This week, reporters peppered homicide prosecutor Benjamin Agati about details of the murder of Pariseau high-rise resident Jennifer Burpee on Tuesday night.
Among the questions: How did Burpee’s alleged killer get in? After all, the Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority building has a buzzer-activated security system that allows residents to screen visitors. Security cameras even feed to residents’ cable TVs.
And moments before she was beaten to death, a frantic Burpee called police to report that her alleged killer — self-described Nazi Damien Seace — was pounding on the 45-year-old’s door, authorities have said.
I’m hypothesizing here, but if he were pounding on the door, it was apparently locked. So how did he get in?
“That we’re unclear of,” said Agati, who added that police are trying to figure out exactly what happened.
Agati can find the answer at any housing authority building, which photographer David Lane and I did on Thursday. At the downtown Kalivas high rise, a resident put his back to his locked door, struck it swiftly with his rear end, and it popped open.
“How can anyone feel safe if they can’t lock the door behind them?” said the 47-year-old disabled resident, who would only give me his first initial, J. Like nearly every resident I spoke to, he was hesitant to give his full name, fearful of repercussions from housing authority officials.
“There’s no real security, no deadbolts for your doors here,” he said.
Pariseau and Kalivas are among the five high-rises where many of the most vulnerable citizens of Manchester — its poor, elderly and disabled — live.
“It’s a dangerous place to live,” said Robert, 72, a Pariseau resident on the day after the killing.
Talk to residents long enough, and the same stories emerge:
The office manager and maintenance crew check out at 5 p.m. No staff comes around until the next morning, and once darkness settles in, residents grow fearful.
Many problems stem from the visitors whom residents let in. Some roam hallways and aggressively seek change or cigarettes from residents. A refusal can spark a face-to-face confrontation.
Homeless will sneak into the buildings in the winter and sleep in foyers and stairways.
Some — though not many — of the residents are young and live in the building because of a disability, which can be physical or psychological. Some use and sell drugs out of their apartments, the residents said.
Despite the buzzer system, some residents admit anyone who buzzes. And if a resident is entering the building, anyone can follow him or her in.
The housing authority executive director acknowledged that’s the case.
“The entries are only as good as the residents are in letting people in,” said Executive Director Kathy Naczas.
But how, I asked her, can a man like Robert — who is 72 and uses a walker — stop a strapping, likely enraged person such as Seace, who is 35, from entering the building?
“I don’t know. All we can do is remind them of safety and security,” Naczas said.
She went on to say that the housing authority funds two full-time police officers who patrol all housing authority properties. She said the housing authority did hire security guards to roust homeless sleeping in hallways but only during winter months. And the MHRA is applying for a grant to purchase security system upgrades. It plans to add permanent security guards to its next budget.
When it comes to unwanted guests, the MHRA will issue trespass orders against guests who misbehave, Naczas said. And she said the housing authority evicts tenants if they violate their lease. She said drug use can lead to eviction, but it has to be proven, and each eviction involves a complicated process. Andrew Papanicolau, the chairman of the MHRA board of commissioners, said the housing authority runs a “pretty tight ship” when it comes to security.
“We need to know if there’s issues going on. We don’t like to find out through (reporters). Let us know what’s going on,” he said.
But residents said it’s hard to report something when no staff is in the building. They call police, but they take too long to arrive.
And many seemed to think little will change and fear harassment if they speak up. (Papanicolau and Naczas reassured me that nothing will happen to tenants who speak to me.)
Their frustration and resignations are understandable when the regulation-heavy federal government is involved. For example, deadbolts aren’t allowed in high rises because first responders need to quickly enter an apartment in case of emergency, Naczas said.
And self-defense is frowned upon. “The Second Amendment is a federal right, but we can’t have firearms here,” the resident, J, said.
Meanwhile, the federal government requires housing authorities to house disabled people in buildings with the elderly. Some of the elderly and their family said that’s not a good mix, especially when it involves young people who may be prone to misbehavior and drug use.
“The older people feel safer around their own people. Senior citizens don’t have issues,” said Tammie Cobb, who was visiting her 64-year-old mother.
At both buildings, however, I saw disabled and elderly interacting with one another in a spirit of friendship. At Pariseau, one was comforting an elderly woman who was up all night after hearing Burpee’s screams.
Naczas said Housing and Urban Development regulations changed in 1988 to encourage mixing of elderly and disabled residents.
“I think it’s a federal regulation and we follow it,” she said. “We don’t have a choice.”