Can't We All Just Get Along, Neighbor To Neighbor?
This story originally aired on June 11, 2016.
If you’re lucky, you know who lives next door, and you like them. Hopefully, the feeling is mutual. In an ideal world, neighbors look out for each other. But, of course, not everyone is so fortunate.
What if you live next door to a nightmare? The place where drug deals go down? Where there always seems to be a party going on at three in the morning? The house where domestic violence happens and fights break out? The home that police visit — a lot?
55-year-old Jeff Hayes, a retired captain with the Seattle Fire Department says he’s been living next to nuisance home for years.
Hayes and his wife have lived in the same wood-frame, craftsman house on South Cloverdale in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood for 17 years. They raised their daughter in this home.
Hayes loves South Park. “It’s one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city, has more children per capita than probably most other neighborhoods in the city,” said Hayes. “If there’s gonna be a neighborhood in the city that’s representative of what city leaders say they want Seattle to be, it is South Park.”
But along with the good Mexican food, one of the best pizza parlors in the city and the small town feel, South Park has its share of crime.
The House Next Door
Not only does Hayes know which homes brew the trouble in South Park, he reports what he sees to police. One of these homes is right next door.
“It’s always been a problem,” said Hayes.
The modest single-story home is owned by Victoria Blacktongue. Until a few months ago, she shared the house with her estranged husband, Steven Blacktongue and their five children.
Blacktongue — it’s an unusual last name. Steven Blacktongue was born and raised on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Montana.
According to city records, since April 2014, Seattle Police have visited this house 23 times.
“You know, I’ve got emails going back two years, to appropriate officials, complaining about the obvious criminal activities going on over there,” said Hayes.
One recent incident involved a group of teenagers from the house who started attacking things outside, with a pickaxe.
“One of my fellow neighbors came out of her house, running with the phone in her hand, and said, ‘Jeff, you need to go around to the back alley. There’s some kids back there with a pickaxe, and they’ve taken to our fence, and they’ve taken to our boat, and I’m afraid they’re going to go after my husband,’” recalled Hayes.
From the street, the Blacktongue house looks a little run down but nothing out of the ordinary. However when you go around the back, in the alley, the small yard is packed with an incredible amount of garbage: an abandoned car, what looks like a busted washing machine, an RV that’s seen better days has a tarp over its roof. It’s a giant mess that can only be cleaned up with the help of a tow truck, a backhoe and a dumpster.
It’s a stark contrast to Jeff’s yard next door, which has a wooden fence free of graffiti and a neatly trimmed lawn.
Reporting Suspicious Activity
As we stand in the alley, a maroon sedan pulls up. With the car still running in the alley, a man gets out and goes inside the backdoor of the Blacktongue house. Hayes doesn’t recognize the driver.
“I don’t know what that guy is doing,” said Hayes. “I’ve never seen that guy before. I’ve never seen that vehicle before. If I called 911 right now, they’d say, ‘What are you reporting?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I’m reporting suspicious activity.' 'Well, what makes it suspicious?’ And they end up making you feel like a fool for calling 911, when you know that there is something bad going on. I’ve been doing this for years. That’s what I live next to!”
Neighbor To Neighbor
Hayes says he’s made many attempts to try and change this situation next door, to somehow make a dent in the chaos.
“I have knocked on the door several times and have spoken Mr. Blacktongue,” he recalls. “[I] was told that a lot of the people that are using his house for fencing stolen property and buying drugs are not people that he knows, and he has no control over it. I said to him, ‘Why don’t you call the police?’ And he said, ‘I’m a convicted felon and I just don’t call police anymore.’
“When I would go around to the back and actually confront the people in back, I would be threatened with violence. My house would be threatened with fire.They would threaten my family.”
Hayes has called the police dozens of times. He’s sent multiple emails to Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections about the garbage. He’s called the State Department of Social and Health Services to report that he can see juveniles next door drinking alcohol and getting high.
’I Don’t Know What To Do’
Hayes says the state told him that there isn’t enough evidence to open a case looking into the welfare of the kids. The city’s Department of Construction and Inspections has been out to take a look at the property and is fining the home’s owner, Victoria Blacktongue, for the conditions outside. According the agency, so far she owes more than $1,000.
Blacktongue told me she can’t afford to pay these fines. “I don’t know what to do,” she said.
The day I knock on Victoria’s door, or Vicki, as she likes to be called, there is a piece of paper taped to the front. In red marker are these words: Stay away. You know who you are. Don’t ever come back.
Vicki is tired. She’s missing some of teeth. She’s dealt with depression most of her life and is on disability. She says she quit using heroin in 2007 and goes to a methadone clinic twice a week. She says she knows what people are saying about her property and what goes on here.
“I’m doing my best,” she tells me. “I don’t know if they can see it. I don’t know if they can tell.”
We sat down to talk in the living room. It was really clean. The bare wood floors were still drying from being mopped and there was a faint smell of bleach in the air. There’s a couch, a few pictures of the kids when they were small — not much else.
The house was built by her grandfather in the 1960s and passed down to Vicki by her mother.
This is the same room where Vicki said she sat on her grandfather’s knee reading comic books and eating mini chocolate bars when she was little.
To understand how things got to where they are today, you have to go back several years. Vicki says after Steven Blacktongue’s parole ended, following a stint in jail for attempted murder, old habits returned and he started doing hard drugs again. Then, there was a fire at the house, so they brought in the RV to live in while the place was being fixed up.
Vicki said as the kids were growing up, they were watching their dad shoot up, get high and steal stuff. They eventually got out of hand too.
“The last couple of years they were bringing other kids here. This was the place to be unruly,” she said. “No, I didn’t know what to do. I was trapped. I was overwhelmed. My kids were off the hook. My husband was off the hook. I couldn't get my husband to help me with the kids because he was worse than they were. I wanted to sneak out the window and run and hide and nobody would find me, ever again,” said Vicki.
Vicki said last December, she was separated from her husband, Steven Blacktongue, but he was still living in the house. She said that was the month that he got hooked on meth. Their already strained relationship got even worse.
“I didn’t want him anywhere near me,” she said. “I could tell … the way he’s talking to me, his touch—everything. I didn’t like it. I knew he was on that drug. I mean, he just kept getting worse and worse. And then yeah, March 13 happened. That was horrible.”
March 13 was a Sunday. Early that morning, Steven Blacktongue walked into a 7-Eleven near Burien, armed with an axe. He started attacking the man behind the counter. He left a gash on the clerk’s belly. But before he could cause any more harm, another customer with a legal, concealed gun, shot Blacktongue, killing him.
Vicki doesn’t know exactly why her husband did this. She suspects it was the meth that made him lose his mind.
Now that he’s dead, Vicki is trying to piece together a life that does not involve drugs, robberies, gangs, vandalism or visits from police.
I’m Kind Of Stuck Right Now
She says trying to keep the kids and their friends who want to use the place to store stolen property, away from the house.
There’s a man living in the RV outback she doesn’t really know. Even though he’s pretty quiet, she still wants him out. But she’s worried who might take his place if he goes. They might be worse.
She wants the RV gone. She says hauling it away would cost $500.
“I don’t have that. I’m kind of stuck right now,” said Vicki.
Then, there’s the problem with the condition of the house itself. Vicki says the place doesn’t have any running water. She says Steven Blacktongue’s drug addict friends went under the house and took all of the pipes.
“We line the toilets with garbage bags, and my son takes the garbage out,” said Vicki.
She says the city stopped collecting the trash months ago. So for now, garbage bags filled with human waste are stored in the back yard. Vicki said police have told her that in the crawlspace where the pipes use to be, this is where suspects on the run in the neighborhood sometimes hide out.
Even though Vicki wants to turn things around and be a good neighbor to people such as Jeff Hayes, the criminal element of South Park might refuse let go of this house.
’It Feels Like, As A Citizen, I’m In A Cage’
Meanwhile, Hayes has complained to the right people, the right agencies. Now, all he can do is wait for something to happen. It could take a while and he’s really frustrated.
“It feels like, as a citizen, I’m in a cage and the police department puts me on the hamster wheel to run in a circle, because they don’t want to have to deal with me outside of the cage, and have to really deal with the issues that are confronting this neighborhood,” said Hayes.
“We’ve been dealing with Mr. Hayes and the Blacktongue house for quite some time,” said Pier Davis, the captain of Seattle’s Southwest Police Precinct, which includes South Park.
Police can’t do anything without building a case. The Blacktongues have rights, just like everyone else.
“If you’re going to do something narcotics-wise, because that seems to be the crux of the issues down there, there’s probable cause that has to be developed,” said Davis. “We just can’t build this stuff out of thin air. There has to be a certain amount of workup that’s associated with that. We can’t flood the area and kick people out of their houses or arrest them for no reason. There has to be something there for us to go forward.”
Court-Ordered Clean Up
So, what about the physical state of the Blacktongue property? The garbage, the RV, the trash bags of human waste? Is there anything the city can do about that?
Brendan Brophy, an assistant city attorney for Seattle, said if Vicki doesn’t clean up her yard, fines will continue to stack up. The courts could get involved and force Vicki to let the city help out — but not for free.
“They’re basically ordered to allow the city to clean it up for them and … they are charged for that process,” said Brophy.
This work can cost thousands of dollars, all billed to the owner.
Brophy said the lack of plumbing in Vicki’s house isn’t violating any laws.
“If you want to set up a tent in your living room and live that way — if it’s your property, you can do that,” said Brophy.
Hayes refuses to move. “I guess I’m a glutton for punishment," he said. "The worse it gets, the worse it gets —the more I refuse to leave. Cause, I’m not going to leave until it gets better.”
When asked if he is willing to die to make his neighborhood a safer place, he said, “I try to balance that line between doing something and not putting my personal safety at risk.”
Vicki Blacktongue doesn’t want anyone to get hurt either. She doesn’t want anyone else to die. And while she has talked about selling her house, she really doesn’t want to move away from the neighborhood her family has called home since the 1940s.
She wants to do right by her neighbors. She wants the same thing that Jeff wants — no crime, no drama. But as she said earlier, she’s a little stuck right now.