Meet the Landlord
Tishawna Owsley had one wish: to find a decent house.
A mother of four who had recently split up with her kids’ father, Owsley was forced to move in 1999 after the city condemned the leaky, ramshackle east-side house she and her family were renting. Owsley reluctantly sent her children to stay at her mother’s crowded house while she slept wherever she could — with friends, other relatives, anyone who had a spare couch. She was practically homeless.
When she could scrape together enough money, Owsley rented a room at the Crown Lodge Motel on 350 Highway for $145 a week. The hotel was seedy — it was obvious to her that prostitutes used the place to turn tricks, and drug dealers operated nearly in the open. During the summer of 1999, when Owsley lived there off and on, there was even a double murder in one of the rooms. Owsley didn’t like it, but she couldn’t afford anything else. “It was a place where I could spend time with my kids. We could spend a weekend there, watching TV and being together,” Owsley recalls.
At the time, then-23-year-old Owsley was in a welfare-to-work program, she was newly pregnant and didn’t have a high school diploma. But she got a job at a Dollar General store for about $6 an hour, and her caseworker helped her get a voucher for Section 8, the federal subsidized-housing program, run locally by the Housing Authority of Kansas City.
After a few months of looking, Owsley found a house in the Blue Hills neighborhood that seemed perfect.
“I loved the house,” Owsley says. “It had enough space, and it reminded me of the house I grew up in. It had a lot of stuff I didn’t have and couldn’t afford — a washer, a dryer, a refrigerator. And it had a big fenced yard for my kids to play in, and it was right on the bus line, which I needed.”
The day she first inspected it, however, she had a strange encounter with a man in his 50s she assumed was a worker hired by the owners to fix up the place. He pointed to his ball cap, which read “Pretty Boy Bobby,” and told her that was his name. “He never made eye contact with me — he was staring at my breasts the whole time.” When the man leered and remarked on the size of her breasts, Owsley ignored the comment. She didn’t want to ruin her chances of getting the house. The man asked if she had a boyfriend, and Owsley truthfully answered that she didn’t. She figured she’d never see the man again.
Weeks later, after she’d moved in, she learned that “Pretty Boy Bobby” was Bobby Veal — her new landlord.
Owsley was one of at least eleven female tenants Bobby Veal harassed or sexually assaulted over a period of ten years, and when the federal government took Veal to court this past spring, Judge Dean Whipple found that Veal and his wife, Jewel Veal, had violated the federal Fair Housing Act. In May, a jury awarded the eleven women a total of more than $1 million in punitive and actual damages, and the case was widely reported in the local media.
But those news reports didn’t mention the role played by the Housing Authority of Kansas City, Missouri, whose officials were notified numerous times of the harassment by several victims as well as by an investigator from the Kansas City, Missouri, Human Relations Department. The Housing Authority of Kansas City has never acknowledged its role in the case and hasn’t established safeguards to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future.
Meanwhile, the victims, many of whom still suffer the effects of losing Section 8 housing and, in some cases, their property after encounters with Bobby Veal, may not see any of the money they were awarded.
In September, the U.S. Department of Justice filed another lawsuit against Bobby Veal, charging that he illegally transferred properties he owns to relatives in order to avoid paying the judgments against him. “The government’s lawyers told us the chances of us ever getting any money are very small,” Owsley tells the Pitch. Because no criminal charges were filed in the case, Veal — and the Housing Authority — could get off without consequences.
Investigator Ann McKelvy had been working for the city’s Human Relations Department for more than ten years, looking into housing-discrimination complaints, when she got a phone call from a woman, Sheila McClenton, who said her Section 8 landlord was harassing her. By that time, McClenton had already complained to her caseworker at the Housing Authority of Kansas City and sought help from Legal Aid attorneys. McClenton later testified in court that when she complained to her Housing Authority caseworker, “She told me I needed to get off my ass and get a job, and therefore he wouldn’t be able to harass me.”
McKelvy took the complaint more seriously — when she met with McClenton, she could see that the woman was distraught. “She was very upset, very teary, visibly shaken,” McKelvy tells the Pitch.
McClenton told the investigator her whole story. Less than a year before she moved into the house owned by the Veals, McClenton had separated from her husband and moved into a tiny apartment with her four young children. She’d been approved for the Section 8 program but hadn’t found a place that fit her needs. Under the program’s rules, she had only a few weeks left to sign a lease. Not doing so would mean going to the bottom of the waiting list for a new voucher — and facing a delay of up to three years.
Then a friend told her about a three-bedroom house for rent at Michigan and 54th Street with a big yard where her kids could play and a landlord who accepted Section 8 vouchers. When she went to look at the house, she ran into Bobby Veal, who was there doing some work. She says he sidled up to her and told her she was a nice-looking woman and he was happy she was interested in the house. Desperate for a place to stay, she brushed off the encounter.
Soon after McClenton moved in, Veal began showing up at her house unannounced. Once, McClenton told the investigator, an uncle who was visiting her let Veal into the house. The landlord found McClenton in the kitchen fixing dinner. He came up behind her, grabbed her and started rubbing his erect penis against her backside. “He was moaning and said he had to have me,” McClenton later testified in court. She told him to stop and pulled away. “I said, ‘Mr. Veal, I don’t know why you’re putting your hands on me. You have a wife at home,'” McClenton testified she told him. “His reply was, ‘It’s nothing like younger pussy.'”
The next time he came back, he walked into McClenton’s house and started looking in her closets and pantries, then headed into her bedroom. She followed, protesting. Then he turned around, she testified, and grabbed her by the waist, trying to pull her onto her bed. She grabbed the door frame and held on tight, resisting as hard as she could. “I was holding it real tight, and I broke some nails, and I turned around, and I was hitting him, telling him to let me go, that I was not going to have sex with him, because I know that’s what he was trying to get me to do,” McClenton said in court. She was yelling so loudly that her children, who had been upstairs, came down to check on their mother. Finally, Veal let her go and left.
There were more disturbing run-ins: Veal showed up one day and put his hand down McClenton’s shirt, squeezing her breast and pushing up against her; another time, he offered to pay her bills and buy clothes for her kids if she’d accompany him to a “little hideaway spot” by Troost Lake; during another visit, he asked for oral sex. Each time, she firmly told him no. She told her husband (who lived elsewhere) and a few family members what was happening, but she told them Section 8 rules against breaking a lease prevented her from leaving. “She would always be real franticky, scared, nervous,” her husband, Zachary McClenton, later testified. “She would cry about it sometimes. She was scared of Mr. Veal.”
Finally, Veal made good on his repeated threats to evict her if she didn’t have sex with him — she came home one day to find a notice taped on her door. When she called Bobby Veal’s wife, Jewel, to ask why she was being evicted, the woman replied that McClenton was a bad tenant. McClenton told her what was really going on. “You’re just like all the other bitches trying to get free rent,” Jewel Veal replied, according to McClenton’s testimony.
With nowhere else to go, McClenton got rid of the family dog, took her children and moved into her mother’s three-bedroom house, which already had six adults and three children living there. She stayed there for six months, paying storage fees so she wouldn’t have to sell her furniture.
By the time McClenton went to investigator McKelvy’s office in December 1997, she felt ashamed and inadequate, like a bad mother who had failed to provide a good home for her kids. But McKelvy says she didn’t accept McClenton’s accusations at face value — she started conducting interviews. “We always talk to both parties, because we are a fact-finding agency,” McKelvy tells the Pitch. “We don’t represent either party.”
McKelvy says she interviewed McClenton, McClenton’s mother and sisters, another tenant of the Veals’ — Patricia Holloway — and Bobby and Jewel Veal. McClenton’s relatives corroborated her story. And when McKelvy contacted Holloway by phone, she reported that Bobby Veal had sexually harassed her, too. “Her problems were very consistent with Ms. McClenton…. Every time she called for repairs to be made, he would sexually harass her, and he went around touching her,” McKelvy said in court. She testified that Holloway referred to the landlord as “a pervert.”
Then McKelvy sought out the Veals’ response. “Mr. Veal was very arrogant,” McKelvy tells the Pitch. “He was not cooperative at all. The city had to take him to court just to get a listing of his properties.”
But more surprising than Veal’s lack of cooperation is the lack of action McKelvy got from the Housing Authority of Kansas City. After investigating McClenton’s claim and finding that it had merit, she notified the Housing Authority, McKelvy tells the Pitch.
“The Housing Authority of Kansas City was put on notice by both the victims and the city,” McKelvy says. “I don’t know why they didn’t act. I’m totally perplexed by that. The Housing Authority knew about this guy, and they continued to give him the opportunity to perpetrate this. We have someone here who is obviously a predator, and having a Section 8 contract gave him endless access to women who were vulnerable.”
The Housing Authority’s executive director, Edwin Lowndes, denies that McKelvy or any of the victims complained to the agency about Veal. “Each housing specialist is trained on dealing with complaints,” Lowndes says. “If it involves intimidation, they will work with a senior manager to resolve it.”
Meanwhile, in the years following McClenton’s complaint, single women, who make up a large percentage of Section 8 recipients, continued to move into the Veals’ properties.
At about the time McClenton first complained to McKelvy, in December 1997, LaTonya Winter, then 19, obtained a Section 8 voucher and rented a Veal duplex on Tracy near 46th Street. The young mother of a 2-year-old daughter and an infant son had looked at dozens of houses but was having trouble getting a landlord to accept her application because of her age and the fact that, as a first-time tenant, she had no references.
But the Veals, who rarely turned down a prospective tenant, offered her a lease. Soon after Winter moved in, Bobby Veal started coming by and hanging around outside. When she’d go out, she later testified, he’d say hello and ask how she was doing.
Then one morning, Veal let himself into the house while Winter was doing her daughter’s hair. “What are you doing here?” she asked, according to her testimony. Veal replied that he was “checking on his unit.” Winter felt very uncomfortable, but she didn’t challenge him. “I just figured since it was his house, he had the right to come in and do things like that,” she said in court.
But then the landlord took a step closer, pushed her into the bedroom and locked the door, leaving her small children out in the hall. Then he shoved her facedown onto the bed, she said in court. As she begged him to leave, he leaned on her with all his weight. “I tried to get up, push myself up, but I couldn’t,” she later said in court. When she told him to stop, she testified that he replied, “It’s OK — nobody’s going to know.” By that time, Winter’s daughter was banging on the bedroom door, crying and trying to get in. Veal pulled his pants down and raped her, Winter testified.
Ashamed, Winter didn’t tell anyone what had happened to her. A week later, Veal came back. After Winter looked out her bedroom window one morning and saw Veal’s truck parked in the street, she tried to get dressed quickly so she could leave. In the hallway outside her bedroom, she encountered him again. She ran into the bedroom to grab her children. She testified that he raped her a second time, this time in front of her daughter. It lasted about 15 minutes. Then Veal got up and left.
A few days after the second sexual assault, Winter decided she wanted to die — so she downed 12 Percocet pills her doctor had prescribed for pain caused by her sickle cell anemia.
“I thought maybe that would do the deal, and it didn’t,” Winter testified. Instead, she slept for two days straight and woke up feeling no better. The next time Bobby Veal let himself into her house, she yelled at him — telling him if he didn’t leave immediately, she’d tell someone what he’d done. He left that time, but after that she’d see him nearly every day lurking outside her house. But she didn’t call the police — she was sure they wouldn’t believe her.
Winter was so afraid of Veal that she started spending as much time away from home as possible, often visiting friends and relatives. A few months after the rapes, in April 1998, she returned home one day to find an eviction notice on her door telling her she had 30 days to leave, with no explanation. She wasn’t late on her rent — in fact, the Housing Authority collects the tenant’s portion and pays the landlord. Nonetheless, she moved, leaving her furniture behind because she couldn’t afford a mover.
“I didn’t care about anything,” she said in court.
In the following years, Veal continued to harass his female Section 8 tenants. As many of them later testified in court, he’d show up at their houses unannounced, walk in and catch them half-dressed, then tell them there was no need to cover up. He’d go to their houses to make a repair and grope and squeeze them while he was there. He’d make comments about their “big breasts” and “thick thighs,” ask if they had boyfriends and inquire about what sexual positions they liked. Many would look out their windows and see Bobby Veal loitering outside their houses almost every day.
In the winter of 2000, another woman, Rauchelle McNeal, complained about Veal to the Housing Authority. “Nobody would listen,” she testified. When the Housing Authority didn’t act, she went to Legal Aid, where a lawyer referred her to the city’s Human Relations Department. When she finally talked to McKelvy, she was very angry.
McNeal was living in her car while her teenage kids stayed with a relative when she got Section 8 approval in the winter of 1999 and moved into a well-kept Veal home on Highland — not far from the Veals’ own residence. She was thrilled to have a nice place to live. But soon after she moved in, she told McKelvy, Veal came over to fix her furnace. After he looked at it, he beckoned her over so he could show her why it wasn’t working. Then he grabbed her buttocks and her crotch and told her she had a nice body. Frightened, she pulled away and told him he’d better leave because she was expecting company. “I just kept pushing his hands away,” McNeal later said in court. After her fourth request that he leave, Veal finally did — but said he’d be back. Every time he came to fix something, Veal tried to touch McNeal and smirked when she refused to have sex with him, she later said in court. Often, Veal parked in her driveway or rummaged in her garage, where he had stored items. “He was always there,” she said in court.
It was an awful time in her life, McNeal later said in court — her children didn’t want to move, and she felt afraid and depressed that she might become homeless again. “I just felt like I wanted to die. I didn’t want to go through that no more. I didn’t want to sleep with him. And I wasn’t going to sleep with him. And I hated to see him come by there. I hated every time that truck pulled in the driveway.”
After McNeal complained to the Housing Authority and to the Human Relations Department, she found an eviction notice on her door. She didn’t argue with the Veals. Instead, she moved into a run-down house on Prospect that had plumbing and electrical problems. Someone changed the locks on the Veals’ house when she was in the middle of moving out, so she lost her washer and dryer, her clothing, her and her children’s Social Security cards and her children’s birth certificates.
McKelvy had McNeal file a formal complaint with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. That agency notified the U.S. Department of Justice, which is charged with enforcing the Fair Housing Act, which forbids discrimination in housing — including sexual discrimination and sexual harassment.
In early 2000, Justice Department investigators obtained a list of Veal tenants and former tenants and began visiting the women to find out if they’d had any problems with Veal. In all, they found numerous women who said they had been harassed or sexually assaulted. The stories were disturbingly similar, though most of the women didn’t know one another.
Justice Department attorneys convinced eleven women — ten former tenants and one relative of a former tenant — to testify in court. They filed a civil lawsuit against Veal and his wife, Jewel Veal, who, as the manager of their rental business, had twice been notified in writing of the allegations about her husband’s behavior but had taken no action.
In May 2004, a jury heard the case. The eleven women took the stand and told their stories of sexual harassment and assault, and Veal — who represented himself — confronted each of them, saying they were all making up their testimony. Responding to one of the women, Veal said, “I never touched her in no count way. I never touched her, none of them.” His wife was innocent as well, he said in court. “My wife had never been involved in anything like that. My wife tried to be a Christian woman, and that’s all lying.”
All of the women testified that they were afraid of Veal, and many testified that they eventually changed their locks or had family members or male relatives move in with them so they’d never have to be alone with the landlord. One woman said she taught herself basic home-repair skills so she could patch walls and fix toilets herself; others asked boyfriends to make all their repairs. Many said they were afraid for their children. Terri May, who had told her story to McKelvy in 1997, said that her then-9-year-old daughter, who had gone through early puberty, told her mother that Veal had been staring at her chest. And, May testified, one day when her girls were outside playing in the yard and Veal had stopped by to fix a broken appliance, the landlord looked out the window at the younger girl and commented with a grin, “Her breasts are getting bigger than yours.”
Stories like that apparently made an impact on jurors, who awarded a total of $1.1 million in actual and punitive damages to the women — the largest verdict the Justice Department had ever won in a fair-housing case. (Through spokesman Eric Holland, the Justice Department declined to speak with the Pitch about the case.)
Owsley recalls the way Bobby Veal looked at her and the other women in the courtroom. “I could see the look on his face when they were reading the judgments,” Owsley recalls. “It was this little smirk, like he was trying to tell us he’d make sure we weren’t going to get a cent.”
Veal apparently did have a plan to avoid paying the judgments. Just ten days before the federal government filed suit against him, he had registered Veal Family Investments LLC with the Missouri Secretary of State’s office, records show. After the verdict, Veal hired attorney Michael Belancio, who appealed the case on the Veals’ behalf. (A lawyer working with Belancio tells the Pitch the firm cannot comment on whether the Veals plan to pay the judgment because the case is under appeal. Veal himself did not respond to repeated interview requests.)
This past September, the federal government sued the Veals again, this time for fraudulent conveyance of their assets.
The new lawsuit claims that in November 2002, a few months after the Justice Department filed its fair-housing complaint against the Veals, the couple began transferring ownership of their properties to Veal Family Investments and to a relative, Flora Jean Lyons, who in turn deeded some of the houses to Chillini Property Management LLC and to the Veal Charitable Trust.
By December 2003, the Veals had unloaded 18 homes that, according to the Office of U.S. Attorney Todd Graves, were worth $437,905. In exchange, the government says, the Veals received no money or less than what the houses were worth. “Upon information and belief, the transfers were made to hinder, delay or defraud the United States,” the new lawsuit claims.
Owsley, who is supposed to receive $115,000, doubts that she will ever get even the $15,600 the jury awarded her to replace the items she says the Veals kept after they locked her out of her house.
After refusing to have sex — he called it “doing the grow-up thing” — with Bobby Veal, she says she returned home one day to find that Veal had dumped all of her possessions on the front lawn. She says she had to call police to regain access to the house. Soon after that, she was evicted, and the locks were changed. “I lost everything,” Owsley tells the Pitch. “I lost my boys’ bunk-bed set, my daughter’s bed and dollhouse, my baby’s crib, the TV and VCRs, movies, clothes, shoes, the kids’ bikes, my brand-new leather coat I had laid away in the summer when it was cheap. He took a lot of the stuff I had worked hard to get.” At the time, Owsley sometimes worked a double shift at Hollywood Video so she could buy extra things for her children. Owsley also lost some things, including a computer, that belonged to Rent-A-Center, which sued Owsley when she couldn’t pay the company for the items.
Owsley is now homeless, staying wherever she can. Her children live with her mother. She says she visits them every morning and every night at bedtime. “I just want to be with my kids,” she says. This year, she finished paying back Rent-A-Center the $800 she owed. But the thing she regrets losing most is her children’s baby pictures.
“I felt like if I had done what I was asked to do, at least we’d have a roof over our heads,” Owsley says. She adds that she still struggles with depression. Many of the other women testified that they had felt lasting repercussions. For many, Section 8 was part of a tenuous hold on stability — and Lowndes says many of the women are no longer Section 8 recipients.
“I don’t like to stereotype Section 8 women, but many of these women were unemployed, uneducated and had multiple children and not a lot of family support. They really had nowhere to go,” McKelvy says.
Some of the women testified that they no longer trust men and won’t rent from male landlords, which affects their ability to find decent housing. In court, McNeal said, “I don’t trust. I think men always have ulterior motives. It just made me kind of leery of things.” McKelvy says she got a tearful call from another victim after the trial, a woman who said she’d been raped by Bobby Veal but had never reported it. “This was the worst I’ve ever seen as far as sexual harassment. It’s just horrible,” McKelvy says.
Although the Housing Authority took no action on the complaints numerous women said they made to the agency, the agency has terminated Bobby and Jewel Veal from the Section 8 program and notified women living in their houses that they must move. Last spring, during the trial, Veal was receiving rent from the Housing Authority on only two houses. Now, Lowndes says, Veal is no longer participating in the program. “We’ve banned him from all of our programs,” Lowndes says.
Despite what happened, Lowndes says the agency has not begun screening its new landlords or providing sexual-harassment education for landlords as part of its Section 8 orientation. “As far as telling a landlord you can’t break the law by sexually intimidating a client, you assume that’s common knowledge,” Lowndes says. But since the Housing Authority learned of Veal’s behavior, Lowndes says, it has informally tried to educate clients about the possibility of sexual predators.
Owsley, who says she complained to the Housing Authority when she was being harassed, says she doesn’t believe the agency took the Veal problems seriously.
“I think they should have sued the Housing Authority right along with Veal,” she says.