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"So he won't have to cut it," Higgs says. "Right now it's that same stinking-ass carpet, laid out there across the grass. And he'll come move it over if he sees something growing."
Tolbert's property is the worst-looking house on the block. The back yard is littered with junk. There are old boards, pipes, animal cages, fencing and, literally, a kitchen sink. A van and a broken-down car rust in the backyard. His front porch is used for more storage he keeps large boards up to obscure its contents from the street. One empty green planter hangs from the porch eaves.
Higgs has faced Tolbert in housing court so often that she used up her vacation time from her job as a mail carrier. "Since he was on the City Council, he knows how many times he can appeal, how to change judges," Higgs says.
Joe Wheeler, a retired firefighter, lives across the street in a well-kept two-story with blue siding. He says that Tolbert's father, Ellsworth, lived at 1806 until he passed away. That's when Tolbert began using the property as a junkyard, Wheeler says from his seat on his front porch. "When the garage got full, he started filling up the porch. People put out stuff for the trash, and he picks it right up. One time a lady from the tax assessor came, and she told me that house was unfit for human habitation."
The city has been forced to tear down most of Tolbert's houses 16 out of about 23 that he has owned. It's a severe remedy that's taken in only 15 percent of cases in housing court, and only after the property owner refuses to fix up seriously damaged property that would be more expensive to repair than the property is worth, says Nathan Pare, manager of the city's Dangerous Buildings Demolition and Preservation Division. Pare calls Tolbert a chronic code violator. "The plans he has for his property never seem to come around," Pare says, "and he always has a reason for why he doesn't finish them."
In 2004, two of Tolbert's properties were slated for demolition. One was at 3811 Prospect, which was cited for a deteriorated foundation, leaning walls and columns, a leaky roof, broken windows and open holes. It was unsafe for habitation. The cost of repair was estimated at $136,500. In housing court, Judge K. Preston Dean II denied Tolbert's request for time to fix it up because Tolbert had shown no evidence that he'd done any work on the place since he'd bought it.
The other was his home at 4154 Troost, which the city's code inspectors had repeatedly cited for damaged shingles, eaves, plywood, siding and a falling porch ceiling. Inspectors valued the property at $6,500 but estimated that it would cost $85,000 to repair, so they ordered it demolished on September 26, 2004.
Tolbert filed a restraining order against the city to stall the wrecking ball. Judge Dean granted a 10-day restraining order, but it expired. Pare, head of the Department of Dangerous Buildings, says Tolbert was allowed to make repairs while the home was under demolition orders, which might have saved the structure. Tolbert didn't lift a finger. "It makes no sense to do repair work they're going to tear down," Tolbert says. The city demolished the home on November 16, 2004.
The same Troost house was the site of Tolbert's most dramatic run-in with the city on August 23, 2000. Inspectors showed up to 4154 Troost, where Tolbert was living at the time, with a search warrant that allowed them to inspect the interior to determine if it was structurally unsound. They brought along two policemen and two firefighters. When the firefighters emerged gasping, they discussed the need for masks to shield them from the house's stench. Meanwhile, Tolbert showed up. Inspectors said he walked to the front porch and locked the front door, barring their way. He was arrested and charged with refusing to allow authorized personnel inside his property with a search warrant.