San Diego Let's say you're a single mom in your mid-30s. You've recently taken your 2-year-old son and 12-year-old dog and moved away from your husband. The divorce is ugly, and your job search is tough. You'd like to move back in with your parents in Illinois, but the court says that taking your son out of California would be considered kidnapping until the divorce is final. You find an apartment in what seems like a good neighborhood in Ocean Beach. You sign a six-month lease and pay $1050 for the first month's rent and $1300 for the deposit. But within a week of moving in, you complain to police that the ex-con who lives in the building has raped you in your own apartment while your son slept nearby. I'm sure you're thinking it couldn't get much worse. But it does. Despite your pleas, despite letters from a police detective, social workers, and your psychologist, the apartment manager won't release you from your lease or refund your deposit.
According to a police report, this is what happened to 37-year-old Karen Howes last fall while she rented at the Nimitz Pointe apartments at 2401 Seaside, just off Nimitz Boulevard near the west end of Interstate 8. Howes found Nimitz Pointe after an apartment search she describes as "extremely difficult because I have a two-year-old and a rottweiler-mix dog."
Nimitz Pointe seemed like an answer to Howes's prayers. "It was close to my son's day care, right across the street from Dusty Rhodes Dog Park, and really close to Dog Beach. And I love the ocean. The building wasn't so nice, but hey, I have a dog and I have a kid."
Howes's father, who had flown in from Chicago, helped her move on October 27, 2006. "I moved into apartment 107, which is right by the office."
In a nearby apartment lived a 28-year-old man with prior convictions for theft, possession of stolen property, and possession of methamphetamine. Howes did not know about her neighbor's criminal past when she met him two or three days after moving in. "I had snuck out one night," she recalls, "because my dad was driving me crazy and I wanted to smoke a cigarette. So I was outside, and I ran into [the neighbor], and we had a chat. He was really forward with me, and I told him, 'No, I am completely not interested.' I told him straight-out, 'I am in the middle of a nasty divorce. I'm totally not interested in any romantic relationship, absolutely not.' "
After meeting her neighbor, Howes says, "I'm trying to avoid him, but he keeps knocking on my door. He comes and meets my dad one day. He is on me like white on rice. Every time I turn around, the guy is right there."
Howes mentioned to the man during their first conversation that her TV had been damaged during the move. One night, he knocked on her door and asked her and her son to come watch the movie Over the Hedge at his house. "He gets my kid completely worked up on the idea, so I said, 'All right, we will come down and watch Over the Hedge.' So I left my dad in my apartment, and we went and watched half of it, and we came back. I told my dad, 'This guy is really a creep. He is really nervous and jumpy.'
"I put my dad on a plane on Halloween. Next day, November 1, I drop my kid at day care, and I'm out running errands. I came back to the apartment at about 3:30 with a million bags. I walk up to my door with four or five large bags and five more still in the car, and [the neighbor] is standing at my door. I asked, 'What are you doing here?' 'Oh, I've been looking for you all day. Let me help you with those bags.' 'No, I'm fine.' 'No, no, I insist.' 'No, I can get it.' He's not taking no for an answer, and he keeps following me. I told him I had to walk my dog, and he says, 'Well, I'm coming with you.' He smelled a little boozie; it was clear he'd been drinking. I said, 'No, thanks. I'll walk my own dog.' But he grabs my dog and starts walking a million miles a minute. And I am running after him in heels, yelling, 'Give me my dog. I will walk my dog.' "
Howes says he walked her dog several blocks to Collier Park and stopped at a bench. She caught up and sat down on the bench, at which point the man, she says, "tries to kiss me. I said, 'No!' And he said, 'Okay, it is totally cool. I completely understand,' and he backed off. I said, 'I have to take my dog home. I have to get my kid.' So he walks me home, and I put my dog back in my apartment. He goes to his apartment and is back at my door in a minute, and he has one of these big 32-ouncers of beer. I said, 'I am going to get my kid,' and he asked, 'When are you going to be back?' "
Despite her neighbor's unwanted advances and attentions, Howes didn't consider calling the police. "I just thought he was a big flake. And when I told him no, he immediately backed off. And the last thing I wanted was more problems."
At 6:30 that evening, Howes says she was back in her apartment eating Pick Up Stix with her son when the neighbor knocked on the door. "He seems completely normal, really calmed down. And he said, 'Just came over to see if your son wants to watch the rest of the movie.' I said, 'No, I don't think that is the best idea.' He said, 'Come on,' and my son is yelling that he wants to watch the movie. So I said, 'Okay,' and we watched the rest of the movie."
When the movie ended, Howes says, she took her son back to her apartment to put him to bed. Her neighbor asked if he could come and see if he could fix her TV. Once the child was asleep, Howes stepped outside into the hall to smoke a cigarette and drink a beer. The man, also having a beer, came with her. "Everything seemed really calm," she recalls, "but pretty soon he starts hitting on me again, and I said, 'No, absolutely not.' "
Howes told police what happened next. "I went into my bedroom about 10:00 p.m.," the police crime report quotes Howes. "[The neighbor] followed me into my bedroom and started touching my breasts, stomach, and crotch. I told him, 'No!' Then he pushed me down on the bed. He pulled my pants and panties off. I told him multiple times 'No! Stop!' He took his pants off and got on top of me. He penetrated me with his penis. I didn't scream or say anything because my son was asleep on the bed. [He] picked me up and carried me to the living room.... He laid me on my couch and continued to have sex with me."
When the alleged assault took place, Howes says she noticed what she thought were prison tattoos on the man's body. "I knew he had tattoos on his arms and shoulders, but everybody in California has them, and they were pretty, and colorful. Well, his shirt comes off, and I see 'DAGO' across the stomach and a swastika dead center above his dick. And it is green and nasty."
The police report confirms Howes's observation. In a box titled "further suspect description," the police list a tattoo "DAGO" -- a street-slang word meaning San Diego -- on the stomach and a swastika on the pelvis.
After taking a shower, Howes called her husband "and started yelling at him about what had happened. And he called the police."
Howes talked to the police by phone that night and went to the police station the next day, where she underwent a postrape examination she describes as "an ordeal." Next came the question of where to live. She knew she didn't want to stay at Nimitz Pointe any longer, and the police detective, social worker, and psychologist she was working with agreed. Living in motels was at the time financially impossible for Howes, so she moved back into her husband's Clairemont apartment. In the meantime, Howes says she called, visited, and wrote to Vonetta Young, Nimitz Pointe's property manager, and asked to be released from her lease. "I told her I couldn't be there. I had lived there all of four days. I told her I wanted her to release me from the lease, that she needed to release me from the lease. She said, 'I can't release you from the lease, but I will try to rerent it. I will start showing it immediately.' "
The apartment still hasn't been rerented, Howes says, and she hasn't been refunded. Without the return of her $2350 in rent and deposit, and with an open lease on her credit, finding another apartment was impossible. In a letter dated November 7, 2006, Philip Worts, the San Diego police detective assigned to Howes's case, wrote to Young stating that the department was "actively investigating a felony criminal assault complaint wherein the victim, Karen Howes, is now a possible target of stalking, kidnapping, or additional assault.... She requested of me a letter of information in order to provide a reasonable basis...to release her from her contractual obligations."
His letter had no effect, Howes says. Young would not release her from the lease. The same day, Howes's psychologist, Susan D. Sharpe, wrote a letter to Young. "Karen Howes is a patient of mine," Sharpe wrote, "who is clearly suffering from trauma that is directly related to a sexual assault perpetrated on her by another tenant on November 1, 2006 at Nimitz Pointe complex. For the purpose of her personal safety and emotional well-being, it is strongly recommended that she immediately move from these premises."
Sharpe's letter had no effect, Howes says. On November 8, Cynthia Forsythe, a victim's advocate with the district attorney's office, wrote to Young "to provide documentation that Ms. Karen L. Howes is a crime victim.... Ms. Howes was assaulted by a neighbor who lives...in the same apartment complex. Since the case is currently under investigation, it is imperative that she remove herself from this situation as soon as possible. Any assistance you could possibly provide her would be most appreciated during this most emotional time."
On November 9, Nina Verdugo, a court-appointed psychosocial rehabilitation specialist assigned to Howes as part of her divorce court proceedings, wrote to Young that Howes "experienced a violent crime against her at her current residence. This is a highly stressful living situation for herself and her child. It is my recommendation that she obtain alternative housing for her safety and overall well-being."
And on December 14, Jessica Enriquez, a sexual assault response team advocate with the Center for Community Solutions, wrote to Young, "During this painful process, my client has been intimidated and harassed by her neighbor on numerous occasions, producing an environment that she perceived as dangerous for herself and for her son. My client vacated the premises for no other reason than to ameliorate her physical, mental, and emotional well-being and would not have had to resort to such drastic measures in any other situation.... While I understand that the contractual obligations between the property management company and the tenant are binding, I believe that the assault that occurred on the premises constitutes extenuating circumstances."
Despite these letters from Worts, Sharpe, Forsythe, Verdugo, and Enriquez, Young to date has not released Howes from her lease. Howes and her son spent a 28-day emergency stay in a battered women's shelter and are now living in motels while they wait for an opening at a different facility. "I told Vonetta we would have to move into a shelter if she didn't release me and refund the rent and deposit," Howes said. "But she will not release me or return the funds."
Vonetta Young did not return phone calls. Howes's former neighbor and the woman he was living with have moved out of Nimitz Pointe. He didn't return phone calls. The case is still under investigation.