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Cat Among the Pigeons

Things are looking up at this troubled Church Hill seniors' building, but two murders remain unsolved.



Building management staff and city officials are here to talk to the elderly residents of these subsidized apartments about safety and maintenance. They explain how to adjust the air conditioning and what to do if there's mold on the walls.

In the front row, a man named Esau Miller seethes. "Wait a minute, Travis," Miller says, addressing building manager Travis Henderson.

"Oh, here we go," another man says under his breath.

Miller wants answers. In the wake of two homicides here, Miller asks why a second guard hasn't been hired, and he complains about the back entrance of Church Hill House now being closed.

"Esau, we've been over this many times over many years," Henderson says, turning red.

Miller calls him "a big liar." Residents tell Miller, "Shut up."

Church Hill House has long been locked in a tug of war between Miller, an outspoken resident who has called everyone from the governor to a congressman with his concerns about safety, and WinnResidential, which owns the building and has promised big changes. The other residents just want to feel safe.

At last, things appear to be improving.

Church Hill House, a large brick building, stands in a rough neighborhood near Venable and 25th streets. People who don't live there often sneak into the building, residents say, including prostitutes and drug dealers.

"Well sometimes it's scary," says Bernice Greene, 80.

"They'll push by me" at the door, says Evelyn Pollard, 78, who's lived at Church Hill House for two decades.

Two elderly residents have been killed violently here in the last year and a half. James A. "Jake" Garner Jr., 62, was found in his apartment July 15, 2005. He'd been struck in the head with a blunt object and had incised wounds on his neck. George "Squirrel" Tucker Fox, 78, was found in his apartment April 26 of this year. He'd been stabbed in the chest and abdomen, and his neck had been slashed.

After Fox's death, WinnResidential promised that a new security system, a project long in the works, would be in place within 45 days. The company would spend $700,000 on new cameras for Church Hill House and nearby Fairmont House, said Project Director Gilbert Winn; they would be remotely monitored by a Des Moines, Iowa, security company. The security guard who checks IDs at the door would be assigned to patrol the floors during evenings and weekends.

The security upgrades accompany a $9 million building renovation, largely funded by tax credits. The federal agency of Housing and Urban Development gives Winn about $180,000 per month, or $2.16 million per year, in rent subsidies for all 296 units at Church Hill House and Fairmont House.

At the time of the Aug. 2 meeting, the new cameras had been installed and the system, including software to keep track of visitors, was nearly functional, building staff said.

"Obviously, in some sense, we feel as though we have an obligation to all the parties involved here," local HUD spokesman Lee Jones says. But while HUD offers funding and advice, it does not bear responsibility for what happens at Church Hill House because it is privately owned.

The Virginia Housing Development Authority, a state agency that administers the federal funding, regularly inspects the Church Hill House for physical condition and security. The complex scored 98 out of 100 points in its last inspection, prior to the murder of George Fox.

Now some extra eyes are on the building. It's been placed on the priority list of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's Human Services Cabinet, which visited in May and drew up a list of recommendations for management.

Thelma Watson, executive director of Senior Connections, says her agency is trying to help, too. "It is the responsibility of the management to make sure the residents are safe, but it's also a community issue as well," she says. To that end, local churches have been asked to become involved, and the city's new senior advocate, Yvette Jones, is working with management to revive the defunct tenants' council.

Watson says people like Esau Miller, "who are not afraid to speak out on unpopular issues," are essential to improving quality of life in places like Church Hill House. "We really need to be serious when they speak," she says, "and respond in a responsible way."

And residents, despite their dismissal of Miller's concerns, are still worried.

Mary Alice Smith, 70, says safety and security are "not good. It's coming along, but it's not good." George Fox lived next door to her, she says, in apartment 202. "They haven't even given us the first hint of who did it," she says. Both investigations are ongoing, police say, and there is nothing new to report.

Residents have their own theories.

Fox was a trusting, "free-hearted" man who "would do a man a favor in a minute," residents say. Ask Squirrel for a dollar, they say, and he would happily run up to his room and get it.

Fox distrusted elevators and always took the stairs, they say. The cameras in Church Hill House are positioned by the elevators. They imagine that one day someone he knew asked to borrow some money and followed him up the unwatched stairs to his apartment. "He probably said, 'Come on,' you know," Smith says.

Three of the 16 new cameras being added as part of the security upgrade are in stairwells, says Winn Development Project Director Gilbert Winn. "We have total coverage of the property, and we think it will make a huge difference," he says.

Residents can only speculate about the motive for Garner's killing. Born and raised in Richmond, Garner was Jimmy to his family and Jake to his friends. Estranged from his four sons, who live in Florida, he worked as a house painter in his younger days and fell on hard times.

Garner served time in prison for various charges, struggled with alcoholism and was homeless for a time. His life began to look brighter, says his sister, Glenda Whitt, when the state Department of Social Services helped Garner find an apartment at Church Hill House. He liked his new home, she says in an e-mail, "and he believed he was safe there."

Garner began going to church again, and when Whitt saw him or called him, she could tell he was sober. "I was so proud of him that so late in life he was making changes for the better," she says. "This was what our family hoped and prayed for."

Garner's guitar was his dearest possession and somehow, even in the most tumultuous phases of his life, he always managed to keep it with him. Garner's gravestone bears a lyric from his favorite singer, Bob Dylan: "Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me."

"No one deserves to die the way he did," Whitt says. "He deserved to live out his life in peace and contentment."

Until his murder and George Fox's are solved, some residents have had trouble finding their own peace. A woman who recently moved told Miller: "I can feel it in my bones. Somebody else is going to get hurt." S

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