Local news round-up May 7, 2012

Classes and finals may be over, but people in Morgantown are still setting fires. According to the Morgantown Police Department, three suspects were arrested for throwing items into fires over the weekend. According to the press release:

On May 5, 2012, Mark David Euga Jr., 20 years of age was arrested at the corner of North Spruce Street and Fife Street as he was throwing combustible items on a street fire. Mr. Euga was also charged with underage consumption at the time of this incident.

On May 5, 2012, Kyle G. Whelen, 20 years of age was arrested at the corner of Dallas and Forest Street as he was throwing a couch on a street fire. Mr. Whelen was also charged with underage consumption at the time of this incident.

On May 5, 2012, Justin David Myers, 21 years of age was cited for throwing combustible material onto a fire that was burning in a dumpster at the corner of 3rd Avenue and McClain Alley.

This reminded me to check in with West Virginia University officials to see when they would be releasing the numbers of expulsions and suspensions for this year. The numbers will be ready next week. According to Assistant Dean of Students Melanie Cook, the numbers will show total violations and sanctions for academic and behavioral violations.

In other words, they won’t state how many students were expelled specifically for fire-related activity. When I asked how that would risk identifying students, Cook responded, “Our University counsel has advised us against doing so; they think it could be possible for others to identify them.”

Recently the Dominion Post has published a couple updates on stories I’ve been following.

  • Landlord ordered to pay $20K – In February 2008, Morgantown landlord Gary Walden settled a civil lawsuit by agreeing to pay $175,000 to tenants he was accused of sexually harassing or groping, and a $50,000 fine for violating the West Virginia Fair Housing Act. As part of the settlement, Walden was barred from nearly all contact with tenants for eight years, and if he had to make contact with a tenant he was required to fill out an incident report within 12 hours for the West Virginia Human Rights Commission to review. In September 2008, the Human Rights Commission alleged that Walden violated the terms of the settlement by harassing tenants, having contact with tenants when he wasn’t supposed to, and by not providing or filing some documents required by the settlement. The hearings were held between September and December 2008, but the judge has just recently ruled Walden to be contempt of the settlement agreement in four areas: 1) Intentionally initiated direct contact with tenants and improperly entered leased dwellings; 2) Failed to maintain complete and timely records related to tenant contact and dwelling entry; 3) Failed to maintain and provide tenant information; 4) Failed to provide notices of Fair Housing Rights to tenants. Walden was ordered to pay $5,000 for each violation to the Human Rights Commission. In February 2012, Walden was charged with conspiracy and entering without breaking after a tenant woke up to find him sitting on her bed and rubbing her leg while she slept. According to the DP’s article, that case is still pending.

And if anyone is interested, I have completed my Master’s research project, “Inspecting Sunnyside” – Creating a Blog About Off-Campus Student Housing and Student Issues. It’s now available to view on wvuScholar. Also, I’m graduating. Finally.

– Leann

City and WVU officials agree that culture in Morgantown needs to be changed to stop fires

Some members of Morgantown’s City Council met today with the city’s fire chief, fire marshall and police chief, as well as several representatives from West Virginia University to discuss how to prevent students from setting street fires.

The thing they all agreed on – the culture needs to change.

Morgantown City Manager Terrance Moore started the meeting by saying it was originally meant to be for officials to discuss protocols and follow-up strategies for the fires that were set during St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Morgantown. They then extended the invitation to some property owners and representatives from West Virginia University.

City and university officials are used to fires taking place after games, but St. Patrick’s Day took them by surprise, Moore said.

“It’s gotten to a point where Morgantown is having this expeience not because of WVU students specifically, but because of the reputation,” Moore said. “[The problem has gone] above and beyond WVU students, and it’s been that way for a while.”

Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston was given the floor first. He said the department had every available resource out working the night of St. Patrick’s Day – day and afternoon shifts stayed over and the evening shift came in early. The city currently has 62 police officers.

One thing he wanted to make clear is how officers handle situations like a large crowd of people rioting. In videos posted online, people can be seen throwing objects at officers. Preston was asked why those people weren’t arrested.

“We don’t have the manpower to make all those arrests,” Preston said.

When an officer makes an arrest, that takes them off the streets patrolling for 1.5 to 2.5 hours. Instead, officers try to stop or clear out the large crowd first, then address smaller issues.

Preston said he still had reserves he didn’t have to use, but he wasn’t satisfied with conduct of rioters or the results. Tear gas and bean bags were not used to clear out the crowds because overreaction would have escalated the situation.

Deputy Mayor Bane then asked if the police were helping the firefighters because some were being restricted from reaching fires and had objects thrown at them.

Morgantown Fire Chief Mark Casavasos said that was a common occurrence for them.

However, there were several areas where firefighters and police officers were on the scene working together, Preston said.

Preston blamed the culture of Morgantown for making people think it’s acceptable to burn couches, pointing out that businesses sell candles in the shape of couches (see below).

“We’re allowing and perpetuating this culture,” Preston said. “One bad weekend is only symptomatic of the culture.”

Corey Farris, WVU Director of Housing and Interim Dean of Students, said the university is not happy with the incidents, and that it’s not what they’re teaching students to do.

According to the student code of conduct, the university can take actions against students who break the law on or off campus. Once it has been reported to the university that a student has broke the law, the student is sent an e-mail, and within about two weeks will have to attend a student conduct hearing. The decision is then made whether or not to suspend or expel the student.

The university and city police alert the university when students break the law. Farris said they also catch students through posts on Facebook and by reading the newspaper.

Assistant Vice President of University Communications Becky Lofstead said that the university needs to be more proactive by publicizing the number of students who are expelled or suspended so that students understand that there are consequences.

Both Farris and WVU Police Chief Bob Roberts agreed that alcohol is the reason fires are started.

There were “far less problems” when bars were open to 2 a.m. instead of 3 a.m., Roberts said. Now the WVU police are doing more DUI arrests than ever.

“You have a tradition,” Casavasos said. “As much as you don’t want it, you have it. It’s not going away. I can see it carrying on 20, 30, 40 years.

“The problem won’t go to sleep following large scale events. We’ll continue to have this problem. We have to change this culture. The more we try to push it, the more they’ll do it. This is becoming a culture with them and a way to celebrate.”

Chief Casavasos had three suggestions to reduce fires:

  1. Give jail time for setting fires
  2. Double fines from $1,000 to $2,000
  3. Bring in the West Virginia State Fire Marshall because they are able to make arrests, unlike the city fire marshal

He continued to say that over the 14-15 years he’s served as a firefighter, the biggest problem is house parties, and he’s seeing them grow. He’s pulled 200-300 people out of two-bedroom apartments, and at one residence in Sunnyside there were 1,000 people inside.

The issue with having so many people in the houses is that the overcrowding could cause the house to collapse. Many of the houses are very old and aren’t built to hold that amount of people.

Bane expressed his concern already over next year’s home game against the University of Oklahoma and what kind of chaos will occur if WVU wins. He suggested a campaign going into the next school year that would show statistics of students suspended/expelled for setting fires.

Lofstead said they are already in process of doing something along those lines.

Hearings will begin next week for students arrested during St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

– Leann

Charleston Daily Mail story talks about mold legislation

If you’ve been keeping up with Inspecting Sunnyside, the issues with mold and bedbugs in Morgantown aren’t new to you.

In today’s Charleston Daily Mail, there’s an article about House Bill 4425, which addresses the issue of mold in rental housing.

The full article is available here – Bill tackles continuing mold issue

According to the article:

The state House of Delegates unanimously passed a bill last week that would require landlords to address mold problems when they are reported. It is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Under normal Senate rules, the bill would have to pass the committee by Wednesday to be voted on by Saturday, the last day of the regular session.

One part of the story that’s a bit disheartening is the writers of the original bill said the current version has been watered down. The amended version no longer allows for a tenant to break his or her lease if the landlord does not address the problem and the home is uninhabitable.

Introduced version:

Committee substitute:

I’ll make sure to keep checking on the status of the bill tomorrow and updating when I can.

– Leann

House Bill 4425 passes the House, communicated to the Senate

House Bill 4425, which would would require landlords in West Virginia to address issues of the accumulation of moisture and the growth of mold, passed the House today and has been communicated to the Senate.

The bill was created by West Virginia University Student Government Association Off-Campus Housing Director Earl Hewitt, Carrie Showalter of WVU Student Legal Services and Nancy Key of Environmental Health & Safety.

Last week, members of the SGA traveled to the Capitol to help push for the bill. (West Virginia University students push for statewide bill on mold regulations)

You can follow the status of the bill here – House Bill 4425.

You can read the bill here – HB 4425 Text.

– Leann

That time my landlord left my door open and unlocked for an undetermined amount of time…

I just wanted to do a quick update today because I’m getting some new traffic thanks to a great article published in today’s edition of The Charleston Daily Mail – “Blog shines light on WVU off-campus housing.”

Not all landlords are bad. I’ve had some great experiences with landlords who immediately come out and fix things. But everyone has at least one story. And I’d like to share one, and hopefully some of you might like to share some in the comment section, as well.

When I was working in Clarksburg at the Exponent-Telegram, I was living in Morgantown. That’s about a 45-minute drive. One day I was working one of the later shifts – either until 8 or 9:30 p.m., and someone was supposed to stop by my apartment and fix something. I can’t even remember what it was.

So I get home after dark, and I notice that my front door is open about an inch. Not just unlocked, but actually open. My first thought wasn’t “what if there’s a murderer inside?” it was “OH MY GOD, I hope my cat didn’t get out!” My cat, Pinkus, has FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), and she isn’t allowed to go outside. She can infect other kitties if she bites them, and she’s pretty vicious sometimes, as you can tell:

I went inside my apartment, found Pinkus napping safely inside, and then started worrying about serial killers. I checked the shower, and all the closets, then got furious. Why on earth would they leave my front door cracked open, for who knows how many hours? I’m sure they didn’t show up past 5 p.m., and it was at least past 8:30 p.m. when I got home.

The next day I called my landlord and asked about my door being left open. Her excuse? “Well, they said you had left the door cracked open, so they left it like they found it.”

First: No, I didn’t. I never leave my door open. I always, ALWAYS double-check that my door is locked because I’m paranoid/perhaps a little OCD.

Second: If I HAD left my door open, and it’s obvious that I wasn’t home, why would you leave it open? I once left my car unlocked over night at this place and had my GPS and iPod stolen out of my car. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone walked right in my place and stole things.

Third: Why did no one call me? Wouldn’t it make sense that if no one was home, maybe the door shouldn’t have been open? They had my cell phone number, they could have easily made a quick call to check about the door.

Well, now I’m all heated up over the situation again, even though it happened several years ago. Anyone have any good stories that still upset you?

– Leann

When is an individual considered a sex offender in West Virginia?

On my last post about Morgantown landlord Gary Walden’s history of harassment, a commenter questioned why he wasn’t registered as a sex offender in West Virginia.

If you were unaware, sex offenders have to register with the state they live in, and you can find this information on www.familywatchdog.us to see if there are any in your neighborhood.

I called West Virginia State Police Public Information Officer Sgt. Michael Baylous to find out when someone must register as a sex offender. He suggested I speak with Terri Swecker, the coordinator of the sex-offender registration for the West Virginia State Police.

Swecker said that a person must register as a sex offender when they have been convicted of first, second or third degree sexual abuse, which is rape or inappropriate touching. Sexual harassment is not a registrable offense.

According to West Virginia State Code §61-8B-7, a person is guilty of first-degree sexual abuse when a person subjects another person to sexual contact without his/her consent, and the lack of consent results from forcible compulsion. Sexual contact is defined as “any intentional touching, either directly or through clothing, of the breasts, buttocks, anus or any part of the sex organs of another person, or intentional touching of any part of another person’s body by the actor’s sex organs, where the victim is not married to the actor and the touching is done for the purpose of gratifying the sexual desire of either party.”

(photo credit: http://www.legis.state.wv.us)

In 2006, Walden was sued by a tenant for sexual harassment. According to the West Virginia Record, the complaint stated “The Defendants have repeatedly subjected the Complainant to unlawful sexual harassment and have created a sexually hostile environment…”

According to the WV Record article:

  • [Stacie] Summers says she sought to rent Apartment B in one of the Walden’s apartment buildings in Westover on Jan. 20, 2005. When she met Gary Walden at the apartment, she says he fondled her breasts.
  • Summers says that Walden presented the lease, he again attempted to fondle her breasts. Summers says this prevented her from reading the full lease.
  • Walden again tried to fondle her breasts, she says, when he drove her to an ATM machine to collect rent money.
  • On another occasion, he tried to get one of his employees to touch Summers’ breasts, she says.
  • In March 2005, Summers says she did not have rent money when Walden confronted her about it, and he told her “Well, you are going to have to give me some head.”

Walden settled the sexual harassment suit in 2008, and was required to pay $175,000 to his victims, and was barred from coming into contact with his tenants for eight years.

So, the short answer is that Walden did not have to register as a sexual offender because he was not convicted of sexual abuse – he reached a settlement in a sexual harassment case.

In case you haven’t been keeping up, Walden was arrested on Monday for entering a tenant’s apartment while she was sleeping. She woke up to find Walden rubbing her leg.

– Leann

Morgantown landlord Walden has history of harassment

After hearing about Morgantown landlord Gary Walden being charged with entering without breaking and conspiracy, I decided to do some more research.

In April 2006, a renter, Stacie Summers, sued Walden for sexual harassment. Summers claimed that Gary Walden “repeatedly fondled her breasts and unfairly raised her rent.”

In February 2008, Gary Walden was charged with sexually harassing tenants. He was forced to pay $175,000 to his victims and was barred from contacting his tenants for eight years, which would end in 2016.

EDIT: 2/24/12 – Walden settled the sexual harassment lawsuit, so he was not charged.

In September 2008, four women testified that after Gary Walden was barred from having contact from tenants, that he visited their rental units unannounced, and harassed one over the original complaint against him. Tenants claimed he “continued to ask for sexual favors and harass them.

In October 2008, Gary Walden’s wife, Tina Walden, told the Human Rights Commission that “he is distancing himself from the family’s rental business and concentrating on manufactured housing.”

I found some reviews of the Waldens’ properties on DubVLandlords.com. There are only six reviews, but all are negative. I’m not presenting these as fact, as they are anonymous. Two posts, which were were made in 2011 and 2010, claim that Gary Walden entered their apartments while they were sleeping. (Click reviews to enlarge.)

This one goes into some more detail, but again claims that Walden entered the apartment without any notice.

Walden’s properties are registered with the city under Tina Walden. Tina is also listed as a defendant in his 2006 sexual harassment case.

The Waldens have approximately 10 properties registered within Morgantown city limits, which are listed on the city’s website. Their properties are located on Richwood Avenue, Sabraton Alley, Fife Street, Beverly Avenue, Mason Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s possible that they own several more properties that are outside of city limits in Sabraton, Westover, etc., but I can’t reach city officials because it is past 5 p.m. I’m going to make some calls tomorrow to find out more.

– Leann