CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The US Attorney’s Office in Charlotte has filed a forfeiture lawsuit against a West Boulevard strip mall that has been the focus of numerous WBTV Investigations. If successful, the lawsuit would allow the government to seize control of the property from the current owners to help control the crime problem in the area.
The strip mall, located at 1533 West Blvd near Remount Road, has been the site of numerous assaults, shootings and even a murder. In the lawsuit, US Attorney’s and CMPD describe the property as an “open-air drug market.”
The new lawsuit is part of a broader strategy from the City of Charlotte to crack down on crime ridden properties. Charlotte city councilmembers and City Attorney Patrick Baker have talked about bringing nuisance abatement cases against habitual problem properties, another tool that could be used.
“If it’s getting worse and it’s at a level that’s intolerable that’s when you look at possibly taking the property,” Baker told WBTV.
Baker said the city is in talks with District Attorney Spencer Merriweather about the possibility of filing cases against other properties in Charlotte. Baker could not say how many or give a timeline but WBTV has identified a total of 16 properties that are on the radar of CMPD’s Nuisance Enforcement Strategy Team (NEST) that would be likely candidates for such an action.
“It’s part of the partnership of law enforcement in this community in action,” Baker said.
The strip mall on West Blvd was also on the list of NEST properties. Since 2017, CMPD says there were 1,079 calls for service to the property. In the lawsuit US Attorney’s write “Since purchasing it, the owners of the Property have tolerated its use as a drug market, and the criminal activity there has drastically increased under their tenure.”
Whether or not the owners of troubled properties are cooperating with CMPD to reduce the crime problem is a major factor in if a forfeiture or seizure case is brought against them.
“If the property owner doesn’t do the due diligence to be a good neighbor, then the city is going to intervene,” Councilman Malcolm Graham told WBTV.
Graham and Councilwoman Victoria Watlington have been pushing the city to use nuisance abatement and other mechanisms to fix, or potentially shutdown, troubled properties. The first conversations about this strategy started more than a year ago.
Baker said that bringing a case against a property takes time. In the lawsuit filed against 1533 West Blvd, three years’ worth of CMPD records was used to build the case for forfeiture.
During a brief conversation with WBTV, one of the owners of the property said that they had been trying to cooperate with CMPD. He said that they have allowed CMPD access to their internal cameras, which has been confirmed by records obtained by WBTV.
However, the lawsuit paints a different picture saying drug dealers “often place their scales (for weighing drugs) on the windowsill of the West Blvd Shop itself” and “On multiple occasions, those fleeing law enforcement have even tried to hide their contraband in the store’s shelves or freezers.”
What makes the new forfeiture lawsuit against the West Blvd property particularly intriguing is that it’s not the first time it’s been done in that exact area.
In 1989 the federal government filed a similar action against the property right across the street from the one that’s currently targeted.
The property immediately became an opportunity for revitalization.
“It was considered a problem area, it was dilapidated and in decline,” West Charlotte activist Rickey Hall told WBTV in February.
“When the US Marshals seized the property, we immediately call forth a vision for a change.”
It took 11 years to build something, turning into a shopping plaza with Family Dollar as the anchor store and, for a while, CMPD’s Westover station.
But Hall had bigger dreams that never came to pass. Plans for a grocery store never materialized and Hall says the area remains a food desert.
“More could have been done, but at the same time I think that looking at the overall area it was less favorable for investment,” Hall said.
WBTV asked Councilman Graham what could be different this time to not kick the problem further down the street.
“These issues are marathon in nature. They aren’t sprints,” Graham said.
“We continue to work with media and law enforcement agencies as well as our property owners to try to make sure that as the city grows that they’re growing along with us and that they’re not being a hindrance to our growth.”