Broad Street businesses such as Sound of Music studio suffered when one of Oliver Lawrence's many vacant properties burned in March 2007. Lawrence is in court Friday for violations related to a Grace Street property that also recently burned.
Oliver Lawrence, owner of hundreds of blighted properties in the city, faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and months of jail time when he appears in court this week for allowing his properties to fall into disrepair.
But for city officials eager to see justice done, convincing Richmond's judges that Lawrence's crimes deserve punishment has been nearly as difficult as getting one of the city's most errant land owners to mow his lawns.
“What's important is in the two-part system — we are the administrative branch that cites people and holds them accountable,” Richmond Director of Community Development Rachel Flynn says. “Only a court can fine or apply any jail time.”
So far the courts have not, suspending fines and jail time for Lawrence as they did at his most recent court appearance in July. Lawrence cut a tragic figure before Richmond General District Court Judge David Cheeks with his stubbly beard, untucked polo shirt, worn-out tennis shoes and seemingly confused countenance.
The first thing Lawrence told the judge proved false, explaining to Cheeks that his lawyer had been called away on “an emergency.”
“I've got things I need to do,” an impatient Lawrence then told the judge, who instructed court officers to attempt to contact the lawyer.
When Lawrence's lawyer arrived more than an hour later, he apologized, telling the court that he didn't know there was a hearing.
A city source close to the case says prosecutors could seek perjury charges against Lawrence based on what appears to have been a deliberate attempt to delay the court.
Meanwhile, Lawrence may find himself caught in another entanglement. Facing more than $350,000 in back property taxes, more than 800 citations for code violations and another $357,000-plus in suspended court fines, he suggested to Cheeks that he was drowning in his own slums.
In fact, Lawrence found an island refuge in Hanover County, where he owns a 7,400-square-foot mansion on 25 acres near Ashland. The home on Mechumps Creek Lane is assessed at $1,135,600, according to a county official. Taxes on the property are $4,366 twice yearly, with the most recent installment paid on time in May, although he has run afoul of county code enforcement before, a county spokesman says.
“I'm broke,” he professed to the judge. “I'll let you look at everything. I have absolutely nothing. … I'm guilty, your honor. All I'm asking for is time.”
When Lawrence appears before the judge Aug. 14, he'll be able to show he's done work on his three properties in the 200 block of East Grace Street. But the city source says the work was done “without a valid [building] permit.”