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Gary's vacant buildings hurt city, can house horrors

Abandoned buildings attract crime. Police know this. Neighbors too.

Suspected serial killer Darren D. Vann allegedly confessed to strangling women and dumping their bodies under piles of rubbish in abandoned and forgotten houses. It’s still unclear where his trail of death leads or ends.

Gary has an estimated 8,000 vacant buildings, making it tough on the financially strapped city and police force to fight crime that has thousands of places to hide in the dark, hollowed-out houses lining many of the city’s streets.

Vann, 43, of Gary, has been charged in the strangling of Afrika Hardy, 19, whose body was discovered in a Hammond motel. Leaving her body in such a public place was a mistake that led to his capture, Vann has said. Hammond police used surveillance footage to make an arrest.

Darren D. Vann | Lake County police photo

Vann then led police to six other bodies, all in abandoned Gary houses, and police say he has admitted to homicides going back two years. He has also been charged with killing Anith Jones, 35, who disappeared Oct. 8. Hers was the first body recovered in a vacant house, at 421 E. 43rd Ave. in the Glen Park section of the city, on Oct. 19.

Cpl. Douglas Drummond, who handles the Gary department’s crime statistics, noted crimes directly related to abandoned homes don’t fall under one category, so determining how many calls police respond to is difficult.

“It could be a suspicious person or someone breaking in,” he said. “The officers don’t always know until they get there if it’s abandoned.”

And then, getting into those houses poses more challenges. As officers searched homes last week in areas where Vann allegedly dumped his victims, they encountered buckling floors, wobbly staircases, broken glass and mounds of trash. A deputy coroner stepped on a nail so long that a Gary officer needed pliers to pull it out of his foot.

“It’s a huge safety issue for police and the public,” Decanter said. Children could face serious injury while exploring any of the vacant houses, he added.

A Gary Police code enforcement officer inspects a vacant house on Friday. | Jim Karczewski/For Sun-Times Medi

The downfall

Gary’s decline began decades ago as innovation took hold and steel mills shrunk and shuttered. U.S. Steel, the city’s biggest employer, boasted 20,000 workers in the 1970s but today has about 5,000.

It still churns out the same amount of steel — about 7.5 million tons a year — but needs fewer workers to do it.

White flight escalated with the loss of mill jobs in the 1970s and distrust in new Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, who was black.

Gary’s troubles played out on a national stage throughout the 1990s when the city was tagged with the dubious title of “murder capital” of the United States. The rise of crack cocaine drove crime to new levels, with the homicide rate peaking in 1995. That year, there were 132 violent deaths.

The population was more than 100,000 in 1995; it’s down to less than 80,000 now, according to census data.

The FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, shows Gary with 80,472 people and 728 incidents of violent crime, a category composed of murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Among Hammond’s 81,010 residents, there were 665 such incidents. Although overall crime remained high in 2012, Gary had 43 homicides, the lowest in more than 30 years.

The reality

About 40 percent of Gary citizens live in poverty. Street after street is lined with vacant, crumbling houses. Weeds sometimes obscure structures from view, indicating years of decay. Houses with neatly manicured and maintained homes stand out amid the blight.

Shrinking city budgets followed the shriveling tax base, further hampering efforts to keep up with decaying homes on almost every block of the city’s 54 square miles. In the late 1990s, an aggressive program, Operation Crackdown, led by HUD and the Indiana National Guard, used soldiers trained on heavy equipment to demolish vacant homes.

As the name implied, at that time an empty house often became a magnet for drug dealers and small-time gang members. While some of that still exists, police note there is a vast array of crime reports connected to vacant buildings.

Then and now, police say, removing these eyesores can only improve living conditions for residents.

“It’s a quality of life issue, and for all residents, not just on one block,” Sgt. Thomas Decanter said.

In some neighborhoods, people mow lawns and perform other upkeep on a vacant house to maintain the appearance of their street and deter the crime drawn to those sites.

Pam Strong, who used to live in Gary’s Tarrytown neighborhood, said her former neighborhood was littered with abandoned houses and would routinely call the police when she saw suspicious behavior.

“Abandoned buildings bring rodents and creates other problems,” Strong said. “You don’t know who’s living in there.”

Beating blight

The city has been using its eight-member code enforcement department to get a grip on the vacant house problem, and not just since Vann’s alleged killing spree was discovered.

“[Code enforcement workers] are very critical to helping hold citizens/property owners accountable for the upkeep of their properties. The citations result in court appearances and sometimes fees, so this department continues to be very instrumental in our goal to eliminate blight,” city spokeswoman Chelsea Whittington said.

When she took office in 2012, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson knew she needed a comprehensive policy to address blight; she sees a crumbling apartment complex that’s been vacant for 40 years when she walks out of her house every day.

Freeman-Wilson found an ally in President Barack Obama and a familiar supporter in U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., in her quest to secure Department of Housing and Urban Development funds. The federal spigot isn’t gushing, but money trickles in.

With a tight $28 million city budget, Freeman-Wilson is casting a wide net to snag funding, grants and collaborations.

A frequent flier across the country, the Harvard Law School graduate and former state attorney general has raised the city’s profile and cobbled together an assortment of public and private programs to revitalize the city. She struck gold with former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who suggested a partnership with the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, where Daley is a lecturer.

What resulted was a course designed by Daley and Freeman-Wilson called “Urban Revitalization Project: City of Gary, Ind.” Most just call it the Gary Project.

Gary had no recent data on its vacant housing stock, just anecdotal evidence. It needed solid data to leverage grants and plot a strategy.

The U. of C. graduate students inventoried abandoned houses and devised an efficient plan to clean up neighborhoods.

Students graded vacant houses on an A-F level, recording the data on their cellphones. They have surveyed nearly 45,000 properties spanning 2,000 acres. Software plotted the information, helping officials target areas for demolition.

Gary used the data to obtain $6.7 million in Indiana’s Hardest Hit Blight Elimination Fund that Freeman-Wilson says has accelerated demolition across the city.

Redevelopment Department director Joe Van Dyk said about 70 percent of the survey is complete, and the city is focusing demolition efforts on blocks with one or two abandoned homes to stem the tide of others following suit.

Though Gary officials were addressing the vacant homes before six bodies were found, the case has spurred help from other area agencies, such as the Lake County coroner’s office, and added a dimension of urgency to code enforcement.

As police last week combed through one vacant house after the next during a search for Vann’s victims, Sgt. William Fazekas told the story of another search early in his career that didn’t end so well for him.

In 1992, Fazekas chased a suspect up three stories in a vacant house in the 500 block of Vermont Street.

The man climbed into the attic, but as Fazekas reached him, the floor collapsed and he tumbled to the basement.

“When I landed, my right leg was back and I thought I broke it,” Fazekas said. Connective tissue in his knee tore, and he required surgery.

As Fazekas was lying on the floor in pain, the man he’d been chasing appeared, he recalled. “He wanted to help me up.”