New Castle – Today, Attorney General Beau Biden, joined by New Castle County Police, County Executive Tom Gordon, legislators, and community members announced the closure of a New Castle drug haven using Delaware’s crime-fighting criminal nuisance abatement law.
“This property is a classic example of why our Nuisance Abatement Program is so powerful,” Biden said. “Despite the continued enforcement efforts by New Castle County Police, it was clear that making arrest after arrest was not stopping violent criminal activity at this residence. We had to stop it at its source by shutting down the property and that’s where our nuisance abatement law works as a crime fighting tool. Today’s closure is an important step in ending the criminal activity and giving community residents the peace and security they deserve.”
The property, located at 21 Memorial Drive, has been the site of constant criminal activity for more than three years. Since the fall of 2009, when criminal behavior began to occur on-site, the property became widely known as a safe haven for prostitutes and drug dealers and a location where you could drive up and purchase drugs. During this time, New Castle County Police were dispatched to the property at least 177 times, arresting at least 40 different people for drug, prostitution, and other crimes. In addition, the County used its disorderly premises ordinance to cite the property’s owner for the illegal conduct, and the owner, 68 year-old Paul Bembry, has been found in violation of this ordinance five times since 2011, including three times this year alone.
Over the past year, criminal activity at the location increased and has included a stabbing, an armed robbery, and three violent assaults. Earlier this year, New Castle County Police conducted an investigation of the ongoing criminal activity, which included an undercover drug buy of heroin and cocaine. In March, police executed a search warrant, seizing an illegal handgun in the owner’s bedroom, along with drugs and drug paraphernalia. During the search police found evidence that gunshots had been fired in the house earlier that same day and located a bullet hole in the home.
New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon thanked Biden for the Department of Justice’s lawsuit to shutter this problem property, a move that would ultimately improve quality of life for county residents. “To be able to have this tool in the arsenal I think is going to be a great asset as we go on,” Gordon said. “The Attorney General has come in today to say enough is enough. We’ll use all these tools to bring the community back.”
“Today’s collaborative effort between the New Castle County Police and the Attorney General’s office demonstrates each agency’s commitment to ensuring peace and tranquility to our citizens,” said New Castle County Police Chief Elmer Setting. “We cannot let the criminal actions and poor decisions of a few have an egregious impact on the overwhelming majority of our citizens who are civically responsible, are good neighbors and deserve to have safe communities. Today’s abatement actions should serve as a reminder to all property owners in New Castle County that while police will make every effort to assist you in keeping your property safe, the ultimate responsibility is yours as a property owner. When you do not take the appropriate actions to eliminate unsettling activities that are disrupting your community, the next Press Conference may possibly be held on your front lawn.”
Chief Setting brought the ongoing activity at the Memorial Drive property to the attention of the Attorney General’s Office this spring and Biden’s Nuisance Abatement Program immediately conducted an investigation. On May 3, prosecutors filed a lawsuit in Superior Court against the property’s owner seeking its immediate closure because of the ongoing and violent criminal activity. At a temporary abatement hearing on May 15, New Castle County Superior Court Judge Calvin Scott agreed with the Department of Justice, finding that the property presented a threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the community, and he ordered that it be closed. In addition, Judge Scott ruled that all tenants and residents are to have no contact with the property until a permanent abatement hearing takes place at a future time.
Biden noted that this was the first lawsuit filed since Delaware’s Nuisance Abatement Act was enhanced in 2011, and he recognized Senator Margaret Rose Henry and Representative J.J. Johnson, whose districts include the Memorial Drive property, for sponsoring that legislation. Those revisions expand the criteria that can be used to declare a property a criminal nuisance, which now includes gun crimes, gang activity, and high levels of violent crime. It also allows the Court to consider factors, such as increased calls to police, decreased property values, and residents’ fear of being outside in public places, which reflect overall harm that criminal activity imposes on a community.
“As politicians, we often deal with problems at a 30,000-foot level. This is addressing community problems at the ground level,” said Rep. Johnson, D-Jefferson Farms. “This property has been a thorn in my side and in the sides of neighbors for years. It has been like Grand Central Station, with people pulling up to the house, conducting their business and leaving. The property owner had chances to do the right thing and has consistently chosen the wrong path. Attorney General Beau Biden taking this action today closes down one problem house and sends notice to other properties that we will not tolerate this, and we will reclaim our neighborhoods.”
State Prosecutor Kathleen Jennings recognized her staff for their dedicated efforts to reduce crime through the innovative Nuisance Abatement Program, saying, “The quiet hero in these cases is Deputy Attorney General Dan Logan, who is in direct contact with community leaders across our state on a daily basis to identify properties that are sites for criminal activity and to partner with them to root it out at its source. This closure is another great example of how we are using this very effective tool to reduce crime.”
In 2007, Attorney General Biden announced a statewide effort to reduce crime using Delaware’s Nuisance Abatement Act. Enforcement actions can take a variety of forms, including closure of the property. Biden’s office identifies nuisance properties statewide through its own investigations and through cooperation with state and local police agencies, local authorities, civic associations, and residents. It works to abate those nuisances, either by obtaining a court order or through the voluntary cooperation of the owner to clean up the illegal activity. To date, more than a dozen properties have been shut down because they were found to present an immediate threat to the health, safety and welfare of the surrounding community and more than 125 nuisances have been abated as a result of Nuisance Abatement enforcement actions.
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