LUMBERTON — The city councilman who represents an area where two decomposing bodies were found last week says the grisly discoveries are emblematic of pervasive problems in the community, and he wants the city to take aggressive action.
The owner of a vacant home in which one of the bodies was found says he stands ready to work with the city to make the neighborhood a better place for everyone to live.
“We are addressing the issues of the vacant homes,” said Councilman John Cantey, who represents Precinct 5. “They are used for drug activities, prostitution and by vagrants. People will always find a place to rest their head.”
The identities of the two dead women have not been determined. Police Chief Mike McNeill at the end of last week warned against widespread rumors that the women worked as prostitutes, saying that is not known.
A strange odor led police to the 505 Peachtree St. home on Tuesday, where one body was found. A short time later another was found in a nearby trash can by a bystander. Autopsies have been conducted to determine what killed the two women, but that information has not been released.
The Peachtree Street house was known to authorities as a place where drug use and prostitution took place. The city had installed bright, LED flood lighting in the area to discourage criminal behavior.
“These vacant houses and dilapidated buildings have been a concern of mine,” Cantey said. “Right before the flood I turned in 37 buildings that need to be addressed or torn down. The flood slowed that as resources were allocated to different areas.”
Last week The Robesonian reported that the city had begun the condemnation process at the Peachtree Street property, but Councilman Burnis Wilkins said a reporter misunderstood what he was saying.
“I said that we are looking at houses throughout that area for condemnation but didn’t say that house was actually on a list to be condemned,” Wilkins said.
The property is owned by Woodberry Bowen, a local attorney.
“I am concerned for the neighborhood …,” he said. “We have refurbished several other houses in the area and had this last one to go. We had started painting it and were about to rehab inside when the flood hit and we had to help existing tenants get back into other homes. That was almost completed and we were going back to finish as this happened.”
Bowen also disputes that the Peachtree property was a magnet for troublemakers.
“The police call report show only three calls to that house in three years,” he said. “One disturbance was over an outdoor grill and two about a dog. I am asking for intense police scrutiny of the house as the city and I work on what to do.”
Bowen board up the house last week, sealing all its entrances, including windows. He said he would hire a company to get rid of the “bio waste” at the property and then work with the city to see what is next.
He did agree that the area is troubled.
“I have been concerned for a long while now about the gangs, drug dealers, and prostitutes who roam our streets,” he said. “Recently I think the LPD has redoubled its efforts to reduce these problems.
“… But it takes more than just the police. Citizens have to be willing to step up and give the police the information they need and report directly to the police when they see crime or trespassers in a building.”
Earlier this month the City Council took action to demolish a structure at 1102 Peachtreet St., as well as two other properties that were condemned. The previous month four properties were condemned by the council.
“We’ve got to get rid of a lot of these dilapidated properties that are used for criminal activities,” Wilkins said.
Cantey said Friday that he has been putting together a hit-list of properties in his district he wants condemned, including around the Peachtree and Chippewa streets area. He said he has 18 more he wants the city’s Planning Department to look into.
“We hate to take anyone’s properties and condemn it, but our citizens have to come first,” Cantey said.
The legal process by which abandoned buildings are condemned involves hearings for the city to make its case and the property owner to make theirs. There must be compelling factors, such as is the property is illegally occupied, if criminal activity is going on there or if deemed unsafe.
“Once a problem is identified we have to work with all the parties,” Cantey said. “We work with the chief addressing the issue and removing the undesirables. But it is a process.”
Bowen is ready to see a resurrection of the area.
“I will work with any citizen group, councilman or city official to rid our town of criminals,” he said. “It is very difficult to get good tenants in neighborhoods where crime is rampant. I have expressed concern that many more houses in the city have been vacant longer than my house had. The city attorney assures me that efforts are escalating to cause more of these derelicts to be refabbed or removed. We should all applaud that effort and stand together to support it.”
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly