It’s a War Zone

The area bound by Desert Inn, Flamingo, Maryland Parkway and Paradise is one huge crime scene. A report from the front lines of the worst neighborhood in the city.

Damon Hodge

Monday, July 11, 8 p.m.

Sierra Pointe

1064 Sierra Vista Drive

The moniker is apropos. "Crack Alley" is a stretch of pavement nestled between two brownish buildings that comprise Desert Aire and Sierra Pointe, the latter an apartment complex so crime-riddled that, in 2003, the Clark County Housing Authority refused to manage it, Nevada Sen. John Ensign tried to shutter it and many residents wanted to move out of it.

On this night, the alley is alive with foot traffic, mostly young black men going in and out of apartments and loitering in the walkways between buildings in the 160-unit, 10-building complex—waiting for folks looking for a hit, waiting for trouble, or both. The lone consumer is a woman in a blue dress, her eyes hollowed out and zombie-like. She's trying to sashay, but there's nothing sexy about her stilted gait. I pull into the alley's eastern end, at Rome Street, and before I hit the first speed bump (about 15 yards in), a handful of young men lurch from a nearby walkway and begin staring holes in my head. I muffle the flight response, fearful that hitting reverse might unnerve the natives. Jumpy as more men appear, I speed up between speed bumps, eyes lasered in on the exit about 40 yards away on Cambridge. Finally, mercifully, I reach the end of Crack Alley. As I turn left on to Cambridge, a man emerges from a walkway, points an imaginary machine gun in my direction and starts firing.

Cops say Crack Alley is one of the most dangerous places in town and Sierra Pointe is one of the most violent complexes in the Valley, home to nearly every conceivable criminal malady—robbery, prostitution, drug-dealing, gangs, violence. Bad as Crack Alley and Sierra Pointe may be, they might not even be the worst places in the Metropolitan Police Department's N2 Beat, an area bound by Desert Inn and Flamingo to the north and south and Maryland Parkway and Paradise (and sections of Koval Lane) to the east and west. Some of the Valley's more sensational episodes of violence have taken place in the area: Three shootings over 60 hours in mid-June left one man dead (hit with seven gunshots) and three wounded. In January, gunmen who'd robbed a McDonald's on Twain and Paradise killed a tourist who tried to stop their getaway. A Los Angeles man died in December after being shot in the head and left in an alley on Lisbon Avenue, adjacent to Sierra Pointe. Last August, cops had a shoot-out with suspected car thieves on Sierra Vista and Cambridge Street.

Numbers crunched by Metro's Crime Analysis Central Unit for the Weekly paint a picture of a small area gripped by a startling amount of big-time violence. To wit: In 2000, there were 1,775 major crimes (assault, auto theft, burglary, larceny, murder, rape, robbery) in N2; that number jumped to 2,552 last year. From 2000 to 2004, the area experienced 10,918 crimes, including 66 murders, 153 rapes, 2,664 burglaries and 3,696 assaults. During the same four-year period, police calls for service increased from 16,276 to 21,472 last year.

It's like our very own slice of South Central Los Angeles.

Thursday, July 28, Noon

Cambridge Community Center

3333 Cambridge St.

The tables in the community room at the Cambridge Community Center are arrayed like a square, with an opening in the northeast corner for Dan Giraldo, a neighborhood liaison with Clark County government, to move in and out of. This is the monthly meeting of the Cambridge Area Management Council, which brings together apartment managers and owners, businesspeople and residents desirous of returning the historic Cambridge area, one of the town's most exclusive neighborhoods in the 1970s, to respectability. Most of nearly two dozen attendees are apartment managers representing complexes including Willson Square, Hazelwood, Sierra and La Mesa. A security official from the Boulevard Mall, which has experienced gang-related violence in the last 12 months, is also present.

The meeting begins with Giraldo querying apartment managers on how they're dealing with the summer heat. Answers vary from good to not so. A manager at one complex says she's spent more than $41,000 on new air conditioning units. Others can't get help—repair companies are backlogged; waiting lists range from three to eight days. When Giraldo moves discussion to the meat of the meeting—"I know there's been some shootings recently. How are things going?"—the floodgates open.

"I dial 311 and I get no response," says Tony Nicolosi, who manages the La Mesa Apartments on 560 Sierra Vista Drive. "I mean, we have people who are trespassing and drug-dealing on the property and it's very frustrating to call and be put on hold. We have to wait an hour for help to get rid of a crack addict. If we dial 911, the cops are there, but not when we dial 311. Sometimes a 311 call can turn into a 911 call; I've had people chase me and throw tire irons at me."

A lady who manages an apartment complex on Twain and Paradise says every time she calls 311 she's put on hold for at least 30 minutes; three weeks ago, she waited one hour and 45 minutes. (Cops say dispatchers can't keep up with the call volume). "The criminals dare us to call the cops because they know they'll be gone by the time they get there."

Another apartment manager, an elderly, white-haired lady who's tired of hearing a nightly volley of gunshots, suggests confronting criminals face to face: "Maybe we're going to have to take our neighborhoods back ourselves."

The gripe-go-round is just beginning.

There's lament over the lack of a bike patrol (manpower problems forced Metro to pull two cops previously dedicated to the area), the inability to keep criminals in jail (one couple was back three days after being arrested for growing weed in their apartment on Dumont), and the price of pissing off scofflaws (vandals broke 21 windows at a complex on Twain and Pallas Verde; it cost $296 to replace each window). Why, one woman wonders, can't Vegas cops mimic their counterparts in Tucson who literally painted smiley-faces on complexes with histories of drug- dealing to identify them?

Myrna Williams, the Clark County Commissioner representing the Cambridge area, interjects at this point and lays much of the blame not on the thugs perpetrating the crimes, but on laissez-faire, out-of-state apartment owners and fiefdom-protecting state lawmakers. She says the former merely slap on a coat of paint and call it urban renewal while state lawmakers continually hamstring counties' ability to fight crimes. Her carping loses some folks, the looks in their eyes saying, "So?"

"In the city, if there is a crack house, the government can abate it," Williams tells the council. "Counties are creatures of the state. If the problem isn't outlined in Nevada Revised Statutes (state law), then we're out of luck. In the county, we can't even close a crack house."

But that seems incongruous—government unable to neuter a nuisance like a crack house.

Whereas cities are created by charters and typically have the ability to exercise "all powers reasonably related to enumerated powers," Mary Ann Miller, counsel for the Clark County District Attorney's Office, says Nevada counties are bound by the state constitution and state laws.

"The item would have to be reasonably related to statutorily enumerated powers," Miller says. "For example, if state law directed counties to take certain measures to eliminate crack, then closing down a crack house would be a reasonably related power."

While city officials can close a home known as a drug haven, county officials can only arrest the dope-dealers, leaving the house open for other thugs to step in.

Danger Everywhere

Driving the N2 Beat, especially in the evening and at night, can be a bit scary. During a particularly sweltering afternoon, Hispanic men with shaved heads shoot the breeze in McKeller Circle. The neighborhood near Twain and Paradise is a known haunt for the 18th Street gangsters (émigrés from Southern California) and the place where former cop Ron Mortensen, while off duty, shot and killed Daniel Mendoza in 1997. Coming east on Twain, there's a street called Royal Crest. Turning left will take you to a series of tenement-style complexes with rocks where grass should be, gang graffiti on walls and gaggles of pebble-sized beer bottle shards on the ground. Further down Twain, a cop car sits in the entrance of the Beverly Apartments. Over on Swenson, maintenance crews tidy up the shrubbery at Swenson Apartments as two angry but innocent-looking-enough men scream into cell phones. Another cop patrols Paradise, from the McDonalds on Twain, to Desert Inn. Another black-and-white tools up and down Sierra Vista. Near the Renaissance Hotel, a man with a teardrop drawn under his left eye—popularized by Hispanic gangs—slowed down his burgundy Cadillac just to glare at me. On Cambridge, going north from Flamingo to Desert Inn: street-walkers; folks cutting across Molasky Park to get to and from Vons; kids playing field hockey in the fenced courts at the Al Snyder Boys and Girls Club. At Sierra Vista and Cambridge: three guys emerging from the 7-Eleven with 40-ounce bottles of beer; two ladies walking—one whose face bears scars reminiscent of hellacious acne or methamphetamine abuse, the other, sickly thin.

The N2 Beat is in Metro's South Central Area Command. George Castro is a lieutenant in that command. Squat, with a movie-star face and the build of a welterweight fighter, Castro is part historian, too, tracing N2's crime problems—as well as much of the city's—back to 1973, when intergovernmental squabbling between the city and county led to the creation of one police department, Metro.

"We had to meld two styles of policing," says Castro, a 17-year veteran of the force. "Metro had to mature quickly because the city was growing. The days of 'one county, one mountie' were over. We couldn't hire enough cops to keep up. With all the growth over the years, Vegas is experiencing a larger inner city than ever before. The inner city now could be described as Sahara and Jones."

Moving here from California, Castro's family lived near 28th Street, where an Hispanic gang of the same name would emerge to rule the neighborhood. He remembers running to and from school to avoid getting beat up. Places like 28th Street were popular because the units were plentiful and the rents affordable. They also magnetized out-of-state investors who bought them on the cheap, got them federally subsidized, charge above-market rents and made out like bandits.

Such places became havens for crime. By the time Metro implemented community policing in the '80s, Castro says, crime had spread across the city. Crackdowns in one area (28th Street, for example) simply moved the problem to another area (Naked City behind the Stratosphere or Pennwood and Arville near Clark High School).

"When (Bob) Stupak bought the Stratosphere and started trying to clean up the area, the criminal element moved to Pennwood and Arville and those people weren't prepared for the influx of crime," Castro says. "The same thing happened when we were cracking down on Pennwood and Arville, they moved over here (to N2 Beat)."

Cultural issues added to the crime problem. "In some places in South America, men beating their wives is OK. With immigrants coming in, we had cultural and language barriers to address," Castro says. "Some men just didn't understand that domestic violence is against the law here."

Eventually, the higher crime rates begat the need for more jail cells which, ultimately, begat a reassessment of the hook-'em-and-book-'em approach—demand outstripped supply. Over time, crime spread to the suburbs—no place was safe.

"The Cambridge area used to be a good place to live," Castro says.

Longtime developer Irwin Molasky, who developed most of Maryland Parkway, including the Boulevard Mall, disagrees. The area was never exclusive, he says. What was trendy, and still enjoys a nice quality of life, are the neighborhoods he built behind the mall.

"The area west of Maryland Parkway has always been suspect," he says. "For a long time, it was all vacant land. It was zoned high density in those days (1950s), about 50 units to the acre. What happened is that California developers snatched up the land, built cracker-box apartments and created an instant slum. It should be exclusive because it's close to so much good stuff—UNLV, the Boulevard Mall. Over the past few years, people have been trying to restore the area ... there's the Cambridge Community Center, Molasky Park next to Vons, walking and jogging paths and across the street is a school."

Tuesday, July 5, 10 a.m.

Willson Square Apartments

Willson Square

Metro gang unit officer, Det. Brian Kobrys, has arrived. He pops in a video of the local gang unit at work—officers talking about the Valley's gang problems (17 deaths, 110 shootings through June), patrolling, questioning a group of men smoking weed in a known gang neighborhood.

His presentation riles some apartment managers. How are they to know who is a gang member and who isn't? Among those active in the area are the Hoover Crips, the Valley View Crips and 18th Street. Kobrys: Hard to tell because everyone seems to dig urban clothing. Another manager complains that Metro responded to her call to remove gang members two weeks after they'd left; she had more luck on her own, fining a gang-affiliated tenant $50 to $150 a day each time his cohorts came to the premises and caused trouble. After Commissioner Williams snipes at judges who downplay the seriousness of property crimes and two Southeast Area Command and cops explain how amended car- chase procedures have led to more criminals getting away, Eva Pearson pipes up. She's had enough.

"You know what, we haven't had any problems in Willson Square," says Pearson, who's tallish, with a ruddy peach complexion and the build of a forward in the WNBA. "I talk tough and I mean what I say. Why can't we just run these hoodlums out? Like I said, I talk tough. One day, someone's going to call my bluff and I'll deal with it accordingly."

Pearson has managed the 24-unit complex on Sierra Vista, just west of Swenson, for nearly a year. Pulling up to the 31-year-old property, whose Spanish-style architecture resembles something out of the Alamo, Pearson is out front to greet me—you don't enter the complex without her permission. During the nearly hour-long interview, she'll finish four cigarettes. Hers isn't a nervous smoking habit, though she could be forgiven if it was. When she arrived last fall, Willson Square was troubled, a haven for squatters and addicts, vandals and tenants with a penchant for destruction. In her first week as manager, she evicted five families, "everyone but the maintenance crew."

A year later, she's still repairing damage wrought by squatters and renters who knocked out windows, ripped out cupboards, destroyed toilets and put holes in ceilings. With permission from Willson Square's owner, Norma Jackabowski, to do whatever it takes to make the place safe, Pearson filled the swimming pool and began nightly patrols of the complex. If you couldn't prove you belonged—she'd help you on your way. "I once ran Cox Communications out of the complex because no one told me they were coming," Pearson says.

Signing up for Metro's Identity Detect and Locate program gave her access to a program allowing managers to run criminal background checks on potential renters. Requiring credit checks and charging half a month's rent plus a security deposit kept more riffraff away. The main problem now, she says, is a pay phone across the street that she's convinced drug dealers and prostitutes use to conduct business.

A van she doesn't recognize pulls up. Two strange men emerge

Stop the interview.

Liz Carmona, a member of Willson Square's maintenance crew, fills in while Pearson investigates: "One of the big issues we had was people copying leases, whiting out names and putting their names in," Carmona says. "We also had managers that didn't do anything and even took some of the rent money. We don't have these problems anymore. Crime is moving away from us."

Turns out the men are here to clean the carpets. Pearson introduce herself, whips out a card, says she's who they'll be dealing with from now on. "I live on site and I don't want to live someplace unsafe," she says upon returning. "I will do whatever it takes to give people here a good quality of life."

Wednesday, July 6, 1 p.m.

Bingo Suites

750 Sierra Vista Drive

Down the street on the northwest corner of Sierra Vista and Swenson, urban renewal is taking shape—another notorious housing complex getting an extreme makeover.

Just a year ago, the property, Vista Arms, was rife with crime. Residents getting beat up. Dope- dealing in the stairways. Criminals lurking in trees. Bad write-ups on sites that rate local apartments. From "There are at least 10 to 15 drug dealers selling drugs in the parking lot at all times. There are many fights and shootings there daily. Not a place for children at all. The stairways and elevator always smell like piss from all the drunk homeless people that hang out there 24 hours a day."

Weeks ago, painters were busy coating the complex's haggard aqua façade in an earthen brown. Prior to this, Steve Siegel, a California investor with the cultured look of a Laguna Beach pretty boy, came to Vista Arms to introduce himself to residents as the new owner and tell them of his plan to revive the property. Siegel is a managing member of the Studio City, California-based SASCO Property Management, a division of the Siegel Group, which acquires buildings in low-income areas and spruces them up. SASCO has six properties in Vegas, including the Paradise Suites, whose previous incarnation, the St. Louis Manor, was a mini-Vietnam. Since last year, Siegel has been spending lots of time in Las Vegas looking for apartment complexes to buy.

First thing he did at Vista Arms was to remove the pay phones. Next, he cut the shrubbery and installed lights. Immediate plans call for hiring maintenance and security and establishing a relationship with Metro. In six months, Siegel promises the complex will be transformed.

"We're going to try to get rid of bad eggs and bring in working people and provide a better quality of life for people who can't afford to live elsewhere," says Siegel, adding his company has turned around properties in Van Nuys, Canoga Park and North Hollywood, California, and will soon take over an apartment complex on Boulder Highway, south of Flamingo. "We're doing the opposite of the condo conversion—rehabbing apartments and keeping them as apartments and affordable. It's a challenge, but we're set up to make change. The minute you start to get rid of a few bad people, the remaining bad people get out."

Of course, progress can't be measured in promises. But Siegel's plan might be working. A sign hanging from a gate notes that the parking lot can be used for overflow parking at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

"You have people that have lived there for 18-plus years and would like to stay there," he says. "The profit potential may be not as good as other business transactions, but there's a sense of accomplishment in changing things. You can make money and improve people's quality of living at the same time."

Tooling Around N2

Back at Cambridge Community Center, discussion veers to the people who are not here, i.e., the apartment managers of the complexes that cause the most trouble. "We can't get them to come," Pearson laments.

There's five seconds of silence when a woman, a self-professed "document queen," asks how many of her colleagues are abiding by the new, stricter nuisance ordinances. Most leases have a clause allowing managers to enter a unit if they smell something weird, Liz Leone of Great Western Realty—which owns properties around town, which owns several properties in area—tells the council.

More silence.

Things will change, Leone says, when apartment owners realize that allowing drugs and prostitution to fester has financial consequences. "It's really a bad business decision and very shortsighted," she says. "Pretty soon, all the good tenants leave."

Kathi Horvath is quiet for most of the meeting, sitting back and absorbing it all. She manages the 208-unit Pinewood Crossing (764 E. Twain) and the 556-unit Pinewood (3600 Swenson). Two years ago, her company, Portland-Oregon-based Pacificap Properties Group, purchased the 30-plus-year-old properties—much to the delight of nearby apartment managers—refurbishing the units, paving parking lots, xeriscaping the open space and strengthening tenant application and screening procedures. In addition to background checks, prospective tenants' names are fed into a database that screens for such crimes as sex offenses. Gone are move-in concessions (One Month Free!!)—folks might trash the units. And if you owe money to another apartment complex, forget about living in Pinewood or Pinewood Crossing.

"We follow the rules of (federal housing law) Section 42, in which we go into communities, give people decent housing at affordable prices," says Horvath, noting that her best move has been empowering residents to take control of their neighborhoods.

"Residents would tell me (about) people selling drugs over at Royal Crest. These people would take Pinewood's parking spots. Now, I tell them to call the towing company and have had cars tagged and towed," Horvath says.

The improvement has been contagious. Some of the surrounding properties, including Parkview Point, Clock Tower and Bingo Suites have improved. "Steve (Siegel) evicted the residents that moved from Pinewood after we evicted them. Now when we have problems, we send out warnings. Three warnings and you're going to be in our office talking about your future residency. We're not going to lose good residents because we have one bad one."

Unlike many apartment complexes in the area, the 40-year-old Sugar Tree Apartments looks homey and quaint—a pearly white gate yielding to a row of small trees and a brown, two-story complex owned by a local company, Becker Enterprises. Like other managers, Nina Kurjeza, manager at the Sugar Tree Apartments (655 Sierra Vista) between Swenson and Paradise, refuses to identify bad managers or complexes.

"At one property, I don't want to mention the name, the manager was selling drugs out of her apartment," says Kurjeza, who came on as manager of the 48-unit complex in November. "We're supposed to be keeping drugs out and she was bringing them in. The security guard wrote it in a report and she's no longer there. When I got here, I saw hookers walking up and down the street and residents told me about being approached for drugs. The neighborhood has improved with Metro's help. My complex is quiet and I don't have anything to complain about. I don't see why all those apartment managers are complaining."

Pointe Blank

"While crime near densely populated public housing is not in itself uncommon, the residents of the Sierra Pointe Apartments in this particular case would obviously be much safer by receiving Section 8 vouchers so that they may live elsewhere. The centralization of public housing has been in most cases an absolute failure and it is time to end this glaring example of a property that does nothing but serve as a crime incubator."

—April 8, 2003, letter from Nevada Sen. Ensign to then-U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez.

Ask folks living and working in and around Sierra Pointe how dangerous the place is and you're likely to get the same response—very.

An employee at Big O Tires, about a block away on Maryland Parkway: "It's a war zone. In January, someone was shot and killed in front of the store. A few weeks ago, someone was killed on Sierra Vista Drive. That place is the projects."

The clerk at the Mini Mart up the street, where a 28-year-old was fatally shot on June 12: "You heard of the Wild, Wild, West? You're in it." Word has it that the shooting was caught on store surveillance and that it shows someone rifling through the dead man's pockets. The clerk says Metro has the tape. A police official declined to confirm the claim, citing an ongoing investigation.

A clerk at the 7-Eleven on Sierra Vista and Cambridge, responding to a question about violence in the area: "If you think that six people killed getting killed in the last few weeks right outside here is dangerous, then yeah."

A maintenance worker at Sierra Pointe: "It's a pretty rough neighborhood ... the roughest place I've ever worked in."

Even during the day, a trip through Sierra Pointe can be slightly harrowing. Viewed during a visit on a recent morning: a half-dozen young black men sharing what looked like a joint; others posted in walkways, almost like they're lookouts; a handful of folks make beer runs to the 7-Eleven. When I stopped in the office, a polite-enough receptionist said the manager was unavailable. When management did answer the phone, the Weekly's inquiries were referred to Dolores Trioke at BNR Management. She never responded before press time.

Sierra Pointe wasn't always troubled. Well run into mid-1990s, it began deteriorating when vacancy rates began rising, according to a series of lengthy investigative articles in the Las Vegas Sun in 2003. The stories paint a picture of a complex so overrun with crime that Sen. Ensign pressed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to cease funding it, the Clark County Housing Authority (which administered HUD funding) wanted nothing to do with it and residents wanted to escape from it. The Sun stories note that Sierra Vista Housing Associates, which owns the property, sued the housing authority for allegedly reneging on a HUD agreement to maintain a waiting list of tenants to fill vacancies. The authority also lied to prospective Sierra Pointe tenants about the complex's safety, according to the lawsuit, and directed them to other complexes owned by the authority.

Complaints from neighboring landlords and residents—about crime and mold—prompted a federal investigation. An attorney for Sierra Vista told the Sun that the landlords were jealous of Sierra Pointe's high occupancy rate. Reached in Washington, D.C., Michael Zerega, a spokesman for HUD's inspector general's office who was quoted in the articles, said he was unsure if the probe was completed.

"I can't say the investigation ever occurred," Zerega told the Weekly.

Patricia Sherwin Lucus, who has since left her post as executive director of the Clark County Housing Authority, told the Weekly that the county's 20-year contract with Sierra Pointe ran out in September 2003—and none too soon. "It's just not a very good area," she said in April. "There was high crime during the time we had the contract. We tried to help out, tried to get money to address the problems. Ultimately, it's up to the landlord to improve the property."

So why is HUD still funding Sierra Pointe?

"There were many allegations, but what ultimately came out was that the property was going through renovation at the time and was never a troubled property," says Ken LoBene, Nevada state coordinator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

He says significant improvements have been made at Sierra Pointe—new paint, better landscaping, improved security—and that management will do whatever it takes to make the complex safe. "Anytime cops are called to the property, a slip is dropped in the resident manager's box. On Monday morning, those slips are viewed and appropriate moves are taken, either sanctions or removal. Ownership and management will do whatever it takes to make it safe."

Larry Bush, communications officer for HUD's Pacific region, says the federal agency is satisfied with Sierra Pointe, and that the complex "was mired in controversy and problematic and now it's not."

Friday, Aug. 5, 9:30 p.m.

Sierra Pointe

1064 Sierra Vista Drive

Crack Alley seems to be waking up. I cruise the blocks surrounding it—Sierra Vista (people running to 7-Eleven), Cambridge (five guys loitering in a walkway), Lisbon (bare-chested black men standing next to a Jeep Cherokee) and Rome (a group of young Hispanics heading to the Burger King). Going south on Rome, I pull in front of the alley and ponder turning in. Thankfully, a cabbie is trying to maneuver between parked cars and Dumpsters.

The next day, 26-year-old Jesus Escoto-Gonzalez was fatally shot in the 3300 block of Athens Street, a block from Crack Alley. On Monday, cops arrested a 16-year-old and 14-year-old, charging both with murder.

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