Bodies bring blight into focus

LUMBERTON — In addition to the recent grisly discovery of three women’s bodies, there are larger, lingering problems in the blighted areas surrounding East Eighth and Peachtree streets in Lumberton, according to the city councilman who represents the area.

But John Cantey knows the discoveries have focused concerned eyes on the struggling community that he calls “East Central Lumberton.

“You’ve got some bigger problems. After the flood there are issues throughout the city,” said Cantey, who represents Precinct 5. “A little while back you knew your neighbors. You now have this influx of new people into these communities who may not have the best interest of the city in mind.”

In April two badly decomposed corpses were found around Peachtree Street, one in an abandoned home known by police as a den of prostitution and drug use, the other in a curbside trash receptacle nearby. Weeks later, a third corpse was found in overgrown shrubbery near an East Eighth Street house known also as haven for drug use and prostitution.

The dead women were Christina Bennett, 32, of Eastwood Terrace, Rhonda Jones, 36, of Troy Drive, and Megan Ann Oxendine, 28, of Dwight Road in Lumberton.

The deaths are being treated as homicides, but Police Chief Michael McNeill has said there were no obvious signs of violence to the bodies. The cause of the deaths is yet to be determined by the state Medical Examiner’s Office.

Abandoned and boarded-houses used to conduct illicit activity in the East Eighth Street area have for years been a problem for local law enforcement. A hurricane that displaced city residents and left more buildings empty and uninhabitable exacerbated the problems.

Councilman Chris Howard, who represents Pricinct 6, expressed hope that floodwaters might wash away negative elements, such as drug dealers and prostitutes. Cantey fears the opposite has happened, noting significant numbers of residents have not returned.

Dark alleyways, abandoned buildings and overgrown greenery were literal shields for criminal activity. Now law enforcement and the city leaders are actively trying to shine a light into the shadowed areas.

“We have numerous security lighting installations. On Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, on Willow,” Cantey said. “… Speaking with residents and ladies walking the area, they feel a little safer.”

City Manager Wayne Horne said much has been done at Cantey’s request.

“We have installed additional lighting, focused on some houses that are boarded,” he said. “We’ve taken down four or five houses in that area. Around Peachtree, electrical utilities are working on improving lighting and we are looking at other houses. We have also looked at a way to cut grass and reduce the shrubbery so that police have better visibility when patrolling the area.”

Nuisance abatement ordinances are aggressively being enforced, Horne said.

Members of a family that lives next to the abandoned home on East Eighth Street believe the site where the third body was found became a place for heroin users and prostitutes because of the privacy afforded by the vacant building and head-high greenery.

“They’ve cleared it up now, but before they took the body out, there were needles all in back there behind the house,” said Maurice Pitt, who lives next door. Pitt and others described hearing the crunch of needles underfoot while walking by the house.

Felicia Pitt, Maurice’s mother, urged the city of take care of the overgrown bushes and shrubs on the day that Oxendine’s body was found.

The unkempt property also helped shield the railroad tracks that link the blocks where Bennett and Jones’ bodies were found on Peachtree and East Eighth streets. There is no right or wrong side of this track.The CSX railroad track is difficult for law enforcement to patrol with the regular passing of trains.

“Unfortunately, a lot of these ladies frequent that railroad tracks because law enforcement cars can’t get down there,” Cantey said, referring to prostitutes.

Lumberton police have been more visible as they continue their inquiries into the women’s deaths.

“We’ve done that. We have been out walking in the area and talking to anyone who may have known these ladies,” McNeill said.

The city’s efforts are thinning the area’s imposing plant life, Cantey said, and the building at 608 E. Eighth St., where Oxendine’s body was found, is on a hit list.

“The brush has been sprayed,” he said. “They let that get in and kill as much as possible and then get in and cut and manage. The building is close to coming down. … It is being worked on along with quite a few others.”

Bringing down these dilapidated buildings has become a crusade for Cantey. The legal condemnation process takes months and the only real penalty for an absentee landlord is a lien on the property for the cost of demolition and debris removal.

“All these homes that are being torn down … they were turned in before the storm and the year before, it’s not something all of a sudden that got bad,” Cantey said. “We’ve been knocking down homes, it’s more we are taking a notice to it now because of this situation with the bodies.”

Demolition is costly, but Horne has been working hard to find money to boost the effort.

“I’ve spoken to numerous landlords who have abandoned buildings,” Cantey said. “But they are not always the problem. They will rent to one person and another six or seven other people are living in the home. We don’t want to knock down anyone’s property, but if it hasn’t been fixed in years something needs to be done.”

Woodbury “Woody” Bowen, a Lumberton attorney, owns the Peachtree Street address that was boarded up. Since the body was discovered, there have been significant upgrades and improvements to the building, which Bowen says were planned but delayed by Matthew.

Cantey believes Hurricane Matthew left residents fearing the city is at a tipping point.

“I’m lucky to have the cooperation of a lot of departments: code enforcement, planning, law enforcement, the county social services, and public works,” he said. “The new problem in this and the South Lumberton community, homes were flooded out and the landlords haven’t made any repairs, haven’t even cleared them out. Landlords are waiting on mitigation money, which could come later this year. But if this does not come, they may just walk away and that leaves a hazard.”

The fear is landlords of flooded homes that now sit in newly adjusted flood zones may abandon hundreds of houses that currently sit empty, except for potentially toxic mold, a health concern recently discussed by Lumberton City Council.

“It’s only going to get worse, because not everyone is going to get approved. Of the 400 applications that we sent to the state, if 200 passed, what’s the other 200 residents going to do to repair their homes?” Cantey said. “The landlords are banking on the rental homes will be bought out by FEMA for green space. These landlords who don’t get funded or bought out, they are going to walk away.”


By Mike Gellatly

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Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly