His wife had just left for work, and Paul Johnson had fallen back asleep when the pounding at his apartment door started. “Police!” a voice shouted. A blur of loud commands and combat-geared police officers with assault rifles followed. In quick order, Johnson was sitting on the sidewalk outside with his 3-year-old daughter and residents of five other apartments.
That was July 29, a Friday morning, in Norwood. None of the people who lived in the apartments behind and above the Sherman Market have been allowed to return home, other than some in-and-out trips to recover their most essential items.
“They made a 9-year-old, a 3-year-old, a 1-and-a-half-year-old, a 7-month-old and a 14-year-old homeless in a matter of seconds,” Johnson says.
The Johnsons and others in the building were evicted for circumstances that transcended their meager existence in a troubled section of west Norwood. What dislodged them was the opinion, held by the Norwood Police Department and the Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney, that the two-story Sherman Market building was a nuisance. One that needed to be eradicated.
A judge, Megan Shanahan, agreed. She gave Prosecuting Attorney Joe Deters the green light to evacuate and padlock both the Sherman Market and another Norwood store, Donna’s Carryout. Deters beamed under the ensuing media spotlight.
“This is a good day for Norwood,” his office quoted him as saying. “Two businesses that caused nothing but trouble for the law-abiding citizens in the community have been shut down.”
Deters’ office says “police were called” to Sherman Market 217 times in the past two years for an assortment of reasons. One was for selling liquor to a minor, another for “disorderly house.”
Almost all, though, had nothing to do with the store. Of the 217 police “calls,” 82 were “business checks” consisting of patrol car drive-bys after hours. Another 15 were spottings of people wanted for arrest. Eleven more were traffic stops on the street.
Most of the activity consisted of fighting, suspicious behavior and the usual array of petty thieves, troublemakers and open imbibers on tough city street corners. In other words, everyday life in a part of Norwood untouched by the urban renewal just one mile away at Xavier University.With a separate affidavit from Norwood Police Sgt. David Lewis, though, Deters was able to tell Judge Shanahan about three recent instances of felony-level marijuana sales in the hallway of the Sherman Market apartments. A store employee who lived in the building was indicted Aug. 8. A second pot-selling employee hasn’t been charged.
But in Deters’ eyes, the Sherman Market deserves the blame for the full two years of nuisance-ness at Sherman and Carter avenues.
Ohio law doesn’t require much to brand a property as a nuisance. All it takes is a single felony drug or controlled substance violation. By that 1976 standard, any apartment building in the state could be shut down as a nuisance because of a lone big-time dealer.
Johnson, a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad, can’t understand why his family was lumped into the Sherman Market case.
“We’re not nuisances,” he says. “Listen, I stay at home with my wife and daughter. We don’t involve the police with anything. My wife leaves for work every morning and works five days a week. I take care of my kid, feed her and take her to the park, wash the dishes and wash the clothes.”
Rob Rodriguez was also shocked by the forced removal. He lived upstairs with his wife, his daughter, his daughter’s boyfriend and a 7-month-old grandson. He was at work during the raid. He says he wasn’t allowed to recover some belongings, mainly his work clothes, until a few days later. Clothes, food, furniture and a TV remain locked up.
“I don’t do something wrong, and then that happened to me,” says Rodriguez, a native of Micronesia. “That’s why I get mad. It don’t make sense to me.”
Julie Wilson, spokeswoman for prosecutor Deters, says the nuisance violation stems from the full extent of police attention given to the Sherman Market the last two years. She says no distinction was made between the store and the residential portion of the building.
“It was all one building and was connected, so there was no way to separate the two,” Wilson says. “When you look at everything collectively, all the activity goes back to Sherman Market.”
But the evictions have had a pronounced effect on the innocent former residents. Rodriguez had to stay in a motel because his sister’s house in Sharonville couldn’t handle his entire extended family. He had just paid $650 for another month at the Sherman Market and has only recovered $200 of it. He doesn’t want to move back.
Paul and Tiffany Johnson and their daughter have found a new apartment in Northside, only after depleting their savings on motels, gas, clothing and food to replace what was left behind in Norwood. His wife lost a day of work the day of the raid, another to go to court and a third to open new utility accounts. Their plans to build up a down payment for a house were derailed.
James Canfield, an assistant professor of school social work at the University of Cincinnati, calls the removal of the Sherman Market residents a case of “guilt by location.”
“I think this is one of those times where police feel they’re doing the right thing, but you’re essentially convicted by association,” he says.
For people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, Canfield says, an eviction can be catastrophic.
“Moving is very taxing and super-expensive for people whose income is so small that they have a small margin between making it and abject poverty,” he says. “If they can’t go back and get their belongings from their homes, it’s that much more drastic and impactful.”
The Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio took up the Johnsons’ effort to return home. A week after the raid, attorney Noel Morgan asked Common Pleas Judge Shanahan to allow the Johnsons to join the nuisance case. He was denied.
“We think basically that they’ve been deprived of their property rights without due process,” Morgan says. “Ordinarily, if you’re going to be deprived of your property, you have an opportunity to contest that.”