NORWALK — A grass-roots citizens' effort to combat drugs all started with one man's flowers.
The resident of Norwalk Manor condominiums saw his azaleas, snake plants and periwinkles ground to pieces by people who continually jumped two fences in his yard to get to a suspected cocaine "rock" dealer several units away, bypassing a guard station at the entrance.
"We were afraid to let our grandkids go in the yard to play," said his wife, who berated the trespassers to no avail. "We were fighting kids all the time."
According to other residents, drug dealing had been prevalent at the 303-unit complex on Bloomfield Avenue for years. But the flower gardener and his wife, who are 16-year residents, said it grew worse at the beginning of this year. After growing "sick of it," the couple went to a homeowners' meeting in March to appeal for help.
Most Requested Anonymity
To their surprise, other residents also showed up at the meeting to express the same concerns, said the woman who, like many others in the complex, asked that their names not be published because they have been threatened.
The result is a small--initially 45 people, now down to about 10--but dedicated group of residents who are vigilantly keeping track of all suspicious activities at Norwalk Manor.
Residents estimate that the open drug dealing has been reduced 80% to 85% in less than two months.
One of the first steps the homeowners' board of governors took was to hire a new security firm, which started July 1, said Maureen de Schepper, a seven-year resident and member of the board.
Every car that comes to the complex has to stop before entering. Residents are required to have a sticker on their cars and non-residents have to be logged in by volunteers, who write down the address the person is visiting and the person's driver license number. The information is given to the Sheriff's Department, residents said.
Persona Non Grata
In the guard station, there is a "no-entrance list" which names those cars that cannot gain admittance to the complex for various reasons, such as prior arrests on drug-related charges. A mug file, similar to those on post office walls, has been started to keep tabs on former drug pushers and others who are not allowed to enter the complex.
At night, volunteers patrol the complex with walkie-talkies, reporting suspicious activity to the security station in front, which is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
De Schepper said members of the homeowners' board met privately with city officials and Norwalk sheriff's deputies in June to detail the problem. The board gave the Sheriff's Department permission to patrol the complex, which is private property, and a Neighborhood Watch group was formed.
"We used to call the Sheriff's Department and they didn't come," said de Schepper, who has noted a change since the patrols were stepped up two months ago. "That is how it was accomplished--all of us working together."
Arrests for Trespassing
The admittance rules are strictly enforced and those who do not comply are subject to arrest for trespassing, said Saber Security Co. Lt. James Gardner, who patrols the complex along with six other guards from the Norwalk-based company. He said he has made 16 citizen's arrests for trespassing since July 1 and all have been successfully prosecuted.
The volunteers say their campaign has changed Norwalk Manor, where people used to line the streets and alleys to brazenly approach cars with drug offers. Some dealers wore beepers to warn confederates if police or security officers were coming, residents said.
The condominiums became such a haven for dealing, residents say, that the area would attract people from other cities to sell their wares at the complex.
"I used to wonder--how am I going to survive this month?" said one resident who has lived in the complex for seven years.
"The word was out. This was a hot place in Norwalk," another said.
Before July, most residents say they were afraid to go out in the complex because so many people were drawn to the manor. The steady stream of cars passing through the front entrance escalated on weekends.
But when volunteers began logging the cars and license numbers, they said they turned away hundreds for not having proper identification or the address of the person they were visiting. "We knew that many people couldn't live in the manor," a resident said.
Although most of the condos are owner-occupied, some rent for $700 to $750 for three, four or five bedrooms. An estimated 1,500 people live in the complex, where the drug problem has been festering about four years, according to the on-site manager, who also asked that his name not be used. "We always had drugs on a small scale. Then it got bigger. Cocaine got involved," he said.
Three Units Raided