Darryl Brown warned the city months ago there could be a fire.
Squatters had been living in the house Brown purchased in Carrollton Ridge in Southwest Baltimore and planned to renovate as an investment, and he wanted them gone. He said he tried asking them to leave, but they refused. So Brown called the police, but he said the officers couldn’t help him without a court order.
He filed for an eviction the next day, Dec. 3.
“A major fire hazard,” Brown wrote in that filing, claiming the people illegally staying in his house were stealing gas and electricity.
A judge denied the eviction request in February, writing that there are no provisions in the law for an expedited hearing. It would be two months before another judge heard his case.
Last Tuesday, five months after he first sought removal of the people unlawfully living in his house, Brown stared in disbelief at what was left of 325 Furrow St.
A fire tore through the house two nights earlier, on May 8, and a man, 35-year-old Miguel Soto Diaz, was found dead inside. He had been shot, police said, and the fire was being investigated as arson. It’s not clear whether Diaz was one of the people living in the house.
Brown appeared to fight off tears when he poked his head inside — no one from the city told him his house had burned.
“The city did nothing when I brought this to their attention,” Brown said. “They are the reason for this death.”
When news of the fire broke, police officials called the house a vacant — meaning it was unoccupied and either uninhabitable or deemed a nuisance because of code violations.
The house wasn’t vacant, but it was supposed to be empty.
Brown, who lives in Prince George’s County, bought the empty house at a June auction for $22,000 — closing on it in October — with plans to renovate it, rent it out and leave it to his daughters as a way to create generational wealth.
But the squatters disrupted his plans and he has been tied up in court for months trying to get a judge to order the sheriff’s office to remove the occupants who weren’t paying him rent and had moved in against his wishes.
The coronavirus pandemic slowed the courts, with many eviction cases not heard until months after they were filed, said Douglas Nivens, a housing attorney with Maryland Legal Aid.
“For many of these cases there was about a three-month backlog,” Nivens said.
The pandemic left many with tenuous housing situations, and judges have been reluctant to strip someone of their living situation, Nivens said.
Whoever was staying at 325 Furrow St. appeared to be using it as a party house. Beer cans, needle caps, syringe plungers and other trash lay scattered on the ground out back. Brown craned his neck to look into the back of the house Tuesday. Through the charred window frame, he could see vinyl records, DVDs and a phone charger — none of which, he said, belonged to him.
“Juveniles have use [sic] home as a trap house,” Brown wrote in his December eviction filing, referring to a place where drugs are sold.
Brown also emphasized in that filing that his house had been raided by police and that the squatters were living in unsafe conditions.
Police records show several calls for service to the address over the past year, but officials declined to release the incident reports, saying that doing so could jeopardize the ongoing homicide investigation into Diaz’s death.
On Nov. 10, 2021, police searched the house. Three days later authorities were called back because of an overdose, according to police records.
Police and fire officials declined to answer questions about the overdose, but Brown said someone died and he thinks it was one of the squatters.
A message written on an upstairs bedroom wall survived the fire and seemed to confirm someone died, reading: “RIP Kevin, we love you 2 the moon nd [sic] back.”
Brown renewed his motions for eviction in March and a sheriff’s deputy went to serve a subpoena for a court hearing March 8, but no one answered the door, according to court papers.
A judge heard Brown’s case again April 7. The hearing lasted nine minutes and none of the people living in the house showed up. On April 21, a judge granted Brown’s request for removal and directed the sheriff’s office to go and clear the people out of the house.
Usually, the sheriff’s office serves eviction warrants within 14 days, said Major Sabrina Tapp-Harper, a spokeswoman for the agency, but some warrants, like the one Brown had, are stamped with seals prompting the sheriff’s office to serve them faster — within three to four days.
However, the division of the sheriff’s office that does evictions has been bogged down by a backlog of court orders following the resumption of evictions put off during the pandemic, Tapp-Harper said. The eviction in Brown’s case was scheduled for two weeks after the office received the order.
Deputies were scheduled to enforce the eviction today — eight days too late.
In normal, pre-COVID times, the whole eviction process would have taken Brown less than a month, Nivens said. Even had the eviction happened earlier, it’s likely the occupants would have moved somewhere else. Would another house have burned? Would Diaz have still died? Maybe.
“It may not have happened at this property, but it would have happened at another, because these people have to go somewhere,” Nivens said.
For Brown, this house was supposed to be something. Built in 1920, he said, the house at 325 Furrow St. was one of the few on the block still decent for living. Of the 111 lots on the street, at least 58 were vacant before the fire, according to city housing records. Most of the houses in the 300 block are boarded up and abandoned and the few without boards stand out as unusual.
But Brown liked a lot of things about the house. He liked that it was near the Westside Shopping Center and thought future tenants would, too. He was charmed by its ornate mantel and tiled hearth. He thought by fixing the house up, he could help a downtrodden street in a struggling neighborhood.
“This was such a nice, homely home,” he said.
All that is left now is soot and ruin.