Residents at Opa-locka's Gardens Apartments — perhaps the city's sketchiest property — endured 5 murders, 656 assaults, 34 robberies, 25 shootings, and 80 stolen cars during a four-year stretch, according to police records. And the apartments remain the hottest spot in town for cops, says Capt. Rex Galindo, a spokesman for Opa-locka Police. "It generates constant calls — for domestic disturbances, loud music, burglaries, drug activities, everything," he says.
Now the lawyers representing one of the men killed there claim in a lawsuit that owner Dilip Barot fed the violence by pocketing $150,000 every year in taxpayer money earmarked for security. The evidence was strong enough to convince a circuit court judge last week to allow the attorneys to ask a jury for punitive damages.
"Envision the worst slumlord you've ever seen or heard about, take away any redeeming factors they may have, and you've got Dilip Barot," says Christopher Marlowe, one of the lawyers suing Barot and his company, Creative Choice Homes II.
Barot, an Indian-born businessman, bought the now-39-year-old complex in 1992 for $538,000. The shabby collection of two-story apartments sits behind a junkyard a few blocks south of Opa-locka Boulevard. The federal government soon began subsidizing the apartments through a program for poor residents, called Section 8. And the property's value rose. This year, it's worth $8.3 million, public records show.
But by all accounts, residents didn't benefit much. While Barot maintains a $13 million mansion in Palm Beach, "conditions [at the complex]... bring tears to my eyes," says former Opa-locka Police Chief James Wright.
On December 9, 2007, Donta Gordon, a 31-year-old resident, was shot dead in his doorway. Six months later, Gordon's relatives sued, alleging that lax security — a lack of guards, lighting, gates, and patrols — led to his murder. Recently, Marlowe and his colleagues obtained letters Barot wrote to HUD; they indicate his company received $38 from the federal government per resident for security.
Last week, Marlowe's team argued before circuit court Judge Maxine Cohen Lando that Barot never used the money to improve security. Though a jury will have to decide the answer, Riptide found no guards on duty last week. The gate to the complex was open, and all apartments were easily accessible. "I ain't seen any security here," said a woman who declined to give her name. "Do you see any guards around?"
Barot's attorney, Michael Bland, didn't return a call for comment.