Western District police officers say their three-year push to stamp out drug dealing in four Severn communities succeeded in all but one place: the Warfield Condominiums, where almost a quarter of the units are owned by one man.
Mohammad Zuberi, an Ellicott City resident, has bought 62 of the 284 condominiums. Police and residents say his property holdings increased as frightened neighbors fled the street-level dealing and open-air drug markets in the 8300 to 8500 blocks of Pioneer Drive and in the 1800 and 1900 blocks of Arwell Court.
On Monday, Assistant State's Attorney Trevor A. Kiessling Jr. filed a complaint in District Court asking a judge to declare 19 of the units anuisance as the first step to having someone else manage them.
Yesterday, Mr. Kiessling and police pondered why Mr. Zuberi let the problem get out of hand.
"Who has the incentive to end the crime problem?" Mr. Kiessling asked. "Clearly not Mr. Zuberi."
Officer Steve Hlavach, who patrols the Warfield Condominiums, said that Mr. Zuberi refused to evict tenants known to deal drugs or ban them from the property. It was Officer Hlavach, a former member of the Baltimore City police department, who suggested earlier this year using the nuisance law against Mr. Zuberi.
While some residents say outsiders are to blame for the problem, others agree with Mr. Kiessling that the landlord made matters worse by taking no action.
James Williams, 50, and his wife, Vivian, moved to the 8300 block of Pioneer Drive 16 years ago when Mr. Zuberi owned five or six units. Since then the Williamses said they watched the community deteriorate as the landlord bought condominiums from owners eager to sell and rented them out. In Mr. Williams' block of 24 condominiums, only nine owners are left.
"We refuse to sell to him," Mr. Williams said of the remaining owners.
Mr. Zuberi disputed suggestions that he seeks to profit from the community's misery. "It's absolutely not true," he said. "I have so many units I don't need anymore. Most of the houses I buy are from auctions and bankruptcies."
Mr. Zuberi countered with an allegation of his own -- that race might be an issue.
He said the county police officers "are white people," who don't understand a black neighborhood.
"When you see a group of people going into a black person's house, that doesn't necessarily mean drug activity is going on," he explained. "Black people have friends and relatives." Police and the state's attorney also may have targeted him because he is from India, Mr. Zuberi suggested.
Such talk is "utter nonsense," said Capt. Thomas Bowman, the commander of the Western District.
"I think Mr. Zuberi is trying to create a smoke screen," Captain Bowman said. "The race of the police officers matters not. It's their attitude and approach."
Western District officers have worked with the black residents of Warfield Condominiums, Captain Bowman noted, as they have in Meade Village, Pioneer City and Richfield Drive, where the drug problem has been curtailed.
Mr. Williams, who is black, agreed with Captain Bowman.
"It's not a black and white thing," he said. "We just want the best for our neighborhood."
Mrs. Williams, 45, said that all the owners want is for Mr. Zuberi to screen his tenants. He claims he does, but the Williamses, the police and Mr. Kiessling say he doesn't.
Sgt. Ray Schuele, the supervisor of the tactical narcotics team at the Western District, said that handing over management of Mr. Zuberi's units to someone else might be a situation where everybody would win. Under the state's attorney's plan, Mr. Zuberi would retain ownership and continue to receive rent while the receiver would manage the property and screen tenants.
Mr. Zuberi scoffed at the idea. "There is nobody who is a better manager than I am."