Garner had once been homeless, says fellow Church Hill House resident Esau Miller, 62, who happens to be legally blind. Miller remembers Garner as "a nice white man" who liked to play the guitar. "I don't care what he is, he was a human being," he says. "He didn't have no business dying like that."
Garner's murder, still unsolved, could have been prevented, Miller says, if the management of Church Hill House had done a few simple things: been more vigilant about who entered the building; improved camera surveillance; and, most important, Miller contends, increased the security force from one guard to two.
Currently, one guard watches the entrance from behind a glass window and demands identification from visitors. (A Style reporter was asked for ID before being allowed in; Miller asserts, however, that people get in without showing identification. On a recent Tuesday, several men who did not appear to be residents lingered outside by the entrance.) If another guard were hired to patrol the halls, Miller says, people would hesitate to commit crimes in the building.
Miller had been asking for these things years before Garner was killed in his apartment. In the fall, City Councilman Marty Jewell and U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, whom Miller had asked for help, met with representatives of Winn Management, which manages Church Hill House. Representatives of the company said then that they would install a second guard, Jewell says.
But since then, the company's done nothing to improve security, Miller says.
Jewell says residents' needs are being ignored because they're black and "old, poor people who have never had a sense of power."
The Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA) has found few problems at Church Hill House, authority spokesman Brian Matt says. VHDA is responsible for administering the Section 8 housing vouchers used by residents and for inspecting the place annually. The complex scored 98 out of 100 points in its last inspection and next year will undergo major renovations, Matt says, which will improve security and lighting.
An extra security guard may be out of the question, however, says Patrick Hickey, a care coordinator for seniors with Senior Connections, The Capital Area Agency on Aging. The Church Hill House is in a rough area, he acknowledges, but Hickey hasn't seen two guards assigned to any other similar complex in the city. "This seems to me he's asking a lot," he says of Miller.
But Miller won't quit asking. And being blind, he might seem an unlikely champion for tenants' rights.
He feels his way along the dim halls and keeps his tiny apartment neat as a pin so he can keep track of his few possessions.
Nevertheless, "he sees more than anybody else over there sees," Councilman Jewell says. The Church Hill House is not in Jewell's district, but he became Miller's advocate a few years ago after meeting him. "I'm a troublemaker," Miller says cheerily.
Miller moved into the Church Hill House in 1992. He didn't have much to retire on from his career as a nurse his starting wages were $3 an hour, he says so he had to find a subsidized apartment that would charge a set portion of his income as rent.
"When I first come in this building," he says, "this building was wide open. I mean wide open. People were afraid to go to the trash room."
The management didn't improve things, Miller says, so about 11 years ago he called then-Mayor Leonidas Young. The mayor convinced Winn to add another security guard, which improved things, Miller says.
Shortly after, however, Miller says the second guard disappeared, and once again he and other residents felt unsafe. He had to enlist outside help to convince the management to issue deadbolt keys to residents, he says.
Miller has had little luck getting the rest of his concerns answered. From a bureau in his bedroom he pulls a stack of letters from the past five years.
Most are cordial dismissals of his complaints, from representatives of various housing agencies, attorneys and Winn Management.
"At this time, it appears that all feasible security measures have been taken at Church Hill House," wrote Winn Senior Vice President Travis Henderson in January 2001.
Henderson could not be reached for comment by press time.
A March 2004 letter from Susan Dewey, VHDA executive director, to U.S. Rep. Scott, who intervened on Miller's behalf, reads: "After a thorough investigation our staff has concluded that his complaints have either been resolved by management or are unfounded."
In 2005, the Richmond Police Department reports, the crimes reported at the Church Hill House included four simple assaults, three cases of larceny, two drug violations, three cases of breaking and entering/burglary, one suspicious person, one theft from the building, one threat of bodily harm, one destruction of property, one stolen car, one unauthorized use of a vehicle and one forcible sodomy.
And the murder of James Garner, which police spokeswoman Kirsten Nelson says is still under investigation. Testing of DNA evidence is planned, Nelson says, but "we really need someone that knows something" to speak up.
Most residents of Church Hill House are too frightened of retaliation to talk about anything that goes on there, Miller says. That's not unusual, says Thelma Watson, executive director of Senior Connections. Security is a major concern for seniors in these residential complexes, Watson says. "A lot of the seniors won't speak out, and for obvious reasons," she says. Even the tenants' association has disbanded.
Miller, however, is a different breed. His son, a city employee, has repeatedly tried to get his father to move out. "I can't do that," Miller says. "See, God put this on my heart. He chose me to stand up. So I got to stand up." S
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