LARGO, Fla. – On April 7, 2019, two men who were neighbors in Pinellas County Section 8 Housing had a major tiff over a television blasting throughout the day and the middle of the night. Now the beaten victim is suing the Pinellas County Housing and Economic Development Corporation for either not conducting or ignoring the results of a background check on a violent fellow tenant with a previous history of trouble.
Andres Salazar, 79 and a Peruvian who speaks limited English lived below ex-military ranger Thomas E. George, 70 at Pinellas Heights Senior Apartments located at 11411 Ulmerton Road in Largo. He shared the same sentiment as his neighbors that George was a bad tenant. It was alleged that complaints from other tenants had been registered against George without any action taken, although an interview with the Defendant’s leadership indicated otherwise. Salazar underwent a direct examination with an Assistant State Attorney and a Public Defender, accompanied by an interpreter. He described the incident.
He went on his balcony and shouted “shut up please” as George’s television played loudly. He said due to his limited English, he said “shut up.” George replied that “it’s my house” as far as what Salazar understood and turned it down for five minutes. Then he blasted the television again until 2 or 3 am.
Eventually, George went down to Salazar’s apartment, knocked on the door, and began a fist-punching spree on Salazar’s face without a hello. According to the lawsuit, George’s assault left Salazar with a right arm bicep tear, broken nose, left ear tear, neck, back, and jaw pain and headaches, among other injuries. Salazar’s direct examination cited him as saying he cannot lift his arm and he has double vision.
The Largo police report from the scene of the battery said Salazar’s right eye “was bleeding profusely,” with potential fracture of the eye socket. George admitted to police he was guilty of battery and said, “I never liked that foreign Peru mother***** anyway.”
Salazar told the attorneys his medical bills are estimated between $45,000 and $60,000.
In the Pinellas County Circuit Court, George was charged with burglary and aggravated battery on a person 65 years of age or older. He was sentenced to 100 months in prison and is being housed at the Zephyrhills Correctional Facility on a court order dated September 11, 2019. He was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $31, 155.12.
A teleconference was held with Debra Johnson, Executive Director, and Regina Booker, Chief Operating Officer of the Pinellas County Housing Authority and Pinellas County Economic Development Corporation. They responded to questions about the incident, various policies, and sources used to conduct tenant background checks.
George’s background check prior to acceptance as a tenant of Pinellas Heights Senior Apartments consisted of three inquiries – The National Criminal Database of Sex Offenders, the Pinellas County court’s public records, and inquiries outside the county regarding tenant compliance. The only red-flag violation produced was a felony arrest in 1980 according to the Housing Authority’s records. Booker explained, “new residents must not have a felony within five years or a misdemeanor within three years of application.” George has extensive traffic infractions including DUIs, but felony and misdemeanor activity is dated over 20 years ago.
Booker indicated that tenants generally tend to recoil from filing formal written complaints or contacting the police whenever incidents occur, although the Housing Authority strongly encourages it in their leases because it is advantageous to complainants. “If there’s no police report, courts typically rule in favor of the tenant,” she explained. In this case, there was a police report along with surveillance video on George’s battery against Salazar, which was helpful.
When asked if George was ever the subject of other complaints, Booker said, “There was a verbal complaint received against George three days before he attacked Salazar and we gave notice to him that he was abusive and threatening, disturbing the peace and violating the smoking policy.” But she also added that there are two types of notices issued to problematic tenants. “Some complaints are ‘curable’ complaints, like cursing at somebody,” she said. “Only ‘non-curable’ complaints get documented and issue a seven-day eviction notice to the tenant. George was issued such an eviction notice and his son participated in his removal.”
Contact could not be made with Mr. Salazar despite two attempts. His attorney is Gil Sanchez of Tampa.