Skid row haven was drug site, police say
A respected skid row facility that provides shelter and counseling to homeless people became a site for drug dealing, leading to a double homicide inside the Lamp Lodge earlier this year, according to police detectives and court records.
Los Angeles Police Department detectives allege that dealers sold rock cocaine and heroin out of the Lamp Lodge for months, a practice that ended after one of the alleged drug dealers and another man were shot to death there in April.
Lamp officials said claims of widespread drug dealing at the facility are overblown. They said Lamp strives to protect its residents from exposure to criminal conduct, a difficult task in an area that has long been considered the city’s largest open-air drug bazaar.
“It was really the Wild West out there,” said Casey Horan, executive director of Lamp, describing the crime around the Lamp Lodge. “We were aware that this is bleeding through our doors.”
But the crimes have some community leaders concerned and questioning whether Lamp has done enough to prevent crime in its facilities.
“Historically, the agency has played a key role in skid row,” said Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes part of skid row.
“Recent events raise serious concerns about the agency and their ability to safely manage their properties,” she said.
The case underscores the difficulty of keeping even “safe zones” free of narcotics activities in such a drug-plagued area, despite efforts by the LAPD in recent years to crack down on skid row crime.
Lamp, which provides housing and counseling for clients who are homeless, mentally ill and sometimes drug-addicted, has a broad reputation for helping those in need get off the street.
Its work was featured in the movie “The Soloist,” which recounts the life of musician Nathaniel Ayers, a formerly homeless man who lives in an apartment provided by Lamp, but not at the Lodge.
On Easter Sunday, the Lodge, which is on Stanford Avenue and houses 49 residents, was the scene of downtown Los Angeles’ first homicides of 2009.
According to an affidavit filed by police and attached to a search warrant, the shooting was connected to a rivalry over turf and clients.
Lamont Ward, described as a drug dealer from Inglewood, sought to kill Tommie Hayes, who police said was a competing dealer. Police said Hayes was 33, but the coroner listed him as 27.
Police allege that Ward hired a man named Richard Luna to kill Hayes.
Luna, an alleged gang member from East L.A., shot Hayes and Kevin “KK” Cohen, 49, about 5 a.m., police said. Neither was a Lamp resident. They were shot and killed in the Lodge’s first-floor lounge, and Cohen was apparently not the intended target, police said.
An LAPD investigation found evidence of drug dealing connected with the shootings inside and outside the Lamp facility dating back at least six months, according to Lt. Paul Vernon, who oversees detectives in the department’s Central Division.
Vernon said LAPD officers made dozens of arrests around the Lodge over at least the last two years in which suspects said they purchased their drugs either inside or right outside the facility.
“One of the questions that we do have to ask is how a narcotics dealer and a hit man ended up meeting inside of a room inside the Lamp Lodge that was actually supposed to be a secure facility for mentally ill people,” said Capt. Blake Chow.
Vernon and other LAPD officers said the Lodge and a nearby park at 6th Street and Gladys Avenue have long been known as places to get drugs. The Lodge “itself was a magnet for this kind of activity and it was going on both inside and outside,” he said.
Police arrested Ward on July 1. Luna, 28, had been in custody since May 10 on an unrelated weapons charge. Police also arrested Shanana Flores on June 27. They said she helped orchestrate the shooting. All three have been charged with two counts of murder. Ward, 41, and Flores, 33, are scheduled to be arraigned today.
According to court records, Flores told investigators that she had been dealing drugs out of the Lamp Lodge for at least two months before the shootings.
She first used a Lamp Lodge resident’s apartment and later became friends with one of the Lodge’s night managers who sold drugs on behalf of Ward, Flores told investigators, according to the affidavit.
Witnesses told police that Ward, also known as Q, supplied the night manager, Jeffri Holder, with drugs to sell, according to the affidavit.
Holder has not been charged with a crime and could not be reached for comment. He no longer works at Lamp. Police said the investigation is continuing.
Flores told police that in a cellphone conversation on the morning of the double homicide, “Q said that he and Jeff turned off the cameras at the Lamp and that everything was ready to go. Q said he was trying to get everybody to go into their rooms,” according to the affidavit.
The document says Flores later told investigators that she thought Luna was going to shoot Hayes but not kill him.
Lamp Lodge resident Darlene Altemeier said that many residents believed Hayes was a drug dealer and that she would feel uncomfortable when she left her room and sometimes found him sitting on the stairs inside the building.
“I was concerned,” she said, “Why is he in here?”
Altemeier said that she has lived at the Lodge for nine years and that she had felt unsafe inside the building before the Easter slayings. She and other residents were angry after the killings and demanded that Lamp management take steps to ensure their safety, according to interviews with residents.
“People were letting people in that were drug dealers,” Altemeier said.
Horan disputes the allegations made in court documents and by police about rampant drug dealing inside the Lodge.
“There was no widespread drug dealing going on in the building, to the best of our knowledge. No drug dealing whatsoever, nor were there reports of drug dealing going on in the building to myself or to other staff,” Horan said.
She said the LAPD did not adequately police the area immediately outside the Lodge, despite numerous calls Lamp made to them about crime there.
Horan said that even before the killings Lamp had safety concerns because of the crime that she said occurred nightly right outside the Lodge. But she said she never imagined such violence would occur.
Since the killings, Lamp officials said, they have hired uniformed security guards, installed a new high-tech video surveillance system and started a key-card system to monitor who enters and leaves the building.
LAPD officers said they believe drug activity around the Lamp Lodge has declined.