As a child, Donald Rheubottom feared getting kicked out. Today, he’s the knock at the door.

When Donald Rheubottom was growing up in Baltimore, the end of the school day was always terrifying.

Even now, decades later, the tough exterior of the Baltimore City deputy sheriff and Army veteran softens as he recalls the anxiety he felt when the final bell rang.

Teachers assumed a bully awaited him outside, he says. But the real reason for his fear was much worse.

Eviction.

"When I left school, I didn't know whether we would have a place to stay or not," Rheubottom says.

Many times in his childhood, he arrived home to be greeted by his mother standing beside a pile of their possessions on the curb.

"We were evicted at least 15 times all over the city," he says. "They used to call us gypsies."

Today Rheubottom, 58, finds himself in an ironic position: enforcing eviction orders.

"If you would have told me back in the day that I would end up being a law enforcement officer I might have thought you were on crack," he says. "It breaks your heart sometimes when you go to a home and you see a family with children and a mother there.

"It's difficult to put a child out on the street."

He says many of the 250 families he has helped landlords evict in the past three years were not irresponsible or negligent.

"They have just fallen on hard times," he says.

His personal experience has clearly given Rheubottom the ability to empathize with tenants, and a sense of duty to make sure landlords are following all the rules.

"We're not there to assist the landlord," he says. "We're there to make sure the process is legal."

And safe.

Tensions between landlords and tenants can run high. Police say a confrontation between a tenant and a landlord in February escalated into a fatal shooting.

Landlord Carlton Beachum, 48, was charged with first-degree murder in the Feb. 22 shooting of Sherman Smith, 40. Smith was the father of Beachum's tenant at 531 Brunswick St. in Southwest Baltimore. Police say Beachum shot Smith and another man.

Beachum has pleaded not guilty. A trial is scheduled to begin next month.

Rheubottom says his chief aim is to treat tenants with dignity, because he knows so many of them. He has raised three children in the city.

"Baltimore is my Mayberry, not Iraq," he says.

Enforcing evictions is among the most dangerous duties for deputies, who are given little more than an order and an address.

At least when they serve warrants, Rheubottom says, they know exactly who they are dealing with.

"You don't know who's in the house," he says. "You don't know if it's a drug house or someone is in there wanted for a crime."

Inside the pristine black exterior of his patrol car, Rheubottom fields calls from a dispatcher while checking addresses listed on the carbon-copy eviction sheets pinned to a metal clipboard.

By the time Rheubottom pulls up to a home, the landlord has been through rent court at least once. Most commonly, a tenant will have fallen behind on rent, and the landlord has filed a failure-to-pay-rent complaint.

About 150,000 such complaints are filed in Baltimore every year. Most tenants don't appear in court, so a landlord who does show up tends to leave with a favorable judgment.

Tenants have four days to appeal, but most don't. After four days, a landlord may obtain a "warrant of restitution" to evict the tenant, and the sheriff's office will schedule a date.

Tenants can pay back rent up until the moment the deputy arrives — unless, in Baltimore, they've done that four times in the previous 12 months — and avoid eviction.

About 7,000 individuals or families are evicted in Baltimore each year.

Rheubottom's Southwest Baltimore area is massive, but he appears to know something about someone every few blocks. On a recent patrol, he slowed down frequently to lower his window and pepper pedestrians with questions about job interviews, sick relatives or school.

He alerts one man about potential jobs at Port Covington. He tells another to keep safe.

"Don't be putting no balloons on the pole now," he says — a reference to the makeshift memorials that follow killings around the city.

He knows many of the people from growing up in Baltimore. But most of his connections stem from evictions he's carried out. Tenants and landlords alike greet him with waves and, mostly, smiles.

He warns one landlord that her paperwork is not in order, and the eviction will have to be canceled. When the woman tells him the tenant has already moved out, Rheubottom signs off on the document.

In the 1800 block of W. Pratt St., a stretch of crumbling rowhouses, shuttered businesses and boarded-up vacants, two property owners greet Rheubottom by teasing him that he favors the tenants.

Their tenant, who has declined to give his name to The Baltimore Sun, tells Rheubottom that the men are "slumlords" and that the roof has a hole in it. But he has no proof of his complaints, and none of his paperwork is properly dated or signed.

Rheubottom walks casually to the two men. One is Atam Mehta, who is listed as the owner. All their documents are in order. Still, Rheubottom asks for them to accommodate the tenant.

"Are you willing to let him come back and get his stuff?" Rheubottom asks.

No, the men say.

The tenant owes $1,300, two months worth of rent.

"He knows this was coming," Mehta said.

They do allow the man to go inside to retrieve medications and other personal items.

Mehta, who owns 12 properties in Baltimore, said the city gives tenants too much leeway to avoid evictions. Some tenants will rip off house numbers so that deputies can not confirm addresses.

"Some landlords can't keep up," he said. "The law is for the tenants. An eviction drags on for three months."

He said he is trying to sell all of his properties.

"We've lost all trust in the city," he said. "The same tenants are moving from property to property. They know how to work the system."

As Rheubottom circles the block to his next eviction, on Wilkens Avenue, he spots two boys on bicycles. He rolls down the windows and yells.

"What's up, y'all?"

He stops to chat with employees inside a small oil change business and car wash.

In the 2000 block of Wilkens Ave., landlords Richard Purkey and William DeLawder stand outside their three-bedroom, two-bath property while their tenant shuffles in a circle on the sidewalk next to a friend's van.

The friend, who would give only her first name, Nikai, to The Sun, had been staying with the woman and did not know she hadn't paid the $800-a-month rent.

But Purkey knew.

"It's the fourth time in four months in a row," he says. "I want the money."

"She always come up with the money and I let her back in," Purkey said. "They always come up with the rent at eviction time."

Rheubottom leaves. DeLawder goes to secure the back door. Purkey sits on the front steps.

The tenant, who has declined to be interviewed, sits on the steps of the house next door, alternately crying and getting up to pace restlessly in the street. She and Purkey bicker familiarly, like an old married couple. He tosses off insults. She rolls her eyes.

"Gimme a light," she says, a cigarette in hand.

"Do you have anything that's yours?" he grumbles, and hands her a lighter from his pocket.

At one point, Purkey asks her a question.

"Who's the best landlord you've ever had?"

"You are."

They've been through this before, arriving at the brink of eviction before the tenant comes up with the money at the last moment.

Even after changing the lock on the front door, the landlords say it's easier and cheaper to let tenants who can come up with even a partial payment stay than to clean out and fix the apartment and put it back on the market.

That's what property manager Corey Brown advises the landlords he works with. To do otherwise, he says, can put a small landlord out of business.

DeLawder and Purkey seem fed up with their tenants, but say they can't sell their properties for anything near what they've invested in them.

They still have to pay mortgages to lenders who won't take the kind of excuses they get from their tenants.

"My mother died," DeLawder echoes one. "My brother had to have a hysterectomy," Purkey pipes in, mockingly.

Rheubottom has processed the eviction. But the landlords still give their tenant until 1 p.m. to pay the $1,000 she owed.

As it turns out, Purkey says the following day, she came up with $400, and promised to get the rest. So he let her stay. At least temporarily.

"We're working on June's rent now," Purkey says. "She still owes July, August and September. She'll be too far behind. She'll be put out."

And indeed, Purkey said recently, the tenant eventually was evicted.

Rheubottom sometimes has to play judge on the fly.

As the sun rose over Park Heights, Rheubottom banged on the front door of a narrow, two-story rowhouse on West Garrison Avenue.

No answer. He banged some more. Still, nothing.

The landlord who accompanied Rheubottom opened the door and allowed the deputy to enter.

"I began to search, calling out who I was," he tells a Baltimore District Court judge later that morning.

Rheubottom and the landlord arrived at a locked bedroom door.

He knocked and identified himself again. The door opened.

The tenant, Marnie Johnson, emerged, confused. She says she has received no notice about an eviction from her landlord. A dispute ensues.

Johnson produced receipts showing she has paid her $865 rent, but late. Having already staved off eviction with late payments four times in the previous year, according to court records, she had lost her right to "pay and stay."

The eviction order was supposed to have made this clear. But the paperwork was filled out incorrectly. Rheubottom drove downtown to District Court to ask for a same-day hearing.

"It's not proper for me to remove this person if they had no notice," Judge Kent Boles says.

He dismisses the eviction order and issues a new one that will not give Johnson the chance to pay and stay. This is her last warning. She has to get out.

Then the judge lectures Johnson in front of the crowded courtroom.

"When the sheriff comes to your door and identifies himself, don't do anything as silly as you did today," he says.

"I wasn't hiding in my bedroom," Johnson responds. "We're dealing with a slumlord."

Outside the courtroom, Johnson weeps into her hands. Her 17-year-old daughter, Shaina, sits silently beside her.

Johnson says she was asleep in her bedroom when the sheriff arrived. She locks her bedroom door because their neighborhood is not safe and the front door lock had been broken for months before the landlord fixed it.

Rheubottom walks by Johnson, gets into his car and heads to another eviction.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

jmarbella@baltsun.com

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