This story originally published online at the 9th Street Journal.
On Tuesday, October 3, Pearlie Williams, 63, sat silently in the front row of Courtroom 4D at the Durham County Courthouse, waiting to be called for the final hearing of her arson case. Wearing a crisp cream pantsuit and a black cloth face mask embellished with the words “I can’t breathe,” Williams squinted against the harsh overhead light.
Williams, who is partially blind from cataracts and glaucoma, has trudged half a mile on foot to the Durham County Courthouse four times since May. Her trials have been continued for a number of reasons. During her last visit in September, prosecutors said they could not contact California Commercial Investment Companies, which manages her apartment complex, to obtain the surveillance footage “incriminating” her.
Charged with arson and threatened with eviction as a result, Williams has maintained her innocence. The possibility of losing her home has kept her up at night, though.
“Mentally, it is so draining,” Williams said. “I have lost weight behind this… I have lost sleep behind this.” Williams postponed surgery on her right eye, hoping to be in the best physical condition for her final hearing. On two occasions, a car nearly hit her while walking to court.
When the court went into recess, Williams sat on a bench in the hall outside the courtroom. She was the first to arrive that morning and wanted a break. She looked down at her lap, cried and muttered repeatedly: “Do I look like an arsonist?”
Williams has not touched or cooked in her oven since the beginning of the summer.
In May, Williams, who has lived at J.J. Henderson Senior Apartments for more than seven years, burned a bagel in her kitchen. When it caught fire, she smothered the flames immediately and disposed of the remains in a communal trashroom, she said. Days later, she was charged with arson. California Commercial Investment Companies, which manages J.J. Henderson, posted an eviction notice on her door, giving her five days to vacate.
Williams said CCI’s actions are a direct result of her complaints against the company. Last winter, Williams was quoted in articles published by The 9th Street Journal and Indy Week, criticizing management in the aftermath of a late-December blackout. Williams and other residents said the blackout left them afraid, puzzled, alone, frustrated—and without vital medical equipment in the dark.
Rafiq Zaidi, another long-time resident who complained to the City Council after the blackouts, has watched William’s case unfold.
“They really put her through a lot mentally,” said Zaidi. “Every time she walked into the building, she didn’t know what she would face. I don’t know how she will recover from this. ”
Williams believes her mental health disorders and criminal record made her an easy target for CCI. In 1995, she was charged with felony arson, but convicted of a lesser offense. Her record includes over a dozen misdemeanor convictions. Before this summer, she had not been charged with a crime since 2001.
“I was an angry woman back then, but I’ve put all that mess behind me,” she said. “I have served as vice president on the resident council here. Now, my reputation is on the line.”
Three weeks before the hearing on October 3, CCI representatives called Ernest Smith, Williams’ eviction lawyer, offering to dismiss the arson charges if she agreed to move out of her apartment at J.J. Henderson. Williams refused.
Williams wondered why management didn’t present the offer in May—before they strung her along for a series of continued court dates.
“If they are going to nail me to a cross, they should nail me!” Williams cried. “They started this hellish mess. They need to finish it. They don’t threaten me—not when I know that I am in the right.”
Though Williams intends to fight the eviction and clear her name, she is unsure if she wants to continue living at J.J. Henderson. Williams said the property manager at the complex, Michele Skarada, still does not say “hello” when they pass each other in the halls. Since July, she has paid her rent directly to the courts. The 9th Street Journal reached out to Skarada, who did not respond to requests for comment.
J.J. Henderson was previously owned and managed by Durham Housing Authority. In 2022, DHA announced the reopening of J.J. Henderson Senior Apartments after $31 million in renovations. With the renovation, new owners took over the building under a limited partnership. Though the housing authority still owns the land according to tax records, DHA turned the management of the building over to CCI.
“DHA no longer cares about the residents,” Williams said. “They made the worst mistake when they did not investigate who they were turning this building over to. Can you imagine the headache that residents experience?”
In response, DHA spokesperson Aalayah Sanders said, “DHA strives to ensure all residents are properly housed and treated with adequate care. We will continue to work with our partners to create the best possible living environment and management experience.”
Sanders also relayed a statement from CCI.
“For the privacy of our residents and all others concerned, we have a policy of not commenting on individual legal cases and complaints,” the statement reads. “We appreciate DHA’s partnership and we are proud to be part of the JJ Henderson community.”
William’s long-awaited court date began with a calendar call. For 40 minutes, Judge Clayton Jones oversaw first appearances and continuances. As legal representatives and clients conferred in the gallery, Smith asked to approach the stand and speak with the judge privately. Shortly after their conversation, Jones announced a 15-minute recess.
Outside 4D, Williams sat dabbing her eyes and clutching her cane. She was about to stand up and go back inside when her two lawyers staggered into the hallway, smiling widely.
“They dismissed it!” William’s public defender Matthew Cook said. He reached to shake her hand as she began sobbing. Because her eviction was contingent on her now-dismissed criminal charges, William’s lawyers expressed optimism.
“We still have the [eviction] matter on the 11th, but this helps us tremendously,” added Smith, who rested his hand on Williams’ shoulder.
“Thank you… Thank you so much,” Williams wept and broke into prayer. “I can finally go back to my normal life.”
Days after the decision, Williams said she struggles to readjust. She thinks about cooking in her oven but can’t get past opening it. Her final eviction hearing was originally scheduled for October 11, but as of this week, it is continued until December. She is not convinced her fight is over.
“They went to extreme lengths, so I know they are capable of anything,” Williams said. “It is terrifying to live under this type of management.”
This story was published through a partnership between the INDY and 9th Street Journal, which is produced by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.
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