Bullets over Bent Creek: who’s responsible for protecting the shopping center from crime?

What’s it like to have a business in one of the city’s crime hot spots? And whose responsibility is it to protect a shopping center?(Photos by Danny Fulgencio).

Editor’s note:
Names of some business owners and their businesses have been omitted out of a fear of retribution. Considering the high rate of crime, the Advocate agreed to this request to protect our sources.

Lauren never saw it coming. 

She was near the entrance of her small business in a north Lake Highlands strip center, waving to a regular client who had just pulled up. Her heavy glass door slammed open with a bang and in flew a young woman with a phone in one hand and a handgun in the other. The intruder grabbed the door handle and held it closed, screaming, “Call the police! He’s gonna kill me!”

A man banged into the door. He gripped a handgun, too, as he jerked back on the door in a tug-of-war with the screaming woman.

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Lauren spun and ran toward the rear of the clinic, dialing 911 as she fled, expecting every second that a big-caliber bullet would hammer into her back. Then it was over — the pursuer hightailed it and the woman, who Lauren recognized as a neighborhood drug dealer, also took off before police could arrive. Lauren still does not know what was going on. Her client never made it inside the clinic, and never came back, either.

Nobody fired their guns that day, but Lauren is no stranger to gunfire. Like the time a couple of stray bullets crashed through her plate glass front window and thudded into the opposite wall.  And there was the early morning she opened at 7 a.m. to meet a customer. The two found themselves scrambling for cover when a man in the parking lot started shooting at a nearby group of people.

The intersection of Forest and Audelia has long been ground zero for dope dealing, break-ins and all sorts of mayhem in Dallas Police’s turbulent Beats 255 and 256. Drug dealers drift in around mid-morning most days, and tend to cluster near stores at each end of the Bent Creek Shopping Center. There are not as many of them as a year ago and most of them clock out by late afternoon. That is when a pair of off-duty Dallas police officers settle in to watch the place until closing time.

The stressed-out shop owners do not hear gunfire outside every day as they once did. The past year saw only one significant drive-by shooting, and that was across the street, where two men were shot, one of whom died.  Then in January at the same location across Forest Lane, a parking lot argument between two young men boiled over on a sunny Sunday afternoon. One of the men pulled a 9mm pistol from his waistband and shot the other man in the abdomen at point-blank range while several people watched, horrified. The victim lived, and the shooter turned himself in.

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Enhanced security measures at Bent Creek Shopping Center have led to a drop in crime. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio).

Enhanced crime fighting measures at Bent Creek seem to have, quite literally, pushed the problem down the road.

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Nearby homeowners, who for years could see the bedlam unfold from their back porches agree, things have been quieter since Bent Creek principal Mohammed Khanani started  paying those off-duty cops, along with more security lighting, cameras and fencing. Khanani’s Rooha Realty, Inc.  agreed in March to step up security after the city called the center a public nuisance and sued him. The city agreed to back off from the lawsuit, to give the plan a chance to produce results.

It’s been an uneasy truce — Khanani says each month he spends well over $20,000 on these security measures, a price he says is not sustainable.

The dealers know that too, and they are planning for a return to their glory days. “The cops are gonna leave,” exhausted shop owners have heard dealers hiss. “When they’re gone, we’ll be back.”

The city is in mediation with Khanani to come up with a workable long-term plan, and there are hopes that money and smart thinking from a new Public Improvement District (PID) will help keep the lid on. But those who live and work in the area are fearful crime will indeed surge again.

Neighboring chaos 

Shane Douglas gazes over his back fence to the Audelia Creek underpass on Forest Lane. “A homeless guy was living under there for a long time, and when they finally got him out, they had to bring in a U-Haul truck,” Douglas chuckles. “He had an oriental rug down there, more furniture than I had in my house.”

Douglas’ sleek two-story is closer to the troubles at Forest and Audelia than any single-family home. His pool is about 150 yards from the EZ Trip Food Store parking lot, where more than a couple of people have died violently. He has watched many shoppers, hookers, dealers and idlers from his porch.

Douglas and his wife, Rebecca, were at the Forest and Audelia traffic light one mid-afternoon in January last year when Rebecca says two groups of people — five or six on each side — began “acting weird” in the Bent Creek Shopping Center parking lot.

“You could tell, something bad was going to happen,” Rebecca recalls. “Then they were shooting at each other.”

She saw more than one person hit by gunfire. Police showed up when the Douglas’ called 911, but the combatants had scattered. The police incident report shows only that officers arrested a 20-year-old guy for shooting a 21-year-old guy. He was badly injured, but lived. Like many dark misadventures that have unfolded here, the awareness of this shootout quickly faded. The gun battle got lost in the noise. It’s already forgotten.

Business in the battlefield

Most days, Mohammed Khanani stands behind bulletproof glass at the EZ Trip check-cashing station on Walnut near Plano Road in Richardson. This is his headquarters, as well as the principal address for at least nine small corporations. Khanani and his various partners started buying and running small shopping centers and convenience stores in Dallas, Richardson, Mesquite and Carrollton in 1994.

Khanani’s corporations own three of the four corners of the Forest and Audelia intersection. He would like to buy the fourth corner, home to the legendary Big Mama’s Fried Chicken and Waffles (until they took down the retro clock atop Big Mama’s, the hands were frozen at 4:20 for some time). But for now, he has his hands full keeping the shopping center across the street from becoming an official public nuisance.

“I own seven other convenience stores here,” Khanani told me, “and none of them have any problems like this.”

He says he has lived quietly here for 30 years, raising a family (two kids in local universities, one at Richardson High School) and is steadily building a portfolio of modest properties and stores. But the city’s lawsuit in March 2017, which called Bent Creek a public nuisance, threatened to shut down the whole shopping center for one year. It claimed his corporation, Rooha Realty, has maintained Bent Creek as a “hub for drug use and sales and related violent crime,” and that they knew what was going on but did not take measures to stop the illicit behaviors.

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

The lawsuit states that in the 22 months before March 2017, police made 66 drug arrests at Bent Creek.  That, plus seven aggravated assaults, two robberies, seven weapons charges and two arrests for reckless discharge of a firearm.

The idea of only two firearms arrests in 22 months elicits eyerolls from Shane and Rebecca Douglas’ neighbors. People there call 911 at least one or two nights a week when they hear the familiar barrage of semiautomatic gunfire, usually from the direction of the Bent Creek intersection.

Bent Creek veteran Lia Berhe opened her Hair Plus Beauty Supply store nearly a decade ago.

“Gunfire was the order of the day,” she says of the time before the lawsuit. Berhe says she heard gunfire just about every day. She immigrated to North Carolina from Egypt in 1992, and after a few years moved to Dallas and opened her first shop. Then she moved the store to Bent Creek, hoping for better traffic. But she was stunned by the crime.

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“In Egypt, in North Carolina, and when I first moved to Dallas, we saw shoplifting, burglaries. But you wouldn’t see open drug activity,” she says.

Her business neighbor Lauren adds, “Without fear,” she declares. “Shooting! I mean, bullets flying! They feel nothing. They are not afraid of the police.”

Drop in crime 

Community Prosecutor Kristen Kramer worked with Khanani, Dallas PD, business owners, neighborhood groups and others to draw up the aggressive crime-fighting plan for Bent Creek that launched in late spring last year. Kramer is on a team of legal-troubleshooters in the City Attorney’s office. The website says these lawyers use “strategic code enforcement and creative problem solving” to get things going in neighborhoods that are under stress. She is the sole lawyer in the office who is dedicated to only one City Council district; Councilmember Adam McGough’s District 10, home of Bent Creek Shopping Center.

When Khanani agreed to her plan and a review in three months, Kramer held off on the public nuisance lawsuit against the center — for now.

Under the high points of the program, Khanani would pay for two uniformed off-duty police officers to patrol on-site eight hours a day, seven days a week. He agreed to install security cameras to cover all the common areas of the shopping center. The court order specified that he also install enough cameras to clearly see all publicly accessible areas of the EZ Trip convenience store and the American Dollar Store. These two stores bookend the shopping center and see a lot of in-and-out traffic. Khanani agreed to install security fencing to keep people out of the back alley. He also had to seal off an irksome rabbit hole around back that makes it easy for a fugitive on foot to disappear into Audelia Creek. He’s on the hook for more security lighting, lots of warning signs, keeping his tenants’ front windows unobstructed from view, hosting quarterly public crime watch forums for everybody in the area, and a lot of monthly reporting on how it’s all going.

The verdict is that the campaign is producing results, so far.

“Since the agreement was signed, there has been a decrease in the amount of abatable offenses and crime occurring at the property,” Kramer said in an email. “The city remains hopeful that the owner’s representative(s) will work with the city to take reasonable steps to prevent crimes from occurring at their property.”

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

There are far fewer dubious characters hanging around Bent Creek these days. At the December public forum, police showcased the before-and-after crime statistics. Comparing July through November 2016 with the same six months in 2017, robberies of individuals were down from eight to three. Car burglaries went down from 17 to 10, and home burglaries dropped from 19 to six.

The police stats did not mention the crime you hear about most at Bent Creek — bold, open-air drug dealing.

“That’s what causes the gunshots,” explains businessowner Lauren. Her neighbor Lia Berhe says that during worse times, she typically saw more than 20 drug deals a day in the parking lot, where dealers openly counted wads of cash. An online search of DPD offense reports suggests that almost nobody is calling police about drug dealing at the center. In the July through November of 2017, records show only three drug arrests in the entire neighborhood that police know as Beat 256. In 2016, there were four drug arrests, three of them in Bent Creek. Two of those arrests were at EZ Trip. The third was at American Dollar Store. All of the arrests were for possession of less than 2-ounces of marijuana.

Khanani and his associates bought Bent Creek in 2015, and he says the experience has been all new.

“I have never ever had these kinds of issues in our business in the past. I had never even imagined investors could have a problem like this, and the financial burden that comes along with it,” he told the Advocate via email. “We spend approximately $23,000 monthly on off-duty police officer pay, which is way in excess of our monthly base rent income on the property.”

He says he cannot keep up that level of spending. He claims that since March 2017 he has spent nearly $130,000 on the extra security, plus legal expenses.

If Khanani does not convince the city that his corporation is committed to keeping the place more secure for the long haul, they will go to trial this month. That would put Khanani in a bad place. Should the judge decide the shopping center is a public nuisance, the city could go so far as to shut it down for one year. Khanani would still be responsible for keeping the vermin at bay or the city could shut off his utilities and yank his certificate of occupancy. Moreover, trying to sell a property that has been branded a public nuisance would be difficult at best.

At the heart of it looms a tough question. Whose responsibility is it to keep a business safe — the property owner or the police? Khanani believes the city is forcing him to shoulder more than his fair share of the burden. Where is the line?

Professor Mary Spector of SMU’s Dedman School of Law writes and speaks on the topic of landlord-tenant law. She says, “That line is one of the most difficult ones to draw.”

While she has not studied this case intimately, she thinks both sides have legitimate points of view.

“The problem that the property owner here has is a legitimate one. He’s paying a bunch of money to comply,” Spector says. “He’s wondering, why does he have to bear the burden? He’s paying commercial taxes that [he believes] should be paying for that kind of stuff.”

It may be hard for a property owner to think of money he spends on extra security as an investment, but that is how she sees it in this case. “The law requires property owners to take certain steps to protect it themselves. Sometimes those steps require more investment than others do. It’s not always fair.”

It takes a neighborhood

One person after another calls District 10 City Councilman Adam McGough to complain about the Forest and Audelia crossroads. He says there are many organizations and neighbors who “have Google Maps drawn to show how to get to their house without driving through that intersection.”

The frequency of robberies, burglaries and theft has dipped and you see only a fraction of the loiterers who once crowded the Bent Creek parking lot. That encourages McGough, though he believes it will be a marathon. He is an evangelist for the Community Prosecutor concept. It is a multi-disciplinary team of lawyers and enforcement officers, looking for full-neighborhood solutions that are both creative and holistic. It takes a lot more than just running the small-time dealers out of one strip center.

McGough predicts, “The people will show up and take action to improve their own neighborhoods if they believe that they’re supported, that there’s someone who’s listening to them and who is going to help. That’s what community prosecution is all about.”

The freshly minted North Lake Highlands Public Improvement District (PID) encourages him, too. The two-person team’s budget comes from assessments made to business property owners in this new target zone. It is not a tax – the assessment was approved by owners accounting for at least 60 percent of the property value in the zone. The narrow district extends nearly as far as Richland College to the northwest, and southeast to LBJ’s intersection with Miller Road. It includes Bent Creek and a sprawling passel of apartment complexes.

Kathy Stewart is executive director, and will not need much ramp-up time. She has been running the successful Lake Highlands PID for four years. She will use 60 percent of the northern PID’s expected $339,000 budget to pay for  “enhanced” two-person police patrol teams. These teams will have a mandate to get out of the car and walk into every business on a regular basis. The PID puts extra weight on developing relations with management of the many apartment buildings.

“You just start talking and it’s amazing who starts listening and you just start trying to pull all those resources together,” Stewart says.

When Stewart looked at Forest and Audelia, she saw a woeful lack of important support systems. “There really were very few public or private resources working with that neighborhood. There’s not a library, there’s not a rec center, there’s not a park. There’s not even a church in the immediate Forest and Audelia area.”

McGough recently opened the new North Lake Highlands Youth Boxing Gym to give teens a healthy outlet, and Stewart wants to lure many more resources that do something good for quality of life of local residents.

And then there’s that sea of apartment complexes, often owned by out-of-state investors. The block adjacent to Khanani’s Bent Creek Shopping Center is packed with multiple complexes. They keep police far more occupied than does the strip center. Over the last two years, police have been summoned to that single block of apartments for 26 home burglaries, 33 thefts (including 13 stolen cars), nine aggravated assaults and a slew of lesser crimes. The difference is that you don’t see the criminal activity from the street when you drive by.

McGough was disappointed at the low turnout at Khanani’s December crime watch meeting; only a dozen people showed up, including the organizers and speakers. Nobody came from any of the apartment complexes. Khanani was frustrated, too.

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“I always extend an invitation to the retail businesses, HOAs, apartment complexes, DPD, the City of Dallas lawyers and all other neighbors,” he says. “I am not sure why [the apartment managers] do not participate.”

McGough is confident it is something the PID can help with. “I think you’re going to have more interaction between the apartment managers and owners,” he says. “That’s always been part of the problem.”

McGough says the benefits go both ways, citing the example of a troublesome tenant evicted from one apartment who then moves into another complex across the street. When complex managers communicate, they “can start eliminating some of that.”

In his role as chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, McGough has plenty of experience in trying to turn around troubled neighborhoods. He says he runs into the same kind of obstacles over and over.

“It’s the one or two properties — sometimes business, sometimes residential — that become the weeds amongst the rest of the neighborhood.”

He doesn’t believe Khanani purposely allowed crime to flourish at Bent Creek, though he thinks the owner has been “negligent” in the past.

“There are business owners across our city who are very, very skilled at pulling the right people together and walking the property and talking to the other business owners, taking the lead on these things,” McGough says. “I don’t see that in Mr. Khanani yet, but I see a willingness.”

McGough pauses, thinking of what causes neighborhoods to corrode. “The reason neighborhoods get to be dangerous is when people acquiesce. It’s this passive acceptance of, ‘OK, that’s just how it is here,’ and we can’t accept that.”

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