James F. McCarty
Plain Dealer Reporter
October 11, 2002
A Cleveland man blinded and crippled by a knife attack in the Flats has won $2.5 million from the owner and manager of a parking lot that police and lawyers describe as an arena of blood and lawlessness.
Joseph Kowalski was 16 when he was stabbed in the heart and nearly bled to death in a 1997 fight that killed a friend, Larry Davis. Kowalski's wounds left him blind and brain-damaged.
He uses a wheelchair and will require around-the-clock medical care for the rest of his life.
Kowalski, now 22 and living in Garfield Heights, sued Bart Wolstein, who owns the parking lot on the East Bank of the Cuyahoga River, and APCOA Inc., the company that managed the property for Wolstein.
To bolster a claim that Wolstein and APCOA were negligent for failing to provide adequate security at the site, Kowalski's lawyer built his case on an assertion that the parking lot was the most dangerous block of real estate in Ohio at the time Kowalski was stabbed. Wolstein and APCOA settled the suit.
"The statistics boggle the mind," said Craig Bashein, Kowalski's lawyer, who has dubbed the parking lot "Ground Zero" in the Flats.
"They show that more than a thousand violent crimes occurred during that time period," Bashein said.
Cleveland Safety Director James Draper disputed the findings, which were based on statistical analyses of crime records between four and nine years old.
"For me to sit here and say it's the most dangerous block in the state, I have no data to support that claim," Draper said. "Knowing what goes on down there in 2002, I've seen no evidence that this is true. That's their conclusion, not mine."
Copies of the confidential lawsuit settlement were filed this week in Cuyahoga County Probate Court. The documents show that Wolstein and APCOA agreed in April to pay Kowalski $2.5 million in damages, plus $100,000 to his son.
Bashein said he based the "most dangerous" description on a statistical analysis by security specialist Gregory Baeppler and anecdotal evidence provided by Cleveland police.
Baeppler, a former district commander with the Cleveland Police Department, said he studied police reports and computer-generated records compiled from 1993 to 1998. He compared crimes committed in and around the Wolstein lot to crimes at similar-size plots of land throughout Cleveland, concluding that more violent crime occurred around that slab of asphalt along Old River Road than anywhere else in the city.
Cleveland police officers who testified in the case before it was settled took Baeppler's findings a step further, saying the Flats parking lot wasn't just the most dangerous block in the city - it was the most dangerous block in Ohio.
On any given weekend night, Baeppler said, as many as 20,000 young people descend into the Flats - many of them parking in Wolstein's huge triangular lot and drinking in bars on the East Bank of the Cuyahoga River.
APCOA hired a single off-duty police officer to patrol the parking lot on weekends, but Baeppler said that wasn't nearly enough.
By comparison, five off-duty police officers and two security guards worked weekends in 1997 at a larger parking lot on the West Bank of the Flats near the Powerhouse. Two off-duty police officers guarded a smaller lot near Shooters.
Baeppler cited police records showing that 1,230 major crimes, including murders, rapes, robberies and assaults, occurred within 1,000 feet of the Old River Road parking lot from 1993 to 1998. Just 203 similar crimes took place on the West Bank of the Flats during that time period, he said.
Baeppler also documented dozens of fights and other criminal mayhem in and around Wolstein's parking lot that did not turn up in police reports or result in arrests. Baeppler found records showing that during 11 weekends in the fall of 1995, for instance, private security guards working on the East Bank of the Flats witnessed more than 60 fights.
"There is a general consensus by law enforcement officers assigned to the area that the simple misdemeanor assault numbers are grossly underreported," Baeppler said.
Officials from the Wolstein Group and APCOA did not return calls seeking comment. A different company now manages Wolstein's parking lot.
An attorney for Wolstein, Andrew Dorman, declined to comment on the case, but did address the Baeppler report.
"We respectively disagree with Mr. Baeppler's opinions," Dorman said.
Around 2 a.m. on March 21, 1997, Kowalski and several friends left Slam Jams after a night of drinking and playing pool. As they walked through the Wolstein parking lot, they started arguing with another group of men. As words escalated into punches, Earl Holloway III of Perry Township pulled out a knife with a five-inch serrated blade and plunged it repeatedly into Kowalski, Davis and two others.
The lone security guard had left the lot to help a woman in need, Bashein said.
A jury found Holloway not guilty of murder and felonious assault, deciding that he acted in self-defense.
Wolstein and APCOA officials said in court documents that they had not been aware of the dangers present at their lot, but Bashein and Baeppler said they should have been.
In Baeppler's investigative report on the case, he called the stabbings "predictable," given the concentration of criminal activity and shortage of security in the area.
As early as 1994, former Cleveland Safety Director William Denihan "had put Wolstein and APCOA on notice that they weren't upholding their end of the security bargain," Baeppler said. Denihan called the parking lots in the Flats "out of control."
Bashein obtained a letter written by Mark Escaja, chief operating officer of the Wolstein Group, to James Stevenson, president of APCOA, dated July 17, 1997.
"The police are nowhere to be found on the weekends and the situation should be watched very closely to determine whether we keep them or hire our own private force," the letter said.