For over an hour last Wednesday night at Percy Julian Middle School, residents of the 200 block of S. Lombard and the 100 block of S. Taylor vented fear and frustration over unruly behavior and chronic code violations at a two-flat on S. Lombard.
All 16 neighborhood residents at the Zone 4 beat officer meeting said they were out of patience with the Wootens, a family of five that lives on the second floor of 216 S. Lombard; with William Wellman, a former Oak Parker now in suburban Boston who is its landlord; and with what they contend is, at best, an ineffective response by village authorities.
Neighbors’ anger was catalyzed by the April 3 arrests of Rayshawn Wooten, 19, and his brother, Denzel Wooten, 18. Police say an alleged victim claimed Denzel Wooten displayed a 9mm handgun and demanded money. Both brothers were identified in a street lineup, and a second gun, a .22 caliber Lugar-style rifle, was allegedly found in the vehicle driven by Rayshawn Wooten.
The state’s attorney’s felony review office later declined to press robbery charges, instead approving aggravated unlawful use of a weapon charges against Denzel Wooten, as well as possession of a firearm and possession of a firearm without a firearm owner’s identification card. Rayshawn Wooten was charged with unlawful use of a weapon, possession of a firearm and possession of a gun without a FOID card.
The incident was the latest of about 40 that police have documented regarding the Wootens over the past three years.
Beat officer Robert Primak hosted the meeting, which included Cedric Melton, community relations director for the Village of Oak Park. Also present were trustees Ray Johnson and Colette Lueck, former park board president David Kindler and former village clerk Sandra Sokol.
Primak and his supervisor, Sgt. Bill Rygh, gave an overview of police efforts to deal with the Wootens and then stood silent for the next hour, listening as neighbors listed their frustrations and demanded action.
Frustrations and a caution
“The police department has been very responsive. Cedric has been responsive,” said Bill Kreidler, a next-door neighbor.
Kindler had another view. “Why does it continually take something bad happening? Why isn’t the village more proactive?” he asked Melton.
That same concern was raised regarding the response of the Oak Park Housing Authority which oversees the administration of the Section 8 housing voucher program in the village. The Wootens’ unit is rented through the housing voucher program.
“I’d think the housing authority could deal with this rather easily,” Kreidler said. “They seem very apathetic.”
“The housing authority has in the past gotten rid of problem tenants,” Sokol said. “It’s very difficult. They have to build a very good case.”
“I know you’re frustrated,” Melton told the group. “But there are issues of confidentiality. Things we can’t disclose, and information we can’t have.” He said the village’s department of building and property standards was “looking at” the property.
“We’re trying to be as responsive as possible,” Melton said. “We want a resolution as soon as possible. As quickly, but as fairly and legally as possible.”
Melton cautioned against quick, broad judgments about Section 8 tenants. “Most housing-choice voucher families are doing the right thing,” he said.
Most neighbors agreed with that assessment, with the exception of the Wootens. “The tenants on … S. Taylor are great neighbors,” Denise Boyle said. “It’s the owner.”
A landlord out of state
In a written list of complaints, Boyle noted, “The homeowners are absentee landlords living out-of-state and seldom responsive to tenants’ requests, if they are to be believed.”
Sokol described Wellman as “a bad absentee landlord for years and years with all his properties.” Some insisted Wellman only responds as concerns are raised.
Wellman, an IT executive, did not return phone messages left by Wednesday Journal at two numbers nor did he reply to e-mail sent to three addresses.
Documents obtained by Wednesday Journal show that code violations against Wellman in Oak Park date to 1985. The documents also show that Wellman has made investments to correct code violations despite questioning their fairness.
“I am concerned that you are discriminating against my property because of the ethnicity of the individuals to whom I am lawfully renting the property,” Wellman wrote in October 2005, noting that other properties in the area have observable code violations.
Melton said he would be phoning Wellman in Boston the next day to “guide him through the proper eviction process, so there are no delays.” Monday morning Melton said he’d spoken with Wellman for over half an hour and that the conversation went well.
“I have a great deal of confidence he’s willing to take the needed steps,” he said of Wellman. Melton said Wellman confirmed he has instituted eviction proceedings against the Wootens. While the deadline for the family to move is June 30, Melton said the legal complexity of such action would likely delay any final resolution.
According to Melton, Wellman is making a concerted effort to correct code violations at both his Lombard and Taylor properties.
“He spent several days at the properties, cleaning up,” Melton said. “From my conversations with him, he fully intends to make sure both properties are up to code.”
Kreidler said he saw Wellman at the properties last week, starting Thursday and through the weekend. “He did a lot of work,” Kreidler said. “There were two Dumpsters full of trash.”
Fearing for kids’ safety
The consensus last Wednesday was that while building code violations are an annoyance, disruptions from chronic misbehavior by the Wootens and their visitors have become a serious threat to general peace and safety.
However, Wellman’s tenant on the second floor of 216 S. Lombard, Bridgette Wooten-Mitchell, contends that her sons are guilty of nothing more than being black and socializing with friends. In a February 2008 letter to her neighbor Bill Kreidler, Wooten-Mitchell argues that she and her family are being “unfairly treated by the community.”
Neighbors and the police make their case.
“On arrival, (responding officer) spoke with caller/victim … who related that approx. 10 male blacks, some carrying bats and sticks, were knocking on his door, looking for his son,” reads one incident report.
Mindy Kolodziej, who lives across Lombard from the Wootens, wrote in one e-mail: “In the summertime, and anytime there’s a warm evening, the (Wooten) boys, who are not supervised, are on the front porch and their friends stop by. They stay up until all hours of the night and are quite loud … Many days these boys do not go to school and sit on the porch all day.”
Kolodziej quoted her young daughter’s reaction to witnessing numerous police cars surrounding a young man being frisked on Halloween 2006. “Mom, I’m beginning to think we’re living in a bad neighborhood,” the girl said.
“I am extremely concerned for the safety of my children,” Kolodziej concluded.
Kreidler recalled arriving home Nov. 26, 2008, and being confronted by police officers with weapons drawn. “I was asked to go into my house while the police investigated a person with a gun,’ ” he said. A similar incident involving a search for a weapon occurred on March 11, he said.
Kreidler was calm throughout most of Wednesday evening, but became emotional when he mentioned his own three young children.
“My kids don’t want to walk in front of that house, and it’s crap” he said, his voice catching. “I mean, it’s consuming. It sucks the life out of my family.
“We worry about drive-bys. We worry about weapons. We worry about attacks,” Kreidler said. “My patience is at an end. This has been an absolutely terrible experience.”
“And that’s why it can’t be you alone,” said Sokol, who worked in Oak Park’s community relations department before becoming village clerk.
What neighbors can do
Noting she has a background in court watching, Sokol volunteered to help set up a system of watchers to monitor both criminal and housing court. “We’ll also put information on Neighbornet (a local e-mail list serve), and people can attend if they want,” she said, referring to court sessions.
Bill Southwick asked Melton what, if anything, the past three years has taught village officials. The process has restored his faith in grassroots organizing, Melton responded.
“But within this process, was anybody in charge?” Southwick replied. “Everybody wanted to do the right thing, but nobody was in charge.”
Kreidler agreed. “I don’t think anyone was in charge,” he said. “Every time we’d complain, it would quiet down. Then it would escalate to a higher level.”