By the middle of February, Fort Wayne police had received several anonymous tips about a couple making methamphetamine inside their home at 819 Elmer Ave. on the city’s north side.
When vice and narcotics officers showed up at their door, they found one-pot meth labs in the trash bins outside and some remnants of methamphetamine inside the home.
The couple were taken into custody, just as four other people were taken into custody the month before when vice and narcotics officers – along with a SWAT team – raided a home at 1113 Margaret Ave. where marijuana was found.
The two cases are unrelated except for one link: The homes are owned by the same man who rented them out.
And courtesy of Ken Scheibenberger, the city’s drug house ordinance coordinator, that man’s name was later forwarded to the City Attorney’s Office for being in violation of Fort Wayne’s drug house ordinance.
The ordinance, first introduced in the early 1990s, calls for landlords to be fined if they allow drug activity to happen at their properties.
While initially successful, the ordinance ceased to be enforced after the retirement of former coordinator Joe Musi in 2009 and a legal challenge that year.
In March 2011, Scheibenberger, a former Allen Superior Court judge, took over the position and is now working with Fort Wayne police and making sure landlords know the law is still on the books.
I was going to be very proactive in trying to make sure this ordinance was enforced, Scheibenberger said. I met with a lot of neighborhood association presidents to tell them that we’re back in business.
Plenty of tips
Drugs have been at the center of Scheibenberger’s professional and personal lives for years.
In 1997, he founded Allen County’s drug court, which allows defendants charged with possessing drugs to have their charges dismissed in exchange for successfully addressing their drug problems and taking other court-ordered steps to improve their lives.
Ten years later, personal tragedy struck when, in August 2007, Scheibenberger’s 27-year-old son died from a lethal amount of cocaine in his system after battling drug addiction.
In a 2011 interview Scheibenberger told The Journal Gazette he felt completely helpless in not being able to help his son.
Today, Scheibenberger works out of the city police department’s vice and narcotics unit. He takes tips from residents about potential drug houses, goes with narcotics officers on various raids, and occasionally – when the need calls for it – does reconnaissance on possible drug activity himself.
When Scheibenberger gets a tip about a drug house, he records the address into a database and alerts the head of police’s vice and narcotics unit.
Officers will then watch the home to substantiate any drug activity. If they can’t, they move on. If they spot drug activity, they’ll try to set up undercover buys and open a full investigation.
Surveillance is the real hard-core part of it, said Scheibenberger, who just recently tried to spot a drug deal going down near his office after receiving a tip when no one else in the department was around. In my opinion, it’s a matter of luck. Unless there’s dealing going on, we have to close tips as unsubstantiated.
And there are plenty of tips to review.
Last year, Scheibenberger received 948 tips about possible drug houses – though he said many could have been about the same address. Those tips led to the closure of 71 drug houses, he said.
This year, Scheibenberger said, he’s receiving between 80 and 100 tips a month, partly because of a new feature on the Fort Wayne Police Department’s website that allows someone to write in a possible drug house easily and anonymously.
He still gets calls, though, from plenty of people, many who are detailed in what’s going on at some of the houses.
People don’t want this stuff going on in their neighborhood, Scheibenberger said.
Landlords who are notified that Fort Wayne police have evidence one of their properties is being used as a drug house have 30 days to begin eviction proceedings against people living there, according to the current city code.
If landlords fail to do so, or are unable to show proof that the people involved in the drug dealing are no longer living at their properties, they could face a $500 fine.
But Scheibenberger said he’s willing to work with landlords, and most comply with the law.
I’m not trying to be heavy-handed, I’m trying to make sure these drug dealers are not in the neighborhood, he said. If a landlord is willing to work with me, then there’s no problem. I’m not trying to be a hard guy.
In 2009, though, a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a man who did not want to evict a tenant, challenged the drug house ordinance.
In that suit, the landlord was ordered to evict a woman who had invited the father of her child to stay with her. Soon, the father began having visitors at all hours of the day and night, and drew the attention of police.
The woman kicked the man out, but police still ordered her to be evicted, according to the suit.
The lawsuit led to a cooling off on enforcing the city ordinance, but city officials and Scheibenberger said the ordinance has been carefully analyzed since then and will be enforced.
In lieu of the lawsuit, police stopped enforcing the ordinance until some minor changes could be made to the law.
We were sidelined for a little while, and we did have to tweak it a little bit to make it work for us, Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York said. Once we did that, we brought Scheibenberger on board and I think it’s working really well.
And while he’s willing to work with landlords, Scheibenberger will signal out those who are not responsive and send cases to the City Attorney’s Office, which can open a court case and levy a fine against such landlords.
Those people who say they won’t evict, or those people we don’t hear from, those are the ones that go to court, Scheibenberger said.
Last year, Scheibenberger sent 15 cases to the City Attorney’s Office.
Most landlords in those cases ended up showing proof the tenants who came under police scrutiny had moved out of their properties, while one landlord admitted to a violation and paid a fine, according to city officials.
This year, Scheibenberger has sent nine cases to the City Attorney’s Office.
Among those cases are two Scheibenberger sent last month that name the owner of the properties at 819 Elmer Ave. – where police found evidence of methamphetamine production in February – and 1113 Margaret Ave. – where police found marijuana and arrested four people in January.
No formal ordinance violations have been filed against that particular owner, but city officials have 60 days to do so. Also, the owner may have already shown proof that the people accused of dealing drugs in those homes are gone.
Formal court cases have been opened this year on the owner of 303 W. Creighton Ave. – where police arrested a woman for dealing cocaine in December – and the owner of 3018 Lillie St. – where police found 16 grams of crack cocaine, 111 grams of powder cocaine, digital scales, marijuana and cash during a raid in November.
It seems to be working the way we were hoping it would, city spokesman Frank Suarez said about the ordinance.
And for Scheibenberger, the new job is gratifying in that he gets to stay in the justice system and is still getting a chance to play a part in cleaning up neighborhoods.
I’m still dealing with drug dealers, and still getting them tossed in prison, he said.