Murder at Sunrise

Seattle Housing Authority's new "security" plans.

"GAYS AND LESBIANS are taking over the world, so I killed her for Jesus," Jeffery Schuler told Seattle police on Aug. 2. He lay on his kitchen floor, naked from the waist down, next to Sophia Seong Kim's mutilated body, which police say it appeared he had attempted to stuff into recently purchased plastic garbage bags. The alleged murder took place in the most unlikely of settings: Sunrise Manor, one of the Seattle Housing Authority's (SHA) apartment buildings for low-income seniors in Ballard (see News Clips, "Public Murder," Aug. 9, 2001). Ever since the tragedy, SHA has been trying to explain how the 34-year-old Schuler ended up at Sunrise Manor and what would be done about security for the residents of SHA's 23 senior buildings around the city.

Last week, SHA proposed that seniors become "volunteers" in a marketing effort aimed at attracting more seniors and fewer disabled young people like Schuler to their low-income housing. Many residents were not impressed.

Currently, disabled nonelderly residents occupy 16 percent of SHA's senior housing, and over half of the 1,000 people on SHA's waiting list are not seniors. In 1981, Seattle voters passed a bond that created SHA's subsidized housing for low-income seniors. The bond included a provision that "approximately 10 percent" of the housing should be available for "low-income, handicapped persons." At the time, handicapped meant those who have physical handicaps. Since then, Washington's legal definition of disabled has expanded to include the mentally ill and drug addicted.

"None of these people [on our waiting list] are physically disabled," SHA Executive Director Al Levine explains. He adds that nearly all of the young disabled who apply to live in senior housing are mentally ill and/or have substance-abuse issues.

Even though SHA administrators and senior-housing residents acknowledge that it might appear to be discriminatory, all want to reduce the number of nonelderly disabled in senior housing. SHA managers say this population causes the majority of the problems in the senior-housing buildings. And senior residents say that young, mentally ill tenants with chemical-dependency issues are the primary reason they are uneasy about security.

"How does someone like Jeff Schuler get into an SHA building?" asks Sunrise Manor resident Jim Joelson, who is also president of the Advocates, a senior housing-improvement organization.

SHA's Virginia Felton says Schuler has an undisclosed disability that made him eligible to apply for the senior-housing program. As is the case for all potential tenants, SHA ordered a Washington State Patrol (WSP) criminal-history check on Schuler. Felton will not disclose the results, but she insists there was nothing in the WSP report, or a subsequent FBI fingerprint check, that should have made SHA reluctant to accept him as a tenant.

King County Superior Court records reveal, however, that Schuler had previously been convicted of assault. In February 2001, he was also convicted of gross misdemeanor harassment for pulling a loaded semi-automatic weapon on his father and threatening to kill him. After that conviction, the judge ordered Schuler to turn over his handgun to police, have his psychiatric medications monitored by a psychiatrist, and agree to never again be in possession of a firearm.

Schuler was arrested for Kim's murder in his SHA apartment six months later, and police found two fully functional rifles in his broom closet. Despite SHA's claim that they do frequent housekeeping checks in senior housing, they failed to discover the guns and the sword with which police say it appears Schuler stabbed his victim.

Schuler's bail has been set at $2,000,000 cash, and he's in jail, awaiting trial early next year. Even so, senior residents of Sunrise Manor say they have little confidence that SHA's screening process will protect them from another tenant like Schuler. Maybe it's time, they say, for SHA to do more thorough criminal histories.

SHA's Porchlight Application Manager Dennis Hall says that changing criminal history checks would be too expensive.

That doesn't mean SHA doesn't have a plan, however. On Sept. 25, SHA's Felton announced that seniors in each of the agency's senior buildings will be asked to assist their managers as "hosts" of a series of open houses aimed at recruiting new elderly tenants. The first Tuesday of every month, seniors are expected to roll out the welcome mat and serve refreshments to other seniors, drawn to their building by brochures and media announcements.

"We'll have snapshots of residents' apartments," Felton says, confident that seniors will want to display photos of their apartments and that they'll make willing "hosts" for their unknown guests.

Not everyone is excited about the effort to attract new tenants in this fashion. "I'm going to tell everyone to double-, double-lock their doors," says Sunrise Manor's Helen Black. "I don't like letting people in off the streets."

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