Possible serial murders shine light on Detroit's vacant homes
Detroit — The city has razed thousands of vacant structures in recent years, but thousands more still stand, serving as havens for squatters, drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes — and killers.
The recent discoveries of three women’s bodies inside abandoned houses on the city’s east side, which police said may be the work of a serial killer, are the latest example of what is a regular occurrence in Detroit.
"Our guys find dead bodies in abandoned houses all the time," said Mike Nevin, president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association union. "They either die in these places, or people kill them and dump them there.
"When people go missing in Detroit, what's the first thing they do? They start looking in vacant houses and buildings," Nevin said. "That's because it's so common to find dead bodies in them."
The news of the grisly finds comes a week after Mayor Mike Duggan said he will seek a $200 million bond issue to raze Detroit's remaining abandoned structures by 2024.
Police continued Thursday investigating the deaths of the three women, who were sex workers in their 50s, police chief James Craig said.
"We've received some tips we're following up on, but nothing substantive yet," Craig said.
The chief said detectives made connections between a woman whose body was found Wednesday in an abandoned house in the 3000 block of Mack, and two earlier homicide victims whose bodies also were discovered in vacant houses.
The first victim was found March 19 in an abandoned house in the 2000 block of Coventry. A second woman's body was discovered May 24 in the 13000 block of Linnhurst.
Citing the open investigation, Craig did not disclose what elements connect the three cases, other than the victims' age, occupation, and the fact that they were raped and found dead in abandoned houses. He said those killings are not connected to rumors last month that women were being killed and thrown in Dumpsters.
Craig said he recently spoke with Mayor Mike Duggan about the city's abandoned houses and their effect on crime.
"About three weeks ago, we were seeing a spike in violent crime, and the mayor and I were talking about boarding up some of the vacant buildings in the areas that have seen increases," the chief said.
"When you have abandoned structures and other blight, it tends to draw in other crime," he said, citing the "broken windows" theory of crime popularized by Bill Bratton, who was Craig's boss when they were both cops in Los Angeles.
"So the mayor and I were already talking about the need to secure these vacant structures weeks ago — and then this happens," Craig said. "These killings really illustrate why these are places people want to stay out of."
Plans are under way to board up vacant structures within a mile radius of the three locations where the women's bodies were found, Duggan's chief of staff Alexis Wiley said Thursday.
"We're working with DPD and community leaders, and as they go through the area, they're going to give us addresses that need boarding up," Wiley said. "They're canvassing within a mile of each location, and we're prioritizing those board-ups."
The city has demolished more than 18,000 vacant structures in the past five years, she said — "but we still have 18,000 more to go," she said.
"Abandoned houses pose a serious danger, and it's something Detroiters are keenly aware of every day as their children walk to and from school past them — they're living with that fear," Wiley said. "(The three recent deaths) are a reminder of just how dangerous abandoned homes are in our neighborhoods."
The houses razed during Duggan's tenure were in federally-designated Hardest Hit Zones, which are the only areas where federal demolition funds may be spent. Those zones are drawn up according to population density, Wiley said.
Many areas of the city — including two of the three houses where the women's bodies were recently found — fall outside those Hardest Hit Zones. The third house is inside one of the zones, but it's not owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority, and thus ineligible for federally-funded demolition, city officials said.
Duggan said last week he will seek to have the $200 million bond issue added to the March ballot to wipe out the city's blight in the next five years. Wiley said the mayor likely will ask the City Council in September to approve putting the measure on the ballot.
"That would allow us to demolish these vacant structures in areas of the city outside the Hardest Hit zones, where we previously couldn't use federal funding for demolition," Wiley said. "It will allow us to finish the job."
Wiley said if the bond issue passes, it would be paid for with existing taxes collected. "There'd be no tax increase for residents," she said.
Detroit's abandoned buildings have achieved notoriety as "ruin porn" and have drawn photographers and trespassers who call themselves "urban explorers" from around the world.
But for residents like Laverne Baldwin, there's nothing cool about living near vacant structures.
"I'm thinking about moving out of Detroit, because there's just too many abandoned houses on this street," said Baldwin, 73, who lives on Castleton on the city's west side. "More than half the houses on this street are abandoned. It's dangerous to have all these places empty like that. People move in, they sell drugs out of them. It's ridiculous."
Johnny West said he moved to Tyler, Texas, in December, in large part because he was fed up with the vacant houses near his east-side home.
West, 67, phoned The Detroit News in 2016 to complain about scrappers and squatters drifting in and out of the abandoned houses in his neighborhood. He said he complained to the city, but nothing was done.
"I kept calling the city, and calling the city, and nobody ever did anything," West said. "My neighborhood was just too dilapidated, so I finally sold my house and moved down here. I got tired of dealing with all that crap."
In addition to the discoveries of the three slain women, there are several recent instances of bodies found and crimes committed in and around vacant structures in Detroit.
On Monday, a woman's body was discovered by Detroit firefighters in the backyard of a burning vacant home near Pickford and Greenview on the city's west side. After firefighters put out the blaze, they found the woman's burnt body. She was believed to be 30 to 40 years old.
On May 22, a 16-year-old boy who was walking to school was sexually assaulted in an abandoned garage on Detroit's west side, Wayne County prosecutors said after charging Ali Sleiman Kdouh, 38, with criminal sexual conduct.
The incident happened about 8:15 a.m., when the youth "was walking to school in the area of Greydale and Pickford in Detroit when he noticed a vehicle following him," a press release from the prosecutor's office said. "It is alleged that the defendant attempted to coax the victim into his vehicle, but the victim walked away and called 911.
"In an attempt to evade the defendant, the juvenile male went into an abandoned garage, but was followed by the defendant. It is alleged that the defendant assaulted the juvenile, who escaped the abandoned garage, called 911 again and ran to another abandoned property," the release said.
Police arrived and took Kdouh into custody. His attorney Roger Farinha declined to comment because he said he just got the case.
Craig advised people to stay out of abandoned structures.
"It's no secret that people use vacant homes to dump bodies; and they're used by sex workers, drug dealers and drug users," Craig said. "These are places where bad things happen."