The Vandals Took the Skylight
A neighborhood watchdog targets a big landlord, property gets damaged
Published: May 29, 2013
The man in the video looks to be white and substantial. He walks up to the front of Matt and Summer Gonter’s house at 18 N. Ellwood Ave. and splashes a 5-gallon bucket of silver paint on the marble stoop.
The vandalism, caught on the Gonter’s security camera just before 3 a.m. on April 5, takes less than five seconds.
The Gonters hope it’s the last straw. They say they know who is behind it—a millionaire they regard as a slumlord whose drug-dealing tenants they’ve been reporting to Baltimore Housing for years, with little to show for it.
“He’s trying to push us out, but it’s doing the opposite,” Matt says. “We’re digging in.”
Over the years, the couple has gotten hundreds of unwanted magazine subscriptions. Someone has posted Matt’s cell number on abandoned houses and houses advertising suspiciously low rent, so he gets bombarded with calls. Racist emails have been sent under Gonter’s name, he says. And last April someone ripped the skylight off their house.
The couple thinks Thomas Karle Jr. is behind it all. On May 15 they told Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake about it as the mayor surveyed the latest damage.
People in a lot of neighborhoods see neighbors get their tires slashed, their windows busted, garbage thrown at their car. The people who get hit are often the type who call 311 to report trash in the alley and 911 to report corner boys slinging gel caps. When they get hit, they usually shut up. If they tell anyone, it’s on the condition of anonymity.
Matt and Summer Gonter are speaking up. “I used to report criminal activity to the housing authority,” he told a mayoral aid during the May 15 community “COP walk” with the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association. “I think someone leaked my name, so the guy vandalized my house.”
Since buying the rowhouse for $275,000 from Patterson Park Community Development Corporation in 2005, Gonter has become known for his activism on property-tax issues and on the federal Section 8 housing voucher program, which bars criminals from living in homes rented with the voucher. Gonter says he and two other members of the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association would get lists of recent arrestees and match the addresses, then notify Baltimore Housing.
Karle’s several companies soon became known to them, the couple says over lunch. “They [drug dealers] would get arrested together but be living at different houses,” Summer Gonter says. “So how do they know each other? The only connection you see is they have the same landlord.”
Once you’re attuned to finding connections and using the public records, it’s easy to start drawing conclusions. It’s easy even to fall into a sort of conspiracy mindset, wherein the rich landlord is allied with felonious tenants and the corrupt housing authority, all corners of the profitable enterprise ready to defend it.
Then again, in Baltimore, where everyone is everyone’s cousin, gangs control the jail, and people with criminal records work the docks and in City Hall, it’s not possible to just dismiss fears out of hand. Karle is known in City Hall.
“He accuses people of racism,” says Councilman James Kraft (D-1st District), adding that community complaints led to a meeting, and Karle “didn’t follow through” with promised improvements.
“He’s probably being targeted for being a racist and going after people,” Karle says of Gonter in a phone interview. “I got nothing to do with the guy. He’s a loose screw. He’s a racist. He targets poor black families. He sends emails to Section 8—goes around looking for code violations and harasses Baltimore Housing.”
Karle’s Summerfield Investment Group owns three houses on Gonter’s block. Gonter—and Karle’s father, Tom Sr.—says Karle owns hundreds of properties, mostly in East Baltimore. “He exaggerates,” Karle says of his father, who called City Paper last spring about an old cannon allegedly left in the bottom of an Essex marina (“Loose Cannon,” Feature, June 6, 2012). Still, Karle has some assets: Land records show that Summerfield Investment has more than 800 transactions since 2000 covering at least several dozen properties. Karle and his wife live on 2.5 acres in Fallston. He was ticketed in 2011 for failing to attach a front license plate to a 2002 Ferrari.
“I think he targets me because I come from a mixed-race family,” Karle says of Gonter.
Karle says Gonter repeatedly emailed snapshots of a house to city officials claiming the grass in front was over 6 inches high. He says Gonter “almost came to blows” with a new neighbor over the license plate on the newcomer’s car—which was still registered in Pennsylvania a month after his arrival.
Karle says it all started when a kid on the street threw a snowball at him. He says Gonter called him after 10 p.m. and demanded to know why he was renting to “niggers.” (Gonter denies using that language and that he’s a racist).
“He made this list—got it to Jim Kraft’s office, he got it to housing,” Karle says, marveling that Gonter has time to do all his electronic research. “I went down to have this big meeting with Jim Kraft. It was a list of like, I don’t know, 40 or 50 tenants—all addresses related either to me or my partners, or an address that I used to own.
“Kraft says, ‘We need to address this, this is serious.’ We spent maybe two weeks going over what he provided. And probably over 50 percent of it was false.”
Karle bolsters his claim—that Gonter lies and overreacts—with the case of the tenant in 15 N. Ellwood Ave., Shannon Pugh.
“She’s been there eight years maybe,” Karle says. “He sent false emails to Section 8 saying he witnessed drug deals in front of her house—by two named individuals.
“At the hearing, which I attended, it turned out the letter that Matt Gonter sent was false,” Karle says. “Turns out the only way Mr. Gonter knew these two people was by doing [online criminal] case search.”
Pugh was cleared and Gonter persisted, prompting another investigation, which also cleared her, Karle says.
Pugh lives in a well-kept home directly across the street from the Gonters. Like most on the block, it is faced with formstone. Its distinguishing characteristic is its garish purple-and-black paint scheme, which Gonter considers another Karle thumb-in-the-eye.
Painting her house purple, she says, was both her and her landlord’s idea: “Once we found out we were going to the Super Bowl, I called up Tom. He said, ‘How about a purple house?’ I said, ‘Great minds think alike!’
“I never had a problem with Tom. Tom never had a problem with me,” says Pugh, who has three children, aged 6 to 17. “Until one day, I got a letter from Section 8 about my church bus beeping twice at 8 a.m. and unauthorized tenants.”
She says she had a “stroke in my left eye” when the letter came.
The criminal tenants did not live in the house, says Pugh (whose ex-husband is related to State Senator Catherine Pugh). “Turns out the people he said were using my address [had been] using it since 1995. I was living in Watertown, New York then.”
Pugh moved into the house in 2007. “I do happen to know them, coincidentally,” she says of the alleged drug dealers. (One of the men, Oscar Gorham, is the son of the Pugh’s former pastor, he of the honking church bus— Smaltimore.)
“The housing police came in, they walked through the house, went in the basement, asked me to open bags of Christmas ornaments,” Pugh says. She says her hearing was in March of 2012. “After Tom didn’t put me out, the trouble began,” she says. “Then things started happening to him.”
Gonter says someone—Karle, he thinks—reported him to housing inspectors for installing security cameras without a permit (he was cleared after a call to City Hall, he says). Then, on April 14, 2012, the couple discovered that their skylight had been removed, the hole covered with plywood and tar paper, and their TV dish wires had been cut. Someone left a message on their answering machine too, saying, “Why are you fucking with my mom’s voucher? Now we’re going to fuck with you! Leave my mother’s voucher alone!”
Soon after, racist emails sent from a Gmail account in Gonter’s name went to city housing officials and even Gonter’s employer, he says: “My boss said he knew right away it wasn’t me because of all the spelling and grammatical mistakes.”
After that, Gonter says he stopped reporting problems to city officials. He also was hospitalized with abdominal problems. That’s the irony of the paint incident, he says: “I wasn’t even active then.”
Summer Gonter produces a video and still photos of the crime. The man is blurry but, right after, a white van with a distinctive shamrock logo on the side passes by. Matt Gonter says he recognizes the van as belonging to Emerald Isle Painting, a defunct company with ties to Karle. The proprietor, Sean M. Dougherty, lives in Elkton, 45 minutes away.
A call to Dougherty’s business number was not returned.
Karle says Dougherty has been out of business and “out of town” for more than a year, ever since he “stiffed me for like $150,000.” Karle says he cosigned loans for Dougherty along with Dougherty’s brother, Shane. He says Sean Dougherty is “in foreclosure,” but later he backtracks on this. “About a year ago, we had it out; Shane took all the houses,” Karle says.
Online court records indicate no foreclosures in Sean Dougherty’s name, though a few bad debt suits turn up.
“I don’t know why he’d have been in Baltimore City,” Karle says of his partner’s estranged brother. “I just, I just, I don’t know.
“I find it odd that everybody buys into his story,” Karle says of Gonter. “That he’s just this good old community activist.”
Pugh says she watched the big crowd go by on the COP Walk. She says the community association never tells her when they are having them. “My back door got kicked in,” she says. “I didn’t blame him across the street.” She says she wishes the neighborhood were like it used to be, when everyone watched out for one another. “I get along with everybody on this block,” she says. “Except him. I don’t have any animosity for him.”
Gonter had a spat with his next door neighbor, who is white, but Pugh says she still thinks he is racist, even though she doesn’t have many interactions with him. (That neighbor declined to talk to a reporter but said he had resolved his differences with Gonter.)
Gonter says a detective told him weeks ago that the State’s Attorney’s policy meant he couldn’t make a case from the video evidence. Late last week, Gonter says, a new detective appeared on the case. Mayoral spokesperson Ryan O’Doherty refers questions to the police department, which say they don’t comment on ongoing investigations.
“We won’t be driven out,” Gonter says.
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.