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Landlords, Guns and Arson 

For tenants, Colorado is still the Wild West

It was last summer, and Medina, 45, was renting a basement unit in a Denver suburb from an acquaintance. Living with Medina was his 80-year-old father, Fred Medina, whom Larry was taking care of. It had become clear over time that the Medinas landlord, a young man named Bob, had serious drug and alcohol problems.

Early one morning, Bob woke up the Medinas with loud yells. He was screaming, Help me, help me, Larry recalled. Larry went upstairs to find his landlord sitting at a table with blood trickling from his arms, and syringes and drugs in front of him. Bob was hallucinating, claiming someone was in his closet. Medina decided it was time to take away the drugs -- a decision Bob didnt approve of.

I grabbed the meth and I grabbed the needles, and I headed for the door, Medina recalled. And he pulled a gun on me.

Following the incident, Medina and his father decided to get out of the Denver area, where they had lived for 12 years. We figured, Lets go someplace quiet, Larry said.

They first moved to Alamosa, in the San Luis Valley, but Larry couldnt find work there. So a few months later, they began looking for a place to live in the Colorado Springs area. They found a mobile home for rent for $668 per month, at the Santa Fe Village trailer park in Fountain -- the city of 15,000 just south of the Springs that was in 1999 designated by The New York Times as Americas Millennium City, exemplifying the archetype of American life. The father and son moved into the trailer last November.

The Medinas qualified for housing assistance through the Fountain Housing Authority, and Larry found an assembly-line job earning $5.75 per hour. Along with his fathers Social Security income and a small pension, it was just barely enough to pay the bills. But Larry was looking forward to living peacefully, caring for his father and pursuing his hobbies of drawing and sculpting.

Instead, he says, he quickly discovered that he had traded one landlord nightmare for another.

Though his new home had passed an inspection by the Fountain Housing Authority, he soon began to encounter maintenance problems, which his new landlord refused to fix, he asserts. And the neighborhood turned out to be anything but someplace quiet.

Unbeknownst to the Medinas, they had landed in the middle of a feud between the landlord -- a 64-year-old ex-marine named Clarence Carlton Smith, who refers to many of his tenants as certified criminals and degenerates -- and several other trailer-park residents. The feud has since escalated to the point that someone tried to set fire to one of Smiths trailers, and to where a neighbor obtained a temporary restraining order against Smith due to never-proved allegations that he had threatened her with a shotgun.

Larry Medina spent the next several months battling to have his home repaired, and, ultimately, trying to break his lease. But what he discovered in the process is that local and state laws offer little recourse for tenants who are having problems with their landlords.

The $2,000 house

The Medinas rented their 12-by-52-foot trailer from Smith, who lives in Colorado Springs and owns and rents out five of the several dozen trailers at Santa Fe Village. Smith also owns approximately 10 other trailers around the Springs area; most are several decades old and range from $2,000 to $5,000 in assessed value.

Gradually, Larry began to discover the idiosyncrasies of his new home. The toilet wasn't properly bolted to the floor and would rock whenever someone sat down on it. The bathroom floor itself was weak, causing Larry to worry that his father would fall through.

Windows were missing cranks; a hole in the floor that had been designed for a dryer vent had been plugged shut with rags; water from the sink would shoot out of the bathroom drain; and electrical wiring was exposed, with sparks flying when light switches were flipped. The trailer also had a rodent problem. "We've got mouse shit all over the place," Medina complained.

Medina says he repeatedly asked Smith to fix the problems, with little success. But Smith's failure in repairs didn't reflect a lack of interest in his properties, Medina says. On the contrary, Medina would soon accuse Smith of being so interested in his tenants that he would enter their trailers without permission when nobody was home, in order to snoop around -- a charge Smith denies.

According to Medina, just a few weeks after he and his father moved into their trailer, they began sensing things had been moved around or were missing. In December, Medina called the Fountain Police Department, saying he was missing papers, drawing pencils and a compass, and that he suspected Smith. The police told him it was a "civil matter" and did not investigate, Medina says.

You could see your breath

The Medinas weren't the only tenants at Santa Fe Village reporting problems with Smith. At the same time, Lewis "Bud" Crippen, his wife, Jackie, and their 8-year-old daughter, were about to be evicted from another one of Smith's trailers at Santa Fe Village, where they had lived for about a year.

Bud Crippen, who has since moved, says that for the entire time they lived in Smith's trailer, the gas furnace would frequently go out, leaving the family without reliable heat in the winter.

"There were times I woke up and you could see your breath," Bud Crippen recalled.

He says Smith "totally disregarded" repeated requests to have the furnace fixed. Eventually, Crippen says, he called the City of Fountain's Code Enforcement Department. He said department officials told him they were aware of problems with Smith's properties but discouraged him from filing a formal complaint. According to Crippen, a department official told him, "We know about Mr. Smith. We know about the problems. But if we come down and inspect it, you'll get evicted. It'll be condemned."

Fountain's chief code enforcement officer, Juan Flores, said he didn't specifically recall such a conversation with Crippen. However, Flores said the Code Enforcement Department does make a point of informing tenants of the risk that they might end up homeless as a result of an inspection. In some cases, a property may be condemned and shuttered.

"We make sure the tenant knows," Flores said.

Crippen says that based on the conversation, he decided to back off. "I didn't have any other place to go."

Eventually, Crippen says, he began to withhold rent from Smith, hoping that would get Smith to fix the furnace. Instead, Smith evicted the Crippens, right around Christmas.

The Crippens have since found a new apartment. Recently, they received a notice from Smith saying they still owe him back rent.

Like Medina, Bud Crippen said he also witnessed strange behavior on the part of Smith.

"He was always hanging around, walking through the yard," Crippen said.

Cops not his friend

Smith, who has owned trailers in Santa Fe Village for 30 years, acknowledges spending a lot of time in the trailer park. The reason, he says, is that he works hard to keep up his properties, and he and his wife do most of the work themselves. And after somebody attempted to set one of his trailers on fire in late January, he and his wife began staying in the vacant trailer constantly to protect it, he said.

Smith denies any negligence in maintaining his trailers. He says he tried to address the Medinas' concerns but that Larry Medina would never agree to a time when Smith could enter the trailer to perform maintenance work.

The Crippens' complaints about the furnace were "legitimate," Smith concedes. However, he says he tried repeatedly to fix the furnace, without success, despite calling in professionals.

"They couldn't find the problem," Smith recalled.

In a recent interview, Smith maintained that in fact, he has always been an advocate for stronger code enforcement -- to the point of pestering local police and code enforcement officials. Police records show that Smith would frequently call police to complain that tenants and neighbors in Santa Fe Village were dealing or using drugs, allowing their dogs to run loose, causing disturbances, keeping vehicles parked on other people's property or committing theft or vandalism.

Smith himself estimates he has made "probably hundreds of contacts" with police and code enforcement over the last 30 years.

"I have been frustrating and aggravating the code enforcement and law enforcement for years; I haven't been hiding out from them," Smith said. "I have not been a friend of the police out there; the police have not been my friend."

Despite his efforts, Smith complains that code-enforcement officials have refused to do their jobs of cleaning up neighborhoods, and police have refused to do their job of enforcing drug laws. He attributes this to "incompetence" and "corruption," though he did not provide any specifics.

"I have a fundamental skepticism about the efficiency and integrity of government in all of its manifestations," he said. "I despise the corruption and the misuse of power."

Smith says he's merely being vigilant in fighting the deterioration of the neighborhood and the community in general. Colorado Springs is facing a "huge problem" with criminals and drug users corrupting and destroying neighborhoods, he says. If only police and code-enforcement officials would take action to clean up neighborhoods, it could be stopped, he says. "Code enforcement could be a tremendous weapon to prevent the deterioration of this city."

In terms of his own properties, Smith says he could attract better tenants if the neighborhood were kept up to code. As it is, he has ended up renting properties to "criminals." In January, he evicted five tenants, all of whom he claims had failed to pay rent and were abusing his properties.

The Medinas and Crippens, he says, were exceptions. Smith describes both families as generally good tenants and says that the Medinas always paid their rent on time. Smith says he wanted to fix the problems with the Medinas' trailer, because he wanted them to stay.

While Smith and his wife now live in a single-family home in the Springs, he points out that he himself lived in mobile homes for 25 years. During five of those years, Smith says, he lived with his wife and three children in the same trailer that was later rented to Medina.

Freak shows

One current resident of the trailer park who does not rent from Smith, Mary Warner, says she supports his efforts to clean up the neighborhood. "I was really glad he moved out some of the tenants," Warner said. She said Smith and his wife have been working hard on their properties and are "very good people."

But other tenants and neighbors who have dealt with Smith over the years --in both Fountain and Colorado Springs -- have accused him of harassment.

Five years ago, Smith complained to the City of Colorado Springs that a motel adjacent to one of his Springs properties, on East Platte Avenue, was a haven for drug users and criminals who would litter his property with used syringes and other trash. The city, he says, wouldn't help.

The motel owners, meanwhile, threatened to sue Smith, accusing him of harassing them and committing libel and slander against their establishment.

In the Santa Fe Village in Fountain, tenants and neighbors say Smith's behavior has crossed the line. "He's a freak," Larry Medina complained. "He loves to be in everybody's business."

Recently, tensions in the trailer park reached the boiling point.

Emagene Casteel, 32, who owns a mobile home at Santa Fe Village, says her problems with Smith began last year when her stepdaughter, Jamie, and the daughter's boyfriend, Cory Rapp, moved into one of Smith's trailers across the street.

Smith says Rapp and Jamie Casteel didn't pay their rent and began allowing acquaintances to stay in the trailer without his permission. He eventually evicted the couple, at which point they moved into another trailer in the same park. A few months later, they moved in with Emagene Casteel and her husband, Glenn.

Smith says Rapp and Jamie Casteel left his trailer "trashed," with dog excrement all over the floor. Emagene Casteel says Smith began pestering her because he claimed her stepdaughter owed him back rent and damages. She says Smith began "stalking" her by standing outside her home and following her around.

"It made me feel very creeped and scared," Casteel ultimately testified in a court case over the matter. "He follows me pretty much everywhere I go."

Smith, meanwhile, says he was the victim of harassment and intimidation by Rapp and the Casteels, who were retaliating against him for having evicted Rapp and Jamie Casteel. He says members of the household would taunt him as he went about maintenance work around the trailer park. On one occasion, someone stood in the dark near the Casteels' trailer, saying, "Kill, kill, kill," Smith said.

At about 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 26, someone attempted to set fire to the trailer where Rapp and Jamie Casteel had previously stayed, which was by then vacant. A truck driver going by spotted the fire and used a fire extinguisher from his cab to put it out. The Fountain Fire Department investigated the fire and found that a dresser drawer placed on the trailer's porch appeared to have been set on fire by someone using an accelerant. The damage was limited to about $25.

"It looked like someone threw a match and took off," said Darin Anstine, Fountain's fire chief.

Anstine said fire investigators interviewed several people but have no suspects. "The tenants are saying Carlton Smith started the fire; Smith says the tenants started the fire."

'Certifiable criminals'

Subsequent to the fire, someone also vandalized the door to the same trailer. At that point, Smith and his wife began staying in the trailer day and night. Smith kept a hunting rifle for protection, which he later replaced with a shotgun.

"I felt that I had to stay on the premises virtually continuously," he later testified. The park was full of "certifiable criminals" who would "attack" his property otherwise, he said. The Casteels across the street, he said, were "belligerent parties."

Emagene Casteel says Smith intensified his stalking. One day in February, she said, Smith pointed a shotgun at her and her uncle, who was visiting, as they drove down the street on their way to the store. Afterward, "we were afraid to come home," she said.

Casteel didn't report the incident at first, but when Smith allegedly pointed a gun at her brother a few days later, she called police. However, officers who arrived on the scene said they found insufficient evidence to arrest Smith, who denies threatening Casteel with the weapon.

"I have four years in the Marine Corps," Smith said. "I have never pointed a gun at anyone, not even in the military."

Casteel went to El Paso County Court, where she filed for a restraining order against Smith on Feb. 28. A temporary order was granted on March 13, but in a court hearing on April 12, Magistrate Denise Peacock declined to make it permanent, citing lack of credible evidence. During the hearing, Casteel contradicted her previous sworn statements by testifying that it wasn't Smith, but his wife, who had pointed the gun at her.

Nonetheless, Peacock admonished Smith, suggesting he might be going too far in his efforts to protect his property.

"He may be a little too vigilant in what he's doing, and what he's doing is causing fear for Ms. Casteel," Peacock said of Smith. Peacock said she realized Smith was concerned about his property, but added, "he needs to exercise a little bit more common sense about how he's guarding it."

The wobbly toilet

Meanwhile, as the Smith-Casteel feud unfolded, Larry Medina had gotten fed up with his living situation, he says. He began repeatedly contacting officials from city code enforcement and the Fountain Housing Authority, asking for help.

As it turned out, the City of Fountain had enacted a new, aggressive property maintenance code for rental units in November 2000, which established minimum standards for basic heating, water, lighting, ventilation, electrical systems, plumbing, and general health and safety.

David Smedsrud, city planner for Fountain, said the code was enacted due to frequent complaints about local landlords. The city already had a building code, but that code didn't address the interior condition of buildings or the working condition of utilities and appliances.

Fountain also put in place a relatively ambitious enforcement program: Over the next three years, the city hopes to perform systematic inspections of every building identified as rental property.

In the meantime, enforcement officers will also conduct inspections upon request. Medina insisted that they inspect his trailer, and unlike Crippen, he was determined not to back off despite the possibility that he might face eviction. On Feb. 26, the code enforcement department inspected the unit and confirmed many of the problems Medina had complained of: hazardous electrical wiring, a leaky roof, missing window cranks, the wobbly toilet, a rattling noise in the furnace, drainage problems, mouse droppings and a lack of rain gutters. Under the new ordinance, Smith was ordered to rectify the problems within 45 days.

Smith, represented by an attorney, Norene Simpson -- who is also his daughter -- appealed the findings to the city's Board of Adjustment. There, Simpson told the board that Smith didn't feel the property maintenance code applied to older mobile homes. Moreover, she said the alleged violations didn't constitute health or fire hazards. And she questioned why her father was being picked on, arguing that many other trailers had similar problems.

Simpson argued that Smith was being subjected to "unequal enforcement" of the property maintenance code, constituting a violation of the state and U.S. constitutional guarantees of equality under the law.

However, the Board of Adjustment, meeting on April 8, upheld the Code Enforcement Department's findings.

Meanwhile, Medina had asked the Fountain Housing Authority to re-inspect his trailer. Tired of dealing with Smith, Medina was hoping that if the Housing Authority failed the unit, he could break the lease without owing rent for the remainder of his lease term. Indeed, upon reinspection, the Housing Authority did find that the trailer failed to meet federal housing standards designed to ensure "safe, decent and sanitary housing." It notified Smith that if the problems were not fixed by March 25, the agency would terminate the lease effective March 31.

Medina faults the Housing Authority for not having discovered the maintenance problems during its initial inspection. "They just let it fly," he complained.

But Kathy Roby, director of the Fountain Housing Authority, said that sometimes problems aren't discovered until a person has lived in a unit for a while. When a tenant has chosen a place to live and is asking Housing for assistance, she said, "We do try to accommodate the tenant as best we can, because it is their choice."

On March 25, Simpson wrote to the Housing Authority to notify them that Smith had "substantially complied" with the ordered repairs. But Housing, noting that Medina was still unhappy, broke the lease. Medina moved out, and Smith refunded his $600 deposit.

But the end result was still that Medina and his elderly father found themselves homeless. They moved in temporarily with Larry's brother in Pueblo and Larry ended up quitting his job in Fountain due to the long commute. Now, he's looking for another job and a new place for him and his father to live.

A lawless dilemma

The seemingly lawless situation at the Santa Fe Village is reflective of Colorado's lack of laws pertaining to landlord-tenant relations, according to advocates for tenants' rights.

A recent study by law students at the University of Denver found that Colorado is the only state in the country besides Arkansas that doesn't have some sort of law on the books addressing tenants' rights.

Sympathetic state lawmakers have tried for decades to get legislation passed that would give tenants some protections, but the proposals have all failed, in part due to heavy opposition from the Colorado Apartment Association, a lobby representing landlords. The landlords argue that problems with dilapidated rental units should be addressed via local code-enforcement agencies, not through state laws.

Advocates for tenants' rights, meanwhile, maintain the experiences of people like the Crippens and the Medinas demonstrate that even with a progressive property maintenance code such as Fountain's, there are few protections for individual tenants.

Flores, Fountain's chief code enforcement officer, acknowledges that the city's property maintenance code has shortcomings. While he hopes the code will improve overall living conditions for renters over time, individual tenants who call and request inspections may risk losing their homes, he said.

The City of Fountain offers little in terms of assistance for tenants who get kicked out due to code-enforcement actions. Flores said the City may help by referring the tenants to local churches or getting them lodging vouchers from the Fire Department.

Yet, before the code was enacted, there was little or nothing a tenant could do about poor living conditions, Fountain officials say.

"There was really no recourse," said Smedsrud, the city planner.

That's still the case in unincorporated areas of El Paso County, which has no code pertaining to the habitability of rental units. And small communities typically don't have such codes because of the cost of enforcing them, Smedsrud said.

The City of Colorado Springs does have a code similar to Fountain's and will respond to inspection requests, but it has no systematic inspection program. "We don't have the manpower," said Karon DiPentino, the city's code enforcement administrator.

Earlier this spring at the state capitol, Sen. Mary Ellen Epps, R-Colorado Springs, tried to pass a bill that would have given a tenant the right to break a lease if a landlord failed to fix a "major defect" with the rental unit. The bill, opposed by the landlords' lobby, lost narrowly. Many of the legislators who voted against the bill had received campaign contributions from the landlords' lobby.

Following the defeat of Epps' bill, Sen. Bill Thiebaut, D-Pueblo, introduced an even more ambitious bill that would give tenants numerous legal remedies in dealing with landlords who refuse to keep rental units in good condition. The bill was still pending at press time.

Medina said he would support any law that gives tenants more protections. He said people like Smith take advantage of poor, uneducated renters like himself, who can't afford to hire attorneys to represent them, and who usually end up not complaining because they have nowhere to go if they get thrown out on the street.

"I have no rights," Medina said. "I'm tired of it."

  • For tenants, Colorado is still the Wild West

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