In Middletown, Middletown Police Chief Henry Tobin says there are three other properties with active drug activity that they are in the process of targeting under the law.


It has been like night and day for Doug Williamson who lives on Dove Nest Court four houses down from what used to be the Middletown Drug House.

After nearly a decade of being an open-air drug market, 614 Dove Nest Court was closed for business in March using the Delaware Attorney General’s Nuisance Abatement Initiative.

Drug seekers would be in and out of the cul-de-sac, driving at high speeds and staying only for a short time.

Either the drug transaction would be made at the car, or the driver would go up to the door and meet quickly with one of the home’s occupants, police said.

There would be fights, cars speeding and people wondering the streets at all hours, Williamson said.

“[People] were always cutting through yards and throwing trash,” he said. “Around Christmas time a few years ago, everyone’s Christmas lights up and down the street were vandalized; cut with cutters.”

The property purchased in 2003 by Ericka Ballard and Curtis Mack became the 16th property in the state to be boarded up under the Nuisance Abatement program since its statewide expansion in 2007.

“It was a reoccurring address and we’d see the same people,” said Middletown Police Detective Thomas Finch who took the lead in the investigation. “Even when one was in jail, others would continue to sell.”

Police began to look for a long-term solution.

During the time Ballard and Mack occupied the house, four search warrants were executed, each turning up drugs ranging from heroin to cocaine, marijuana, and prescription pills, said Jason Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Justice.

Each time someone was arrested -- but they would return to the house upon release.

To make a civil case under the Nuisance Abatement Law, three events, ranging from arrests, activity or search warrant execution, have to occur on the property in a 12-month period, Finch said.

When the Dove Nest Court case was prosecuted in March, eviction was granted and the Superior Court judge ordered immediate closure.

“It’s a civil action that gets to the root of the problem,” said Deputy Attorney General Dan Logan. “It allows us to send a message that this place has been closed and there is no more drug market.”

Mack, who is still incarcerated, was in jail at the time of the eviction and Ballard has since moved back to Philadelphia with her children, Finch said. 

“They agreed to sell the home and not come back.”

Life at Dove Nest Court

Before the property was shut down and boarded up, Williamson said that it was an absolute nuisance.

When his family moved here from Pike Creek, he had no idea of what his soon-to-be neighbors were up to.

“It was dumb luck,” he said.

A couple of times, Williamson almost found himself in fights with the drivers.

“They would be driving so fast, and I have a big mouth so I would yell at them to slow down because of the kids,” he said. “They’d stop their car, get out and act like tough guys.”

Now, he said he doesn’t have to worry about speeding cars though.

This past weekend, some of the neighbors were able to get together and play kickball in the street without worrying about cars coming through at 40 mph, he said.

One witness said that between five and seven cars would pull up to the house every hour, each time only for a brief time to make a transaction with Mack, Ballard, or one of Ballard’s adult children who assisted in the operation.

“One Memorial Day weekend, there might have been 40 cars in and out of the street to the house,” Williamson said. 

The cars were not the only problem though.

“Their dogs,” Williamson said was another. “They were big on pit bulls.” 

One day, he saw birds picking at something near the pond in his backyard.

After getting a closer look, Williamson saw one of Ballard and Mack’s dogs, dead, and dumped in his yard.

Since the house has been boarded up, Williamson said it’s like a dream come true.

“Now, it’s paradise,” he said. “People drive slower and you can actually walk down the street and not have to worry about what’s going to happen.”

In Middletown, Middletown Police Chief Henry Tobin says there are three other properties with active drug activity that they are in the process of targeting under the law.

Statewide

Currently there are 419 properties in Delaware on the Nuisance Abatement watch list.

“Anyone who lives near the kinds of places we target with the Nuisance Abatement statute knows all too well the destructive, poisonous power a crime-ridden property has on the surrounding community,” said Attorney General Beau Biden.

Some of the places Logan has seen he said are horrific.

“I’ve been in places that don’t have water, where people are not using the toilets and ones that are roach infested,” he said.

Nearly 300 properties in the state where the owner has voluntarily agreed to abate the nuisance are still be monitored, statistics provided by the Department of Justice show.

Sixteen have been shut down statewide since 2007.

Under the new law

In August, the Nuisance Abatement law was changed and expanded dramatically, Logan said.

The biggest thing it did, he said, was expand beyond drug cases.

The old law only covered drugs and social vices, such as prostitution.

But the new law was rewritten to include violent crimes and illegal guns.

“If there’s a violent felony on a property or illegal guns, our statute can be triggered,” Logan said.

The fines have also been upped for keeping an atrocious property that hurts the community. 

Instead of being capped off at the property value, the new law increases penalties to $1,000 each day.

The option of turning the deed to the house over to the state instead of paying the penalty fine is still there too.

If this had been in effect during the Dove Nest Court case, the property owners could have had to pay the property value plus $1,000 per day for the past eight years, minus the four weeks where they were jailed, Logan said.

Leased versus owned

In Wilmington, where most of the homes Logan deals with are rentals, he said the property owner usually doesn’t know what’s going on in it.

This was the case at one Middletown property on South Cox Street too, Tobin said. But before the state had to step in, the landlord was able to identify what the house was being used for and evicted the tenants.

Since the responsibility ultimately comes down on the owner and not the lessee, the Department of Justice started a landlord-training program this year as a proactive approach.

“We have people buying properties for $10,000 at a sheriff’s sale and stapling a sheet across the window saying ‘for rent’,” Logan said. “If the landlord doesn’t do anything about it, nothing changes.”

So far, 150 property owners and landlords in the state have been mentored under the program on how to notice certain behaviors and run background checks on potential tenants. 

Logan said the statute lets the AG’s office have a longer reach and hold property owners who don’t seek help accountable.

“The Nuisance law lets us go to these property owners, give them a chance to make things right, and take them to court if they don’t,” Biden said. “We’re removing toxic elements from neighborhood streets up and down the state and making Delaware safer.”