Christmas Eve Story: Elderly woman has nothing to go home to

On this Christmas Eve, let me introduce you to two loyal friends who don’t know what to do next. Opal Lee helps her friend Norma Black recuperate from a bad fall by letting Lee stay at her Fort Worth home. Lee is 84, Black, 85.

But while Black has been recovering from a broken hip, her house in Southside has been broken into at least three times and stripped of most of its valuables, her friends say.

Lee has tried to find help to restore Black’s house so Black can move back home. But the best Lee can do is get Black’s name on a government waiting list.

These two loyal friends met at I.M. Terrell High. Black graduated in 1942. Lee followed in 1943. They have been close ever since.

Opal Lee, standing, and Norma Black


As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column learned first, Lee is founder and board chairman of the Community Food Bank, which feeds, she says, “anybody who’s hungry.” Black is a former hospital nurse who also worked many years at the Kimbell Art Museum.

Black was injured last summer, as Lee was dropping her off at her home. Stepping out of Lee’s truck, Black fell and broke her hip. Black spent the next two months at John Peter Smith Hospital, with Lee her regular visitor.

When Black was released, she couldn’t return home because she couldn’t walk. So Lee invited her to share her home.

The other day, Black, who has short grey hair and wears big glasses, was triumphant. “The doctor said I wouldn’t walk, but I’m walking with my walker. I was not going to lay down and die.”

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She can’t hear well, and conversations are shouted back and forth. She can’t see well either.

“That’s my best friend,” she shouted about Lee. Black has one grown son, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, but she said, “I never see them.”

“Nobody calls. Nobody comes. I feel like I’m thrown away.”

Black’s empty house was a sitting target. Fort Worth police have a report of a first break-in that occurred in late August. Lee showed me a video that captures the house’s deplorable condition after it was ransacked. Clothing and possessions are strewn everywhere.

Lee said, “The last time, they took the air-conditioning units out. Her TV is gone. Her table. Even the kitchen stove. They trashed up her clothes, just pulled everything out. Took the dishes. The microwave is gone, too.

“They took her box with her personal papers. Her pre-need burial papers. Gone. And the funeral home doesn’t have a record. Not to mention her birth certificate, marriage license. It’s just mind-boggling.”

Even before this violation of her human dignity, Black’s 1,000-square-foot home wasn’t in the greatest shape.

Lee explained, “The roof leaks. The floors are horrible. The plumbing’s not good.”

Norma Black's house

Black hasn’t yet seen the destruction of the home that has been in her family for 60 years. She hasn’t been back since her fall. “They tell me my house has been cleaned out of a house full of furniture,” she shouted. “They told me everything is gone. They took my checkbook, too.”

On behalf of her friend, Lee appealed to Fort Worth city government. The Housing and Economic Development Department received an application for assistance under the city’s Emergency Repair Program. Qualified applicants can receive up to $5,000 to repair or replace certain parts of a house that the city believes to be unhealthy or unsafe.

City inspectors visited Black’s house but couldn’t find problems with the plumbing or the electrical systems, city spokesman Jay Chapa told me. The gas was turned off, so that portion wasn’t inspected.

The city says that when Black is ready to return to the home, city staffers will inspect again to see if any assistance can be provided.

Sadly, there’s little left to inspect.

Two loyal friends on Christmas Eve wonder what happens next.

“I had a good life,” Black said. “I’m going home, I hope, around New Year’s. My friend has done all she can.”

# # #

If you would like to help Norma Black, send an email to Watchdog columnist Dave Lieber at watchdog@star-telegram.com or use the CONTACT page on this website. Dave will answer you.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.

City employee gets to the bottom of house thief’s scam

The Watchdog previously reported about an abandoned house with dangerous waste in the back yard, but I couldn’t find the owner who was to blame for the property’s deplorable condition. Neither could Fort Worth code compliance officers, who had cited the absentee homeowner numerous times. Watch the original YouTube video here.

I sent a letter to the listed owner, but it was returned by the post office.

Then, after the column appeared, a low-profile Fort Worth city employee whose job is to find owners of abandoned properties took up the challenge. Sarah Ireland dug deep and made a startling discovery.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column learned first, Ireland figured out that ownership of the house on the 5100 block of Goodman Avenue had been transferred twice. One owner was a fake. The other was dead. She kept digging and discovered that the house had been stolen by Tarrant County’s most notorious home thief, Norris Fisher.

Federal prosecutors say Fisher, 62, stole as many as 100 homes and vacant lots in Tarrant County in the last six years, using the same methods he used to steal the house on Goodman Avenue.

Jessie Washington, 87, complained about the house next door for years. Turns out the owner had stolen it and hidden its ownership. He's now a convicted felon.

Ireland found what criminal investigators found: Fisher created fake deeds with fake signatures of either fake or dead people. He used fake notary stamps for documents and created fake buyers to build layers between him and his crimes.

His scheme worked well enough that the 100 area properties he stole are worth more than $1 million. His ultimate goal was to sell the properties to unknowing buyers for a big profit.

The elaborate process was designed, prosecutors say, to be so complicated with so many transfers (often to out-of-state parties) that Fisher could conceal his original property theft and make it less likely that a title search would uncover his connection to the fraud.

But the complexity didn’t stop Ireland, who has worked for the city for almost 20 years.

“I like a challenge,” she said. “I kind of put myself in people’s shoes. What if that happened to me? And what Mr. Fisher did is so wrong. I hope they throw the book at him.”

The listed owner of the Goodman Avenue house is Maria D. Gomez. She owns at least 16 properties in Tarrant County. The only problem, as Ireland discovered, is that she’s dead.

The abandoned house

Ireland says many of the properties were conveyed to Gomez after her death in September 2008.

“I looked back at the deeds and found that they all use the same format, most have the same notary and were done on the same day or within a few days of each other. It looked rather fishy to me.”

The clincher came when she found that Gomez had supposedly conveyed mineral rights on many of her properties to SKF Unlimited Inc. She recognized the company’s name from news accounts of the Fisher investigation.

The last true owner was the late Annie Abbs, and using a database, Ireland found her last surviving son, Herbert, who lives in Fort Worth. Herbert Abbs told Ireland that he went to check on taxes owed a few years ago and learned that the house had been sold to Bobby Abbs. However, there’s no one by that name in the Abbs family.

Herbert Abbs was told by the tax office that if he wanted the property back, he should hire a lawyer. So he quit taking care of the property and stopped paying taxes because he didn’t think he owned it anymore.

Ireland asked Abbs to come to her office with proof. He brought his mother’s will, death certificate and property deeds. She made copies and sent them to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which was taking a lead role in the investigation. (Fisher used change-of-address cards so he could get the documents from the county clerk’s office and keep the true owners in the dark that their properties had been stolen.)

Abbs says Fisher apparently stole a second house from the family in the same way. “It’s so convoluted that I was at my wit’s end,” Abbs said. Before Ireland told him about her discovery, he said he didn’t know what to do. “I was just so overwhelmed.”

Now that Fisher has pleaded guilty, one of the requirements of his agreement is that he help authorities untangle ownership of the 100 properties so they can be returned to their rightful owners.

Authorities are working on plans for owners to file detailed correcting documents with the Tarrant County clerk’s office, says Kathy Colvin, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office.

Anyone who believes that their property has been stolen and hasn’t been contacted by the U.S. attorney’s office or the U.S. Postal Inspection Service should contact the U.S. attorney’s victim/witness specialist in Fort Worth at 817-252-5200.

“Because many of Fisher’s victims are deceased and died intestate, we don’t know if there’s an heir,” Colvin said.

I first visited the house in July after next-door neighbor Jessie Washington alerted me to the deplorable conditions. Soon after, code compliance cleaned much of the debris.

This week, Washington told me that the weeds have grown back neck-high and, worse, someone has ripped the lumber off the back of the abandoned house. “It looks worse now than it ever did,” she said.

If Herbert Abbs gets the house back, he may have to pay about $2,500 in back taxes and an equal amount for mowing the city has performed.

Ireland, the city worker, promises to help. She is offering to walk him through the process to get corrections with the Tarrant Appraisal District and the Tarrant County tax office. “I will be glad to help you any way I can,” she wrote him this week.

You know she means it, too.

# # #

These are the websites that Fort Worth city employee Sarah Ireland uses to conduct searches for property ownership.

www.tad.org – Tarrant Appraisal District. The place to start.

www.tarrantcounty.com – The county site offers deeds and other records going back to 1970. Deed cards to lead to ledgers prior to that.

www.freeality.com – Helps find people and does reverse phone lookups.

www.ancestry.com – Census records, military records, birth, death and marriage records. Available for free at Fort Worth Public Library.

www.fortworthgov.org/library/ – Link to the library’s site with old newspaper articles and death records from around the nation.

www.publicdata.com – Access to many records, including driver’s licenses, marriage and divorce records, criminal and civil cases. Costs $25 a year.

# # #

Here’s the original YouTube video that prodded city employees to clean up the outside of the abandoned house.

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.

VIDEO: Too much fun at the Fort Worth Parade of Lights 2010!

What do The Watchdog and Santa have in common?

Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Dave Lieber and his son Austin were honored to represent the newspaper in the 2010 Fort Worth Parade of Lights in downtown Fort Worth. Here’s coverage of the float and its 10,000 lights on KTXA-Channel 21.

“Santa’s Office” is the name of the float, and it contains a “Naughty & Nice” list and also giant bags of letters to Santa.

The Watchdog notes the similarities. He’s got a “Naughty & Nice” list, too. And each week brings bags of mail from folks who aren’t asking The Watchdog for toys. They want some HELP.

TV anchor Karen Borta says in her commentary, “Dave Lieber’s busy and Santa’s busy this time of year, you know it!”

“Most definitely,” co-anchor Keith Garvin says.

Here’s the video:

Follow Austin Lieber on Twitter at lieb011

Watchdog & Son

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.

Police officer can’t get records he wants despite Texas open records law

For the Fourth of July, 2010, I decided to play watchdog by sharing the story of the man with the noble idea that he can ask for and receive public information from a city government? It’s a true symbol of our freedom, our liberty, our right to know how we are governed, right?

Only when it isn’t.

Meet Dan St. Clair, who is one little piece in the puzzle that is the part of Fort Worth government that doesn’t seem to be working for a lot of people. He asked for public information 16 months ago. He never got it. The city admits it mishandled his request. It wasn’t until this week, with prodding from The Watchdog, that the city even told him that what he wanted is no longer available. (The reason it’s not available is something we’ll discover — and you may not like it.)

Recently, my colleague, Star-Telegram reporter Gene Trainor, reported that Fort Worth is one of the toughest cities from which to retrieve public records. It filed more requests for attorney general rulings than other cities its size. Critics call that a delaying tactic. “I can go to Euless and request the same information; they turn it over. Fort Worth — no,” a defense attorney told Trainor.

St. Clair is quick to agree. The 38-year-old retired Air Force captain has gung-ho ideas about what it means when you say government of the people, by the people, for the people. For the last three years, he has worked as a Fort Worth police officer. And in a move that seems to be from a TV detective show, he began investigating the behavior of a police sergeant who he fears may have railroaded a colleague off the force unfairly.

It takes guts to request records from your own employer. Here, in words worthy of the Fourth of July, is St. Clair’s reason:

“I don’t see it as a fight with the entire department. I see it as a fight with what I’ve seen is a very corrupt element of the department. If I’m trying to uphold the law and the lawyers for us are blatantly breaking the law, to me, there’s no place for that.

“When I was in the military, I didn’t let things like that slide. If someone was doing something wrong, I did what I could to take care of it. I want to take ownership of the job I have, which I believe is a public service. If I see something like this, I have to do something.”

In February 2009, St. Clair asked for e-mails and other computer terminal messages sent by a police sergeant while she was on duty. He believes that the sergeant sent messages stating her intention to remove the other officer from the force.

After St. Clair filed his request, the city missed deadlines for informing him about the status of the records. After agreeing to pay $71 for the records, he didn’t hear from the city for seven months.

The city told him that parts of the records had to be edited to delete confidential information. Eventually, he received three sets of squad car messages, the kind police send from computers in their cars, but they were almost all police-related checks of license plates and other data. There were few personal e-mails.

St. Clair knows that there were many more because he received some of them originally, he says.

Now the matter is before the Texas attorney general. The city acknowledges the screw-up. Assistant City Attorney Patrick Phillips wrote to the attorney general last week that “the city acknowledges that it has failed to comply with the time periods prescribed … in seeking a ruling from your office and recognizes that this failure results in the presumption that the information is public.”

But.

But the city has another argument to make. Phillips told me the city doesn’t have the information anymore. Why? E-mails and squad car messages are kept on the city’s computer servers for “not that long.”

Once e-mails are deleted from the system and removed from the servers, “we are not required to go to backup systems and backup tapes. … The attorney general’s office considers anything on a backup tape, that it’s no longer public information. … That’s a distinction made at the attorney general’s office, and we’re bound to follow.”

He may be right. In two open-records rulings for other government bodies, released in April, the attorney general’s office says that because e-mails are sometimes deleted from computers, “the data may be overwritten and permanently removed.”

To use backup tapes to retrieve old information, the attorney general’s office says, “the city would be required to restore data from the city’s back-up tapes onto a separate server. … Therefore, we find that any of the requested information that existed only in back-up tapes at the time of the request was no longer being ‘maintained’ by the city at the time of the request, and is not public information subject to disclosure.”

Read the two April 2010 opinions here and here.

Ouch. The Watchdog doesn’t like that. Did the city miss deadlines so that the information would be gone? The Library of Congress can accept an archive of every public tweet on Twitter since 2006, so electronic storage of records by governments should not be a problem.

St. Clair wants copies of messages that he believes he is entitled to have. He will apparently never see them, but until now, nobody bothered to tell him why.

“It’s not our ideal,” Phillips said. “We know the process is ugly. … We would like it to be better.”

Happy Fourth.

# # #

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.

YouTube video gets city to cleanup neglected house

[The following first appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Watchdog column by Dave Lieber. It is paired with a YouTube video here.]

Jessie Washington, 87, wearing a shirt from her grandson that says “I love Grandma,” stands in her manicured front yard next to her “keep off the grass” sign, hands on hips, looking angry. She has a message for the city of Fort Worth.

“Tell ’em I don’t like them.”



Jessie Washington, 87



For more than a half a century, she has lived in her Lake Como neighborhood home. The last seven years, since the house next door became empty, have been terrible, she said.

“I wake up mad when I look over here.”

The house is covered front and back, ground to rooftop, with overgrown vegetation. A side fence has collapsed. Two trash bins sit in the alley, filled to the brim with dirty water and decrepit junk. Barrels lie on their sides in the back yard, near a half-built wooden shed that is falling apart.

“If this place ever catches fire, there’s nothing to do but run. They couldn’t put it out even if the firetruck was parked outside.”

She has complained to city officials, by phone and in person, on and off for years, she says. “Anytime I see them anywhere, I stop and tell them.”

Finally, fed up and plum out of ideas, she wrote to The Watchdog. I visited this week and made a video of her giving me a tour and begging for help. I put the video on YouTube and sent the Web link to Code Compliance Director Brandon Bennett. I also sent him photos of the disgusting trash bins, too.

Bennett jumped on the problem. The video and photos, he told me, were the evidence he needs to get a warrant giving his staff permission to march onto the property and take action. Code officers aren’t allowed to enter private property without owner permission, but this owner isn’t around.

City-hired mowers are allowed to enter a property every so often, and in this case, they do. But the listed owner doesn’t pay the bills.

“This is one of the ones that are falling through the cracks,” Bennett told me. “We have too many of these. They are killing us.”

Substandard housing is a threat to most large U.S. cities. As the economy suffers, it gets worse.

“These patterns develop,” Bennett said. “It just brings down the rest of the neighborhood. It starts with one house, and pretty soon it’s the whole block.”

With his department’s budget cut 20 percent, he said, “We have to prioritize calls for service.”

Used to be the city ordered mowers to cut neglected grass and weeds when they reached 12 inches. Now it’s 18 inches. Used to be the city hired mowers every 21 days. Now it’s 45.

“We just don’t have the funding to pay for them,” he said.

I tried to contact the listed owner of the house but couldn’t find her.

Nine liens on the property for mowing and administrative fees total $2,300, city records show.

The listed owner has also fallen behind on city property taxes for three years, totaling $2,500.

Eight resident complaints for tall grass and high weeds have been listed against the property since 2006. Before that, there were complaints for trash, debris, storage and junked vehicles.

It’s an eyesore every way you look. But there’s hope for Washington. This week, the city launched what it calls its “nuisance abatement process” — legal talk for “get rid of the junk.”

The debris, barrels, fence, a dead tree near a power line and the wretched bins should all be removed by July 20, the city says.

There’s also hope for others in the same situation.

A state law that went into effect Jan. 1 (House Bill 3065) allows counties with a population greater than 1.5 million to adopt ordinances requiring registration of vacant buildings. That process allows a city to take drastic action on abandoned properties, too.

But there is a kink. Even though Fort Worth officials began working on such an ordinance, the process was halted temporarily because Tarrant County didn’t have enough residents to qualify.

New census numbers expected to become official in April will show that Tarrant County’s population has grown.

What does this mean? A new city ordinance will give officials greater control to stop the pattern of block erosion.

Jessie Washington has a wait-and-see attitude.

“I know they let me down,” she said. “They ignored me. That’s what they did.”

No longer.

# # #

For code violations, call Fort Worth at 817-392-1234.

House Bill 3065 gives counties greater powers to deal with abandoned properties. City officials hope to:

– limit the time a structure can be boarded.

– require owner registration, a compliance plan and a fee if a property is not fixed.

– define minimum boarding and securing standards.

– force owners to submit an action plan.

– force demolition of vacant properties that have no historic or rehab potential.

– force owners to keep properties free from code violations, overgrown vegetation and nuisances.

# # #

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.

A man fights for his right to have a garden

Mark D'Amico's garden before picture

Mark D’Amico doesn’t keep a conventional front lawn resembling the manicured look favored by his neighbors in Fort Worth’s Handley neighborhood. D’Amico created his own cottage garden.

He was so serious about the 150 different plants and flowers in his garden that he registered it as a “Certified Wildlife Habitat” with the National Wildlife Federation.

“It saves on water,” the artist says. “It’s big, bright and colorful. Flowers and hummingbirds and butterflies just swarm it — or used to.”

After a neighbor complained, D’Amico got into a scrape with Fort Worth’s code compliance department. He received a violation notice in 2006.

D’Amico says he told code compliance officer Robert Chambers that his plants and flowers were hard-to-find examples of exotic varieties. He had purchased seeds and traded for them for a decade to assemble the collection.

Several of the species are extinct in the wild, D’Amico says he told the code officer. Cultivating them and spreading the seeds helps keep the species alive.

The code officer said he understood and asked D’Amico to send him a list of all the plants, D’Amico says. Because he never heard from anyone in the city again, D’Amico says he believed the matter was settled.

But one day while he was home, D’Amico says he heard heavy equipment outside.

“I came out into the front yard and everything was gone,” he says.

“Not just mowed. They scraped it to the bare dirt with a big riding lawnmower. I was horrified.”

D’Amico’s home is not part of a neighborhood association where deed restrictions can enforce a neatly mowed lawn. Fort Worth code only states that grass and weeds cannot grow taller than 12 inches. No mention is made of shrubs and flowers.

“We called and sent letters and e-mail to both the mayor’s office and the city councilman who represents Mark’s neighborhood,” says Tom D’Amico, Mark’s father and the listed property owner. “Both offices ignored our calls, letters and e-mail. That’s pretty sad.”

Mark D’Amico says, “They can destroy anyone’s garden at any time for any reason, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

Or is there?

Father and son answered that question step by step. First, they filed an $8,000 claim against the city. But that was rejected because the city said it had immunity when it came to actions of its employees, Tom D’Amico says.

They next filed a small-claims court lawsuit for $4,500. In a hearing, Mark D’Amico testified that he had no idea the city would destroy his cottage garden because neither Chambers nor anyone else informed him that the garden was in jeopardy.

In turn, a city lawyer argued that Chambers was carrying out his duty as a city employee and was immune from any legal vulnerability.

The justice of the peace decided in favor of the city, based on the city’s invocation of the doctrine of governmental immunity.

Father and son appealed to Tarrant County Court. Once again, the city pleaded its case for government immunity, court papers show. But in that courtroom, it didn’t work.

Tarrant County Court at Law No. 2 Judge Jennifer Rymell ordered both sides into mediation.

I left a message for Chambers at work, but he didn’t return the call.

He now works as a field operations supervisor in the water department.

A city spokeswoman said that because the case is in court, the city cannot comment.

Mediation was held last week, but no settlement was reached.

Meanwhile, another hearing is scheduled in Rymell’s court Monday because the city is contesting that court’s right to hear the case.

Tom D’Amico offers this advice to avid flower gardeners and collectors:

Anyone targeted by code compliance should “aggressively act and defend your rights as a property owner.”

He says, “Document all contacts [e-mails, notes, letters] with code enforcement and send any correspondence to them by certified mail requiring signature confirmation.

“Don’t be afraid to question their authority and take them to court if you feel your rights were violated. We cannot let governments automatically invoke governmental immunity and assert domain. They need to be held accountable.”

Final note: Mark D’Amico is growing back the garden.