in by maintenance. She smiled when she opened the door and found Lucas there, asking if she was OK. The two chatted about the city’s upcoming Memorial Day parade before Lucas wished her good night.
“They’re very nice to me, thank God,” Wright said. “They’re good to me. I don’t have to worry for nothing.”
O’Keefe, whose department has been understaffed since several officers were hurt on the job in recent weeks, said he has no plans to pull the dedicated patrols.
“I’m not going to allow the seniors to fall victim again,” he said.